Bad communication part two - Five kinds of arguments that get us nowhere cover image

Bad communication part two - Five kinds of arguments that get us nowhere

Dorian Minors • April 18, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Communication is pretty complicated. But it should be simple. I mean, even psychologists admit that there are only three basic elements to it; a sender, a receiver and a message. And they love to complicate their models. But it's true, there is the encoder of the message, the message itself and then the decoder of the message. That's it. But, as I've hinted it becomes a lot more complicated when you consider how we can send those messages. In this two part series we're going to talk about how we communicate (from a psychology viewpoint) and then I'll cover four common problems men and women have when talking to each other (you can find that in part one here). In this second part of the series, I'll cover five common five of the worst kinds of arguments for any relationship we have. Hopefully, after this two part series you'll be able to identify and quash these, becoming a far better communicator in the process. In 1979, John Gottman (the guy who reckons there are five signs your relationship will end) taped a bunch of couples in the lab and at their homes. He studied the tapes for verbal 'mismanagement'. Here's what he found:

I was going to try and make some funny caption like, 'I'm not listening, I'm not listening', but frankly I'm just surprised this statue exists. Photo courtesy of Chris Murphy (Flickr) I was going to try and make some funny caption like, 'I'm not listening, I'm not listening', but frankly I'm just surprised this statue exists. Photo courtesy of Chris Murphy (Flickr)
  1. Cross-complaining - there were a lot of incidents of 'You did this!' 'Yeah? Well you did that!'. He noticed that this sort of argument tended to go on and on, without resolution. Moreover, this kind of argument is exactly that which can become a routine and cause heaps of relationship problems down the track (check this article out for more on routines and how they affect us in relationships). The problem with it becoming a routine being that it becomes an expectation of the relationship. When that expectation is violated, it results in a much stronger emotion than if it had just continued like normal. Violate the expectation in a good way and it might turn into something great. Violate it in a bad way and things will get much, much worse (check out this follow up to that last link here for an even more detailed explanation).
  2. Mind-reading - This kind of argument happens when we think we know what our partners meant despite what they say. The idea that 'I don't care what you said, I know you actually meant something else'. Unfortunately this kind of argument can be very destructive because no matter what the partner does, they can't fix it because the other partner 'knows what they really mean' (whether they do or don't) and won't listen.
  3. Kitchen-sinking - this is where one party (at least) throws in everything that ever annoyed them into the one argument. 'You do this! And you know what, you also do this, this, this, this and this. And this!'. This kind of argument is completely useless (except to make one person feel slightly better) because it leaves no opportunity for the other person to address the issue. It simply overwhelms them and builds up a bunch of negative, painful emotions. And sometimes, people will throw something in there that they don't really mean or regret saying.
  4. Self-summarizing - this is a peculiar one. Similar to the 'mind-reading', this argument happens when one partner is ignoring what the other person is saying. Basically, they sum up what the problem is, but have it in their head that their partner won't understand them. So, the partner responds, maybe correctly or maybe not, but the other partner doesn't hear it and summarises the problem again. Obviously, just like in 'mind-reading', if you aren't listening to your partner, you can't fix the problem.

nd finally, something that isn't always an 'argument' per se, but rather a misguided attempt at fixing the problem that often goes wrong:

It's sad because this kind of well-meaning, misunderstood solution is the kind of thing that might stop you from saying anything at all... Photo courtesy of Tamar Moshinsky (Flickr) It's sad because this kind of well-meaning, misunderstood solution is the kind of thing that might stop you from saying anything at all... Photo courtesy of Tamar Moshinsky (Flickr)

5. Metacommunication - This is probably the most amusing and potentially the most depressing. It is an example of what happens when shoddy therapists and uninformed people get a hold of a psychological principle. This comes from the 'validation' principles of the 1960s and 70s. Therapists would tell people 'when you're arguing, make sure you acknowledge what the other person is feeling and communicate clearly why you're upset too'. So people would go away and say 'I hear you say you're unhappy because… and I'm unhappy because…, you own your feelings and I'll own mine'. In theory of course, this should work, but people tended to distance themselves from the problem at hand, acknowledging their partner was upset but doing nothing to fix it. Psychology gone wrong. I'd be surprised if you didn't identify at least one of these things in your past arguments. Whether with your partner or one of your mates, it's bound to have happened. The key is to recognise and avoid them. What they do is get you stuck in the mud - concentrating on things that AREN'T going to fix the problem. Focus on the issue and solve it. Make sure you've checked out the other part in this two part series, if you haven't already! Or maybe you'd like the key to working conflicts in your relationships for the betterGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of Gilles Pinault (Flickr)

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.