Family Discussions About Dysfunction: Use of Disclaimers

Disclaimers can be used to decrease anger and defensiveness in others.

Posted Jul 18, 2016

David M. Allen
Source: David M. Allen

This post is Part 8 of my old continuing series, How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction. In Part 1, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic repetitive interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and what usually happens when they try. I discussed the most common avoidance strategy — merely changing the subject (strategy #1)—as well as suggesting effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part 2, I discussed the avoidance strategies of nitpicking (#2) and accusations of over-generalizing (#3).

In Part 3, I discussed attempts to change the subject by getting into the blame game, and taking a shifting stance as to who exactly is to blame for a given family problem (#4). In Part 4, I discussed strategy #5, the use of fatalism to derail metacommunication, and strategy #6, the use of Non-sequiturs. In Part 5, I discussed #7, the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. In Part 6, I discussed #8, the fallacy of begging the question. In Part 7, I discussed arguing from worst case scenarios (#9), and ad hominem or personal attacks (#10). 

In this post, I will discuss the use of disclaimers that make it possible to bring up touchy subjects without increasing the animosity or defensiveness of the listener.

To repeat from the previous posts in this series: the goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key. I again repeat the strong caution: Please be advised that sticking to the strategies 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.

Political consultant Frank Luntz, in his book Words that Work, opines that, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” This blog has also discussed in detail how talking to one’s family about dysfunctional patterns requires just the right type of wording and tone of voice. 

Disclaimers can be used to alter listeners’ perceptions about what another person is saying. They can be very helpful in making something that otherwise might be perceived as an attack or accusation seem much more palatable. They can also be used for negative ends - to cover up people's true intentions - but that is not what I will discuss here.

In this post I will focus on the use of disclaimers for doing good – their advantageous employment in discussions that aim to achieve solutions to ongoing problems within a family. As a psychotherapist, I find them to be very useful with my patients, and I also coach my patients on how to use then when they attempt metacommunication with family members.

Disclaimers are pre-statements that acknowledge the potentially unpleasant nature of an issue at hand, proclaim the lack of any ill intent on the part of the person making the statement that follows the disclaimer, and give others the benefit of the doubt concerning their motivation for engaging in any problematic behaviors that are brought up for discussion. Disclaimers can also be used to avoid power struggles that tend to occur when someone might be perceived as sounding like a know-it-all or like someone trying to “put one over” on the other person. 

Disclaimers can make it possible to bring up for discussion just about anything. Of course, tone of voice remains extremely important. If someone is trying to bring up problematic family behavior with other members of the family, a scolding or sarcastic tone will automatically nullify any advantage conferred through the use of disclaimers. Usually, for best results one's tone should be matter-of-fact as well as friendly sounding. 

In the type of psychotherapy I do, unified therapy, I frequently need to bring up and explore a patient’s problematic or counterproductive behavior, or describe potentially unflattering hypotheses about the patient’s family relationship patterns. Patients have a natural tendency to become defensive in these situations, and a therapist runs the risk of provoking a negative reaction of some sort. The use of a disclaimer often makes the initiation of such discussions more palatable to the patient. 

Disclaimers can be used in innumerable ways. A few examples will be given here of the types of situations in which disclaimers are useful. The examples are also meant to give the reader a general idea about how disclaimers should be phrased. 

First, when bringing up someone else’s seemingly provocative or unpleasant behavior, the metacommunicator might say something such as, “I know you’re not trying to anger me when you do that, but when you do [such and such], it would be easy for someone who did not know you so well to get the wrong idea.”  

Second, in situations where the Significant Other has a hard time discussing a certain topic, one might say, “I know this is hard to talk about, but it sounds like it is really important.”

Third, family members often hold the belief that certain behavior from another family member is purposely meant to “ask for” or elicit a nasty response. They may be reluctant to say so, however, for fear they will be branded as self-serving or even crazy. The metacommunicator can often get the Other to acknowledge such thoughts by putting the burden of “craziness” on himself or herself:  “This is probably going to sound crazy, but I wonder if sometimes you get the idea that Mom wants you to steal money from her. After all, she keeps leaving it in plain sight, and never reports you to the police.”

Fourth, disclaimers are useful for bringing up for discussion the obvious ways that the Other’s behavior causes problems without sounding like a critical parent and without insulting the Other’s intelligence. The metacommunicator might say, “At risk of sounding just like Mom, and as I’m sure you already know, attacking Dad does not seem to solve anything.”

Fifth, many times a metacommunicator has an hypothesis about what might be going on in the family, but is not sure. However, the Other may take umbrage at the implications of such a hypothesis. This happens for many reasons, including the possibility that the hypothesis in question is flat out wrong. Giving the other an “out” so that he or she can easily reject the proposal without getting into an argument can solve this problem. One can say, “I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but I wonder if [such and such] might be happening. What do you think?"

Sixth, whenever a metacommunicator brings up the behavior of family members who seem to be contributing to the speaker’s problems, others in the family will often defend them. They do so despite the fact that they themselves are at wit’s end with the relative that is being discussed. Defending one’s family from a perceived attack even if one is angry at them oneself is quite a natural reaction, but may preclude much useful discussion about the possible reasons for the family member’s misbehavior. A useful disclaimer that may prevent this from happening is, “I’m not trying to turn Dad into a villain, but…”

Last, metacommunicators should also make use of disclaimers when explaining their thoughts and reactions to significant others. This is part and parcel of the important strategy of giving family members the benefit of the doubt as to their motivation when asking them to be aware of and change behavior that the metacommunicator finds problematic.

For example, one might say, "I know you wanted me to be successful, but it often appeared to me that you did not" or "I know you really do care about me but..."  If the other then says that the metacommunicator is stupid for thinking or feeling the way they do, the metacommunicator can humbly say, “Maybe so, but that’s how it looks to me, and I’m sure you don’t want me to get the wrong idea about you, so I thought it would be important to let you know how I've been perceiving this.”

Of course, disclaimers do not always have the desired effect, but they can often be quite effective.