Communication: Identifying manipulative language

posted by Eivind on July 25, 2012, at 8:06 pm

As a facilitator of authentic relating events here in Oslo, Norway, I have a lot of attention on communication. I want to communicate cleanly in life and use my communication as a way of creating more closeness rather than escalating discord. I also want to teach these skills to others.

I’ve been ill over the last couple of weeks. This has given me time to read a lot of stuff online. I have observed what I judge as woefully inadequate communication skills. I observe an Internet full to the brim of people spouting abuse at one another, as if the intention is discord and not a deeper sense of shared humanity. It’s really quite disheartening. What got people to communicate this way?

I have observed my own communication with others as well. Based on all of this observation, I have compiled this list of ways people try to manipulate each other in communication. Don't do it – and don't fall for it.

Borrowing strength from group affiliation, professional title, gender, age etc

This is an insidious and really nasty way of communicating. Here are some examples:

  • “We women like/don’t like that”.  In my observations, women use statements like this more frequently than men. Perhaps because men are generally more individualistic by nature? No matter our gender, it’s a dangerous statement to make, because its basic premise is that (in this example) as a woman, I can read the mind of 3,5 billion people and use their opinions to support my own. I've noticed that feminists use this way of communicating frequently. For some reason, feminists often speak as if they do so on behalf of all womankind and when faced with 3.5 billion people who disagree, many a unprepared man is left in shameful tatters. I suggest you proceed with caution when faced with this communications device.
  • “I’m old enough to be your father. Now listen up..” Arrogance covering fear. Generally a reflection that a younger person’s resources and intelligence feel threatening and since actual communication skills or life knowledge is lacking on the part of the older person, he plays the age card like a fist to the solar plexus.
  • “I’m a doctor. I get all of that. But here’s what you don’t get.” Of course you’re a doctor. We both know that. But by using that as an argument in and of itself, you put your actual knowledge and experience in question, because that is what should have provided you strength in the first place, not the title. I'm now a patient who no longer trusts I'm in good hands. For good reason.

Shared humanity threat assessment: High

Assuming I know who you are

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from authentic relating work, it’s that relationships go down the drain once people start assuming they know who someone is (e.g. their spouse of 30 years). Examples are “You are being such a…”, “You are so…”, “you always do…”.

Sometimes, assuming I know who you are may involve responding to you on the assumption that you have a certain intention, oblivious to the fact I made a false assumption. For me, there is very little that infuriates me more than being imprisoned by another person’s mistaken interpretation of my intention. If the misinterpretation cannot be clarified, I suggest you leave the conversation (it is toxic by default).

Note that a lot of the time someone makes a “You…”-statement, what they often communicate is their own character. What is their statement saying about them?

If you are vulnerable to this habit, I can more or less guarantee you that it’s harming your relationships in a massive way. Try instead to transform your language into a more authentic expression. Instead of saying “Gee, you are being so stubborn!”, try on (deep breath) “It would mean a lot to me if you saw my perspective on this point. Would you be willing to hear me out?”

Shared humanity threat assessment: High

Emotional hooks

The category above is a form of emotional hooks, but it's unique enough to warrant its own listing. Here's a comment on all the rest: Much of the communication I've seen online while ill is in my judgment emotional drivel. Well-reasoned arguments are scarce. A lot of people seem to feed on conflict. I speculate that it lets them forget their own follies for a moment. To fan the flames, a lot of people throw out outrageous taunts. And most often, the other responds in kind. Rare is the ability to just stop and consider "why?".

And yes, this also happens in face to face relationships. In fact, this is how a woman might test a man's willingness to protect his dignity and boundaries. She may do so to test his ability to love and protect her when she needs him to. How do you deal with it? Well, online I would simply ignore it. But if we are talking about your significant other, however, other measures may be called for – probably something outrageous and playful that expresses freedom and love at the same time.

Anyway - please try avoiding throwing out emotional hooks. They contribute to heated communication based primarily on knee-jerk reactions. And make sure you don't take the bait when it's thrown at you. You always define what beat  you want to dance to. Trust me - the reactive dance is no fun.

Shared humanity threat assessment: Medium to high

Irresponsible use of pronouns

A lot of the time, people who convey an opinion or relate experiences from their life take special care not to use the pronoun "I". "I" signals responsibility and that I actually have a choice in the matter. "When so and so happens, I feel like I don't have a choice" is a completely different thing to "When so and so happens, you don't have a choice you know?" Can you perhaps feel it just from reading it?

I already described above how using "we" inappropriately can be incredibly toxic in certain situations. For the most part, however, misuse of pronouns is a matter of personal power. When I offset responsibility for my behavior and life to an abstract "one", "you" or "we", I lose ability to actually direct it with power. This is manipulation by default, but it is primarily manipulation of self. And a person who manipulates himself into a victimhood-mentality is hard to connect with and prone to irresponsible and subversive communication.

Shared humanity threat assessment: Low (but high over time)

Have you been able to identify other types of manipulative language? Please tell me about them in the comments below!


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