Disorders and Treatment
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In Part I of this post, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic repetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and what usually happens when they try.
I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing the subject (#1) - as well as suggested effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track.
The goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. In this post, I will discuss two other avoidance strategies, nit-picking examples of problematic interactions, and it's opposite, accusations that the person initiating metacommunication is over-generalizing about how pervasive the problematic reaction really is.
I will also discuss counterstrategies that are often effective in getting past these avoidance maneuvers. As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key.
In attempting to metacommunicate about behavior patterns within the family system, family members will at some point be forced to discuss particular examples of the behavior pattern that they have in mind in order to make their point. A problem with the use of any example is that, no matter how clear-cut it may appear to be, there will always be aspects of it that are open to nuances of interpretation.
The targeted family member can often sidetrack an attempt at metacommunicating by quibbling with some minor aspect of the metacommunicator's example. Metacommunicators need to be alert to this so that they can refuse to become embroiled in nitpicking discussions about trivial issues. For example, in order for an adult daughter to discuss the effects on her of her mother's unreasonable requests for immediate assistance at all hours of the day and night, she would undoubtedly have to bring up an example of such a request.
The mother could easily sidetrack the issue by quibbling over the reasonableness of any instance that the daughter might bring up. The urgency of a need for assistance is always open to question. The daughter's talk with her mother might turn from an attempt at metacommunication into an argument over how badly the mother needed help three months ago. The issue of the effect of the mother's behavior on the daughter would be entirely lost.
To counter nitpicking, I recommend making statements such as, "Perhaps that wasn't a perfect example, but there are many instances where this sort of thing seems to happen. I think you know what I'm talking about."
A metacommunicator can often bring up a series of sequential interactions that, while all different to some degree, seem to follow a similar overall pattern. The metacommunicator can then talk about the overall pattern while refusing to argue about whether any specific example is truly representative.
Instead of nitpicking, the target may attempt to quibble with the patient's examples of family behavior by accusing the metacommunicator of over-generalizing. No matter how often individuals behave in a similar fashion, there are always times when they do the opposite. A hateful person is at times loving, an incompetent one competent, and so on.
The other person can attempt to contradict a family member’s assertions about anyone by bringing up a counterexample. Just as with someone designing a true-false test, one should be careful to avoid the use of words such as always and never in discussing the behavior of any family member.
If they are caught over-generalizing, metacommunicators can agree that the other person’s counterexample is valid but maintain that most of the time, the person being discussed behaves as they have described. Additionally, metacommunicators can often use the counterexample in the service of strengthening the point that they are trying to make. The counterexample might indicate the presence of a hidden conflict in the person being discussed or might be evidence of some hidden quality that he or she possesses.
An example is a patient who was in the process of metacommunicating with her mother about the family attitude toward men. Although the females in the family seemed to be overly dependent on men, their verbal behavior indicated a marked disdain for them. The patient's mother had, in fact, cleaned up after her fair share of alcoholics. So had the patient.
The mother constantly spoke of how irresponsible the male of the species was and about all the sacrifices a woman must make for her husbands and lovers. These kinds of statements, made in front of both her daughters and sons, had striking effects on the family. The patient and her sisters felt obliged to go along with their mother's opinion; they instinctively rejected any potential suitor who might exhibit strength. Her brothers and nephews, on the other hand, acted as if they were non compos mentis, as if to live up to the mother's expectations.
In the course of the discussion of the family problem, the mother protested that the patient was over-generalizing. While the mother had had several irresponsible partners, her current lover was very dependable. She knew that there were men on whom a woman could count. The patient quickly admitted that her mother's current relationship did seem to be an exception – and a significant improvement.
She added that she realized that her mother wasn't always critical of men. "Nonetheless, in light of your horrible experiences with your own father and your husbands, I can see why you might be concerned about the inadequacies of men. I know your statements are just meant to warn me, but they are still very disheartening."
This example also illustrates a very important principle of effective metacommunication: always give the other person the benefit of the doubt regarding his or her motives, and even praise these motives whenever possible, before describing the negative effects of the other’s behavior on you and asking them to be aware of it. This principle is basically the same one described in my post of April 9, Putting an End to the Game Without End.
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