If many of our communication exchanges seem to go around in circles - leaving us feeling power-robbed, angry, dissatisfied - we are probably playing psychological games - manipulative communications. These approaches are manipulative or controlling because the spoken words hide an underlying message, a message of which we may be unaware. You may ask innocently Where are you going tonight?" when you really mean "I have plans for us tonight." You may ask, "What can I do about it?" when you are already convinced of what must be done.
Sound familiar? We all play games at times - when we are afraid to be honest or to reveal true feelings, or when we want intimacy but fear it, or when we don't trust that another person will attend to us in the way we want to be attended to. Unfortunately, some people make game-playing, or manipulative communication, a way of life, effectively shutting off real communication.
If any of these questions or statements have a familiar ring, you are very likely involved in a game:
"Do you expect me to do everything?"
"Are you going to wear those shoes with those pants?"
"I'd really like to teach him a lesson once and for all."
"Whenever I talk to my sister we end up in an argument."
"But I was only trying to help."
Once you are aware that you're playing a game, and you're aware, too, of just what triggered it, you're in a better position to break the cycle. You can decide not to start a game when you normally would or not to take the bait if someone else initiates a game.
Then you are in a position to seek the support of your fellow game player in getting your real needs met: "Mary, every time we talk about visiting my parents we end up deadlocked or in an argument. I think we may be playing or replaying a game here and I'd like your help in breaking it."
If the other agrees, you've got some excellent alternatives. These include:
- Dropping the subject when it is emotionally overcharged, while agreeing to consider it when you both feel more balanced
- Asking a third party to be present, to help you keep the real issues on the table
- Using dialogue - really listening to the other, reflecting back what you think they're saying, until you're both sure that understanding has been achieved
- Agreeing that it's OK to disagree
- Working together to find out what each person's unspoken needs are
- Contracting a workable compromise
Throughout the process, follow one significant rule: Tell the truth, and tell it with heart, using "I" rather than "you" messages (seeking to learn and grow in the communication, rather than to protect and defend your self or your position). Honesty is always the antidote to game playing (and to most of the other "wars" on the planet as well). Can you imagine what business would be like if people simply told the truth?
You've probably seen a TV show or a movie in which a crafty lawyer skillfully uses questions to trap the defendant into an admission of guilt. You may not realize it, but many times your own questions corner people or subtly trap them. This can set up barriers in the communication process and may even bring a conversation to a swift close. Here are some examples of cornering questions:
- Questions that force a yes or no answer.
Isn't this beautiful?
Wouldn't you like to help me out?
- Questions that are really statements.
You really hate me, don't you?
This is awful, isn't it?
- Questions that require an all-or-nothing response or that allow for one of only two alternatives.
Are you joyful or sad?
Are you religious or atheistic?
- Questions that take us off the hook by making the other person responsible.
What do you want to do?
Want to stop asking - or answering - cornering questions like these? Here's a follow-up exercise:
Determine to listen attentively to your own conversations over the course of the next few days. Focus on your use of questions. This awareness may prove valuable in improving your communication skills.