Communication: What’s the Message?

“If only we could communicate.”  Whether verbal or non-verbal, we communicate to send messages to the people around us. Clearly, some communications are more effective than others.

Let’s take a look at Liam, who, according to his parents, is rebellious and refuses to communicate with them. In reality therapy, a good starting place is often, “Liam, what do you want?”

“I want people to stop bugging me, to get off my back. I want everybody to stop telling me what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.”

Liam is pretty clear on what he doesn’t want. That hasn’t quite answered the question, though, has it? Let’s see if Liam can define what he does want, rather than what he doesn’t want. Liam’s response? “I just want to be left alone.”

This “want” undoubtedly conflicts with his parents’ hoped-for result: that of creating a more satisfying relationship with Liam. However, for the moment, let’s take Liam’s want at face value. How does he communicate that message to the people he perceives as being “on his back”?

Liam says, “When I come home, everybody bugs me. It’s an interrogation: ‘How was your day at school?’  ‘What did you do on your way home?’ ‘Who were you with?’ ‘Why are you late?’ I just ignore it and go to my room. I don’t have to answer that.”

The perception that Liam has is that by refusing to respond, he is communicating his “Leave me alone” want. How well does that actually work, Liam? When you refuse to talk to your parents and go directly to your room, does that reduce their interference in your life?

“No, if anything it’s worse. Now they’re trying to stop me from seeing my friends; they think they are ‘bad influences.’ Those friends aren’t even that much fun, but I’m not going to let my parents tell me what to do.  It’s hard though; they’re trying to restrict me more and they’ve set curfew earlier. I don’t keep curfew anyway, but it still stinks.”

So the parents are getting the message that they need to attempt to control Liam’s behaviour even more. Like a knot that gets tighter as you struggle, the message Liam is sending achieves the opposite of what he claims to want. What might work better? Has Liam ever seen anyone who doesn’t have his difficulty?

“Well, my cousin Larry. He says that his parents let him do whatever he wants. Of course, all he wants to do is study and play sports. That’s an awfully boring life, if you ask me.”

Aha! Larry leads a boring life, but he doesn’t have anyone telling him what to do. Might Liam learn something from Larry (who seems to have at least some of the life Liam wants) that could help him get what he wants?

What do you think Liam might learn from thinking about Larry’s behaviour?

This article is the first in a series on communications.
The next article in this series is here.
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