Understanding Layered CommunicationMarch 22, 2014
Years ago, a man who had been married many more years than I told me some advice about wives.
He said: “If she says ‘Go ahead’ in response to something you want to do–and you notice she isn’t smiling and her arms are crossed in front of her–it isn’t permission, it’s a dare”.
Funny. Wise. Layered.
I owe much of my understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal communication to one of the greatest psychoanalysts of the 20th Century: Dr. William Glasser. What made Dr. Glasser so helpful to our society is he could take complicated subjects and make them so obvious and simple to understand.
Perhaps he is best known for his definition of communication. He defined all communication between two people as this: “It is only information. If you think it is more than that, you are self-deceived.”
Since marriage represents the most intimate dynamics of communication, they are also the most dangerous. If I misunderstand something a stranger says to me, it doesn’t matter that much. But if I make the same error with my life partner, it can be devastating. And after 30-plus years of doing counseling, I can attest that most marriage problems are communication difficulties.
We need to understand three things in order to make all communication easier.
First, what you are hearing is just information.
Second, if you believe otherwise, it is your problem, not the other person
Third, the main difficulty we have with what we hear other people say is that they have layered their communication and we often do not know it.
Let’s look at a standard marital conflict that illustrates all three parts.
Let’s say Jim has had a hard day at work. He was given an impossible task by his boss and it wasn’t going well. He is tired, frustrated, feeling abused and disrespected, and needing to rest and recuperate.
However, as soon as he comes through the door, his wife tells him all about how bad their two boys behaved at the grocery store after work. She never asks about his day, never notices the look of exasperation on his face.
Jim honestly can see that his wife is frustrated. At the same time, he needs support and rest. So, he tries to communicate all of this to Tonya his wife and says, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She is hurt by this and storms off to make dinner, slamming cupboards and huffing.
She assumed something Jim was communicating. She assumed wrongly. He was giving information about his desire to avoid more drama and the need to rest. She assumed he was communicating something about their relationship and his lack of caring for her. He gave her information. The rest of what happened was hers.
Taken at face value, his statement is fairly simple. He doesn’t want to talk about the kids at that moment. He didn’t say he would never talk about it. He didn’t say that he couldn’t care less about her feelings. His communication was a case of simple information. Tonya did not understand this or accept it.
This leads us to the second truth about communication. Her emotional reaction was her problem. Any time we react to information being given to us we are responsible completely for our reaction. The other person is only responsible for the information they gave us. In Tonya’s case, she carried the frustration of being the only care-giver that day in the household. She was angry that Jim seemed to be reticent to help her. She assumed his motivations. All of these assumptions and reactions are her responsibility. If she had been wise–and we will talk about how to use this approach with any other person–she would have asked Jim why he didn’t want to talk about it at that moment. She chose to be hurt and that was her choice. Jim did not make her do that.
Now for the most complicated part of this scenario: Tonya reacted to Jim’s dual layers of information with a multi-layered communication response. I define multi-layered communication as any information which is layered with one or more of the following:
2. Bitterness or resentment
4. Physical body language instead of words
5. Unspoken assumptions
6. False beliefs
8. Revenge or hatred
Let’s analyze Jim and Tonya.
Jim had two distinct layers of information:
1. He didn’t want to talk about the current situation at that moment
2. He was angry and tired and did not state this up front.
Jim made the situation a degree harder by not giving the second piece of information before the first one.
Tonya had several layers of communication which she put across using passive-aggressive behavior:
1. Anger at the boys
2. Frustration that she was the primary care-giver and Jim did not seem to be interested
3. A desire to hurt Jim for the perceived hurt Jim had laid on her.
4. Perhaps a deep-seated belief that people would not assist her when she needed it.
Tonya only expressed the first layer and let Jim assume the existence of the other layers. Because neither of them had carefully dissected their own layers before communicating, they could not connect with each other mentally or emotionally. This is the type of fight that can linger for weeks, months or even years if not corrected.
In the next article, we’ll dissect the 8 layers and examine how to attempt to give other people information about each one.