This post is Part II of my continuing series, How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction. It provides win-win strategies for overcoming repetitive problematic interactions between potentially loving family members.
In Part I, 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 suggesting 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 commonly-used avoidance strategies: nitpicking and its opposite, accusations that the person initiating metacommunication is over-generalizing about how pervasive the problematic behavior pattern 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.
I repeat the strong caution from the previous post: Please be advised that sticking to the counterstrategies that I describe may be extremely difficult, so the services of a therapist who knows about these patterns are often necessary. For families in which violence and/or shattering invalidation of people who speak up is common, a therapist who can coach you in effectively employing the techniques is essential. Also, the advice in my posts is designed for adults dealing with other adults. It is not meant for metacommunciation with children and teens.
In attempting to metacommunicate about behavior patterns within a family system, family members will at some point be forced to discuss particular examples of the pattern that they have in mind in order to make their point. A potential problem with the use of any such example is that, no matter how clear-cut it may appear to be on the surface, there will always be aspects of it that are open to nuances of interpretation—or which are not typical or similar of the pattern under discussion.
The targeted family member can often sidetrack an attempt at metacommunication by quibbling with some minor aspect of the 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 any 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 two 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." The metacommunicator then keeps the talk focussed on the overall pattern without providing any additional examples. Providing more examples usually just leads to more nitpicking about each one offered.
The metacommunicator should also refuse to argue about:
a) Whether any specific example is truly representative, or
b) Whether the Other really knows what the metacommunicator is talking about. Playing dumb may be yet another way for the Other to avoid the issue. The metacommunicator should refuse to believe that the Other is so blind or stupid that they have not noticed the obvious, and refuse to be drawn into a "But I don't know what you're talking about"/"Yes you do" argument.
After all, the Other has witnessed the problematic pattern just as often as has the metacommunicator. Additionally, there is no objective source for settling such a dispute, so why bother? Sometimes, in response to a statement, "I don't know what you are talking about," merely a well-timed skeptical, disbelieving, "oh-come-on-now" facial expression can get a conversation back on track.
This also brings up another important point about effective metacommunication: In general, briefer is usually better.
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 complete opposite. A frequently hateful person is at times loving, a frequently incompetent one competent, and so on. (A lot of therapists don't seem to understand this, by the way).
The Other can attempt to contradict a family member’s assertions about anyone else by bringing up such a counterexample. Just as with someone designing a true-false test, the good metacommunicator should be very careful to avoid the use of words such as always and never in discussing the behavior of any family member.
If they are accused of over-generalizing, metacommunicators should agree that the other person’s counterexample is valid, but maintain that most of the time the person being discussed behaves as they have previously described.
Additionally, metacommunicators can often use the counterexample in the service of actually strengthening the point that they are trying to make. The counterexample might indicate the presence of a hidden conflict or ambivalence within the person being discussed, or might be evidence of some hidden quality that he or she possesses.
For example, one patient was in the process of metacommunicating with her mother about the family's attitude toward men. Although the females in the family seemed to be overly dependent on men, their verbal behavior indicated a marked disdain for males. 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 is 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 at that.
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 and change it.