Oh, how family members hate to discuss chronic repetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other. Everyone fears that they will hear something about themselves that is negative. Some do not want to face up to or admit to anything they may have done wrong.
If they are already feeling guilty about their past behavior, they may expect they will be unjustly blamed or misunderstood or humiliated. Sometimes discussions about family dynamics, also called metacommunication, elicit anger or lead to an emotional cut off or the silent treatment. Some may even lead to violence.
All this may be true. However, an even bigger factor in many folks' reluctance to metacommunicate is often that family members worry that their thoughts and feelings about the other person will hurt the other person's feelings. They fear that the Other cannot handle the truth because of intrinsic weaknesses,or that the truth might lead perhaps an exacerbation of his or her tendency to drink too much or even to become suicidal.
This reason for avoiding saying what you believe in order to avoid hurting others is part of what I refer to as the protection racket.
On the other hand, a family member might worry that a flat refusal to discuss a problem when pressed by another family member may seem rude or inconsiderate. So in response people have developed a whole repertoire of behaviors to very subtly get out of such discussions without appearing to be completely uncooperative.
Some of these strategies can be so subtle that the other person often does not even realize that the discussion has been completely redirected toward a more benign-sounding subject than the one the original complainer had in mind.
Another important aspect of this is that the original complainers may dread such discussions themselves. They may have spent weeks building up the nerve to bring up the complaint, and are subconsciously relieved when the discussion is derailed. They therefore cooperate with the ruse. To prevent this from happening, those bringing up a problem for discussion have to remind themselves that, despite their discomfort, the problem really needs to be effectively and directly addressed.
In Part I of this post, I will discuss the most common of avoidance strategies - merely changing the subject - as well as suggest effective countermoves to keep a conversation on track. The goal is effective and empathic problem solving. In future posts I will do the same for other such strategies.
In all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key.
Strategy #1: Changing the subject. The person avoids a touchy issue by diverting the conversation to something else. This one seems pretty straightforward and simple to understand, but often it is more difficult to spot than one might think. Subject changes can be both subtle and insidious.
For example, a person may go off on an interesting tangent. A discussion that starts with someone bringing up a marital problem concerning the spending habits of the other person, for instance, may be led astray when the the Other discusses one particular recent but somewhat atypical purchase and how important it was to the couple.
This may then lead to fun stories about events that transpired over the object in question during the entire relationship. The original complainer starts to reminisce with the partner, not even realizing that the original complaint was completely deep sixed.
Other examples are when the Other make jokes, or looks for something in the environment that seems to need attention right away and suddenly starts talking about that after a nifty segue.
The first thing one has to do to counter subtle misdirection is to realize when it occurs, and then bring the subject back to where it needs to be. The complainer's first countermove should be to directly change the subject right back to the original issue.
If that fails, the complainers should then point out in a non-condemning manner how the other is avoiding their concerns and insist on returning to the subject at hand. If the other still persists in sidetracking maneuvers, the complainers should step back and ask themselves why the Other is becoming uncomfortable, and then either empathize with his or her concerns, or if they cannot find a way to do that, express puzzlement over the Other's reactions.
Another way to derail a conversation through a subject change is through the use of a counter-complaint. The original complaint is not addressed, but instead the Others brings up a complaint of their own. This maneuver usually takes the form of a statement beginning with, "Well you..." or "What about the time that you...?" The original complainant is then cowed into discontinuing his or her effort to address the original issue.
There are two versions of this strategy, each requiring very different counter-moves. The first is when the Other brings up a complaint that is completely unrelated to the original complaint. In this case, the person should reply, "Well, that's an important issue for us, and I will be happy to discuss that with you later, but first I think we need to come to some mutually agreeable understanding on what I am bringing up." One has to be willing to non-defensively do just that later on, of course, or else this strategy will eventually fall flat.
In the second version, the Other says something to the effect that, "Well, you do the same thing that I do (so how dare you complain about me)." It is usually not stated this clearly, however. The Other instead may bring up a specific example of the problematic behavior as practiced by the original complainer. For instance, if an adult child wants to talk to a mother about why the mother stayed with an abusive spouse, the mother will start talking about the complainer's relationship with his or her own abusive spouse.
This type of response usually leads to defensiveness on the part of the original complainer, which then leads to an argument instead of effective problem solving. An effective countermove is to acknowledge the legitimacy of the comparison, if it is in fact legitimate.
Although there may be important differences between the behavior of the mother and the child, usually there are significant similarities as well. The complainer should ignore the differences for the time being and say something like, "I was not trying to rake you over the coals for staying with Dad. Isn't it interesting that we both seem to have the same problem?"
This turns the conversation into a far less provocative conversation about about a mutual difficulty. It is far more difficult for the Other to feel criticized by the complainant if the complainants admit to having the same problem themselves.
Yet another way to change the subject is to make it a bit confusing as to what the subject actually is.
Ambigous language might be used by the Other so that the first person is not sure if they are both talking about exactly the same thing. For instance, an adult mother of a teenager and the mother's own father were discussing how the grandfather was only willing to help with his grandson's expenses when he was living with his father, but not when he was living with the complainant.
The woman was a single working mother with significant financial hardships. Mixed in with this subject were allusions to the father's somewhat similar behavior when the mother was herself a child.
After a while, it became very difficult to tell which of these subjects was being discussed at any given time. Were the mother and her father talking about themselves, or about the grandson? Most of the references made within the conversation could apply to either one.
Again, spotting the confusion through understanding the analogies is the first step in separating out the ambiguous references so that the pair can discuss a single pattern (that probably started when the mother was a child and is continuing in an altered form in their current relationship whenever the needs of the grandson arise).
A related misdirection strategy is to mix several separate but highly interconnected issues so that none of them is ever completely discussed. For example, one woman was in a complex family system in which her husband would distract her from her anger at her parents and vice versa. The husband and the mother would both do things to get the patient angry to draw her anger towards them.
The genogram revealed that the problems in the system were related to gender issues (whether men should take care of women or women should pursue independence), concerns re the adequacy of males in the family (her husband felt that he was supposed to protect his wife but felt inadequate to do so and angry about "having" to shoulder the responsibility) and even class (how much money was being brought in and whether wealthy people are shallow).
The discussion would change from one of these aspects to another at the drop of a hat. Because the aspects were all so interconnected it was indeed difficult to talk about one without talking about the others (for examply, when the issue of the husband's adequacy came up, the issue of why he was like that would also arise). Because the subject jumped around, however, any conversations about the issue would end up going in circles with nothing being resolved.
In some relationships, large numbers of related issues are brought up in a sequence. By the time the pair gets done with the last one, the arguments about the first one have already been forgotten, and the sequence begins all over again. It repeats ad nauseum.
Again, the most important countermaneuver in these situations is to recognize what is happening. The original complainant should then bring up the fact that there are several related issues, acknowledge that dividing them up is somewhat artificial because they are so intertwined, but request that they do so anyway before going off on a tangent.
If that does not work, then once again the complainants should follow the steps discussed earlier in this post: first point out in a non-condemning manner how the other is avoiding a subject and insist on returning to the subject at hand. If nothing changes, the complainers should next step back and ask themselves why the Other is becoming uncomfortable, and then either empathize with his or her concerns or express puzzlement over the Other's reactions.