14. Understanding Symbolic Comm - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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14. Understanding Symbolic Comm

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > DownRelRabbitHole- Assessment

Down the Relationship Rabbit Hole, Assessment and Strategy for Therapy
(to counter criticism in stage 3)  
by Ronald Mah

Therapy may be largely psycho-educational regarding communication as words, body language, behavior, and so forth are interpreted for positive messages versus negative, hurtful, and even abusive communication.  What is said or expressed is often not what is heard or experienced by another or the other person, who can break down intimacy  When there are frequent painful misinterpretations, the couple, family, or group will often cease or refrain from open communication about interactions and conflicts, which precludes any problem-solving.  Knobloch & Solomon (2002) says, "intimacy corresponds with greater communicative openness… participants in intimate relationships openly address critical relationship events… individuals often manage uncertainty increasing events by talking about the episode with their partner… people frequently employ direct, interactive strategies to address uncertainty increasing events… intimacy is negatively associated with people's use of avoidance strategies to manage these episodes"  (page 461).  Many interpersonal conflicts arise from misinterpretation of otherwise benign communication.  Expressive communication from one person's family pattern and/or cultural model may have different and unexpected meaning in the receptive communication experience of the other person.  In the romantic pairing, there may be an assumption of intimacy and caring automatically transcending different models of communication leading to the couple being in sync.  Unfortunately, romance, good intentions, and common goals often prove inadequate to reconcile historical training.  The therapist can prompt each person to clarify the intentions of his or her communication for the other person or persons to consider versus how they have been interpreted.  They may be asked to complete the sentences or use the following communication templates.

"I was trying to be supportive, when I ________."

"I stopped talking because I was upset."

"When I'm nervous, I ________."   

"When I'm angry, I usually ________."

"I get silly, when I'm anxious."

"I become hyper when I'm sad."

Each of the statements, whether offered or prompted by the therapist's inquiries, clarifies the individual's expressive communication.  The couple or family may discover that the intentions have been misinterpreted or even have triggered intense reactions from prior family-of-origin or cultural experiences.  The therapist can prompt for interpretations or triggers within each person's receptive communication experiences.  The following statements clarify receptive communication.

"I hate yelling."

"Loud voices make me nervous."

"That can be (is) intimidating."

"If she is quiet, I think something is wrong."

"If he's not home, I feel abandoned."

"I need feedback."

Each statement can be interpreted as an individual characteristic or idiosyncrasy.  The therapist should explore how and why each statement came from the individual's emotional, psychological, family, and cultural experiences.  "Why do you hate yelling?  What makes it more than loud talking?"  "How is quiet dangerous?  Is that from family?"  This type of therapeutic inquiry can reveal the deeper symbolism in an individual's receptive communication.   Gottman expressed his surprise about direct communication.  "I also thought that what would really work in conflict is people being honest and direct.  Confronting each other saying: 'You know, you do this and it really makes me angry,' and the other person would not get very defensive.  Boy, that wasn't true.  The masters were not doing a lot of this clashing and confronting stuff.  They were softening the way they presented the issue and giving appreciations while they were disagreeing." (Wyatt 2010).

Indirect communication, non-verbal expression, implicit meanings, unfamiliar and missed cues, and especially, mismatched symbolic messages distort and contaminate so-called direct communication.  Individuals, couples, and families need assistance from the therapist to get to the underlying needs, hurt, anger, and core communication. For example, Patrick and Brandi had conflicts sometimes because Patrick feels Brandi doesn't leave him be when he needs some alone time.  Sometimes, he says he just needs some quiet time.  Brandi says after all the stress of the day she needs some interaction, including some feedback so plans can be made and things organized.  Instead, she says Patrick shuts her out.  Patrick may be quiet because he's upset or because he's tired or contemplating something.  In other words, he may be communicating his upset, but he may not be communicating anything in particular.  Brandi may need feedback to figure out some weekend plans, but also because her anxiety from prior lack of interaction or communication in her family-of-origin could precipitate terrifying eruptions.  Knowing what her mom was thinking or feeling gave her a fighting chance to keep things under control- that is to keep herself safe.  As an adult, calling it a personal need for "feedback" was a socially acceptable way to keep tabs on a potentially scary intimate.  In their cycle of miscommunication, Patrick's silence can morph into upset silence.

In this scenario, mismatched expressive and receptive communication (or negatively matched communication) creates problems.  Within this cycle of miscommunication, passive- aggressive communication has been activated.  This may occur when one person is upset and is unwilling or unable to articulate the upset more overtly.  Silence, which may have originally been Patrick being shutdown from his stress has become "at" Brandi.  By withholding the interaction that she wants, he punishes her for criticizing him and disrupting his solitude.  Passive-aggressive communication needs to be clarified by emphasizing its aggressive nature.  The therapist can say for example, "At some point, Patrick, you know it bugs Brandi when you're quiet, huh?  And you continue your silence.  What's that about?"  Therapy may explore how silence or other passive-aggressive behavior, often nonverbally had become a safer way to express aggression.  Individuals in cultures where there is a strong tradition of nonverbal communication, symbolic communication may be often more readily correctly interpreted.  If everyone involved comes from the same culture, they would tend to have the same interpretation of the nonverbal communications.  This usually develops among family members over time.  And, also in work and social communities if the membership remains relatively stable.  However, if they don't get in sync, then there needs to be training and translation.  Two individual such as both partners of a couple may come from nonverbal communication experiences (familial or cultural) but not necessarily from the same experience.  A couple such as Patrick and Brandi may both be Asian-American for example.  Asian and Asian-American culture can have experiences of significant nonverbal communication, but Patrick may be first American- born Chinese-American from a working class family raised in Brooklyn, New York, while Brandi be Sansei (Japanese-American whose grandparents were immigrants) from a professional middle-class family raised in South Lake Tahoe.  Not only are there a class difference and an important nationality difference (Chinese vs. Japanese), but also a generational difference (raised by immigrant parents vs. raised by culturally American parents- Nisei who are American-born).  The nonverbal communication styles may be significantly mismatched despite both being from Asian ancestry. There are generational differences (degree of Americanization), gender differences, class differences, and regional cultural differences among others not yet identified in their respective life experiences.  On the other hand, if Patrick's family included an alcoholic father while Brandi's family included a schizophrenic mother, their nonverbal communication styles may be quite similar because of similar dynamics between an alcoholic family system and a family system stressed by severe mental illness.  The therapist should take an exploratory or discovery approach to uncovering the layers and depth of meanings for communication and behavior due to potential complexity.  Conceptual background such as in the dynamics of families with major illness or stress or in generational and class dynamics can direct initial inquiries critical to individuals learning deeper motivation and intent.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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