Thursday, September 2, 2010

Responding To What Isn't Said - Should I?

I had someone tell me today, "And then he said, "Nobody else has ever complained about this."

I asked how had they felt, upon hearing that remark?
After some thought, they replied, "I felt I was being given a very clear message that I was overreacting, because had my concern had any validity, it would have arisen long before now."

They added: "And then I was told that he did it, and nothing bad had ever happened to him."

More of the same message in the second sentence.

As human beings, it is possible for us to have one conversation on the verbal level, and another entirely at the non-verbal, using delivery, tone of voice, facial gestures, even a shrug, to make it crystal clear what we really think or feel, while leaving room, if challenged, to be able to reply that all we said was...

We can be dissmissive, mocking, insulting, negating, and do it all under the camoflage of a supposedly courteous remark. CIA director Allen Dulles coined the phrase "plausible deniability"  - a good way to describe this mode of communication.

In my time in recovery, I've moved from politely ignoring the subtext of a conversation, to just as politely remarking upon it, usually in the form of a question. I might say:

"Does the fact that no-one else has ever complained about this, or the fact that you've done it for years, and nothing bad has happened to you, make my concern invalid?"

My experience with those who use plausible deniability has been that if I ignore it, it only becomes worse. I am permitting them to treat me with a very clever form of rudeness. I'm not speaking up to make it plain that it is unacceptable to treat me this way.

I don't get into telling them what I think they are doing, I don't start arguing the point by reciting statistics to prove I'm correct, I don't induge in blaming, attacking their character, or taking their inventory. All I do is stop, think about what I believe is being conveyed in the nonverbal message, and address that with a calm, polite question.

I spent years trying to defend myself with the sharp blade of anger, often hacking off my own finger or toe in the process. I don't need a submachine gun to deal with an ant. God grant me the serenity to treat other people with the same level of loving kindness I'd like to receive. Not that they might give me, that I'd like to receive. The two are very different creatures. One is predicated upon the other person's behavior, the second is predicated upon my own choices for my own behavior. I don't always manage this, but I achieve it more easily as I live and work my program.


  1. I have to go with my own instincts sometimes when I am around those who are a bit "off center" in their behavior or thinking. If something doesn't feel right to me, I need to make choices.

  2. Oh, very good, well done.

    "No one has ever complained before" attempts to categorically dismiss MY thoughts/ feelings/ experience/ perspective on the matter. It is such a (T.A.) Critical Parent, such a (drama triangle) Persecutor move. Their say-so matters, mine is childish, foolish, petty, inconsequential.

    I like to do 3 things with statements like this: (1) use T.A. circles to figure out what trickiness is afoot (2) ditto with the drama triangle, and (3) contrast their message to what *I* would say to another if I were empathetically listening: "Oh, really? Wow. I haven't heard that before. Please, tell me more about how that is for you." ... "Oh, OK. So, you're saying when I ______ you feel unsafe inside, and it leads you to want to go away from me. Oh, OK. I'm really glad you said something. Let's talk about that."

    Manipulations like these used to absolutely dumbfound me: I would fall into the pot hole (or quick sand!) and neither see it coming nor be able to figure out how I could've disentangled. Transactional Analysis has saved my bacon in this area.

    Skills, however, come from many sources and your turn-it-into-a-question is a good one. Thanks for your story!