Communication between people is a multilayered process. Because of this fact, many of us feel inadequate in our attempts to understand others and be understood. Whenever any two people try to communicate, there are at least two levels to that communication: the overt, conscious message and the covert, hidden message. The overt message consists of the words we hear and the gestures we see. The hidden message has more to do with the intent behind the words. Most of us do not have the knowledge, the skill, or the confidence to address the often hidden intent of another's communication - especially if the intent has something to do with trying to control an unknown outcome. People try to manipulate the outcome of their interactions all the time and if they're not doing that, they're trying to bolster up their egos. In my research, I discovered that almost 90 percent of all human communication comes from the usually unconscious intent to control. Most of us are not aware of when we are communicating with the intent to control and when we are expressing our feelings and thoughts simply to exchange feelings or information.
The intent to control reveals itself in many disguises: denying that you feel pain when you're hurting, trying to impress others, manipulating to get what you want, being nice or agreeable to avoid a hassle, lying to protect someone's feelings, assuming you know something that you really cannot about what someone else's behavior means, keeping silent to avoid conflict, trying to appear more "together" or composed than you really feel.
As you look down this list, you'll notice that all of these things have something to do with avoiding uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps you recognize yourself in one or more of these examples. We may cling to the illusion of control and try to predict or manipulate the outcome - for example, we may try to make ourselves feel more comfortable by assuming we know how someone else is going to react to us. But we can't because such things are unknowable until they are revealed in time. On the other hand, when you relax your grip, allow things to unfold, and pay attention to what is actually going on vs. your wishful thinking or your fears, you are naturally more confident. Most communications is tarnished by unconscious defense mechanisms designed to protect us from feeling hurt, rejected, abandoned, controlled, or not in control. All of us have been hurt by other people at some time in our lives, and we learned various strategies to protect ourselves. In my own case, I learned to judge my father for how easily he was provoked to anger rather than simply feel my fear of his anger at me. So now, when someone I love gets angry at me, I have a tendency to judge rather than feel.
If you are focused more on avoiding the discomfort of not knowing than on communicating what you really feel and really listening to others, you are not fully present. You're in your head or in the future - as if you're playing a game of chess: "If I make this move, my opponent will have to make that move." This sort of strategizing keeps you in a state of chronic fear or anxiety. Here is an example of how the intent to control might show up in an intimate relationship. Georgia tells her husband, "Since you're going out with your friends tonight, I think I'll call my ex and see if he wants to come over. He still enjoys my company." Instead of telling her husband how she feels about his going out without her, she sends the not-so-subtle message that if he chooses not to be with her this evening, she'll find someone else who will. If her husband, Howie, knew how to say what's real, he would reply, "Hearing you say that, I feel (disappointed, threatened, angry, or insecure). Without such tools, he'll probably do what most unskilled communicators would do - he'll try to act unruffled or in control: "Sure, honey ... whatever." When you acknowledge what you believe another person is communicating, you develop a more truthful relationship and you begin to say what's real.
This phrase ("Hearing you say that makes me feel...") helps you bring your awareness to this present moment. When you can do this, you're more connected to yourself and to the overall context, so you feel more confident and powerful. Fear of an unwanted outcome recedes into the background and is replaced by trust, the most basic kind of trust there is - the trust that no matter what the outcome is, you'll be more resourceful in dealing with it.
Susan Campbell, Ph.D. is author of nine books and three educational card games that teach vital communication skills. Her latest book, "Saying What's Real," (New World Library; 2005; www.newworldlibrary.com) teaches the seven statements necessary for relationship success. Her website is www.susancampbell.com, where you can subscribe to her free newsletters, "Truth in Dating," "Love and Marriage."