01/28/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

When Talking Fails, We Communicate Anyway

Here's a solid fact: We cannot not communicate. We communicate even when we're as mute as a tree stump or as absent as a cold day in hell. Saying nothing says a lot.

The wrinkled lip, the glare, the stomping foot, the turned back -- they all communicate.
And beyond words themselves, there's inflection. It can turn a possible laugh line, "Please, stop... " into a desperate plea: "Please! Stop!"

Communication is at the heart of psychotherapy. Teaching my clients to say the right thing at the right moment -- and avoid pouring gasoline onto already-flaring embers -- was a primary goal. But so many of my efforts ended in frustration.

Disappointed with the available techniques, I devised five basic rules to provide critical guidance through life's bonfires. I even worked out actual scripts that told Adam what to say when... and to stop Eve from rubbing yet more salt into wounds.

All of these rules and scripts serve two core goals. One, to be strategic -- to think in advance of blurting. To do more thinking and less spewing. Second, to avoid triggering a reactive response -- our bodies' way of responding to any threat, real or perceived.

I based the Five Rules of Effective Communication on decades of in-the-trenches therapy and foundational books, beginning with Paul Watzlawick's Pragmatics of Human Communication, which he wrote in 1967. The base is solid. Here's the first rule:

Rule One: Decide in advance what you want to accomplish. "Oh my God! You want me to think about a goal?" Well, yes, if you want to be successful. Thinking about your intention before using actual words is the basis of successful communication.

So: David sees Jessica coming through the door with a dour expression and the first thing he says is, "I hope you're not grumpy." What kind of response can he expect? Most likely, "What's your problem?" Not a good way to start. David should have taken a few seconds to think about how Jessica would likely respond to his snide remark.

Now let's rewind, and assume that David consciously wants to develop trust and closeness with Jessica -- to help her feel treasured. Noticing that she looks weary he says, "Looks like you had a tough day, honey." And calmly waits for an answer.

The intention behind his comment is respectful interest. There's no intrinsic judgment.
That's crucial. Our bodies are DNA-programmed to react badly to being judged, criticized, accused, punished or humiliated -- all variations of blame. These negative messages act like sharp barbs that penetrate the skin, maybe even lodge in the heart. We can't help but physically react. We might plaster a tense smile on our faces, but our blood pressure and heart rate accelerate and we're ready to... attack! Or run. The ol' fight/flight thing.

So much of communicating effectively is training. Sure, a few of us just do it well from the beginning, but the rest of us have to struggle, especially when the stakes are high. Here's the big paradox: It's in our most intimate relationships that we quickly fall apart and say something that creates more stress.

Training begins with a few simple rules that we pound into our heads until they become part of our overall repertoire. Just like we've trained ourselves to smile and say something pleasant when we're introduced to a stranger. We've essentially planned that script in advance. And an important trick is planning a number of them -- things to say in any given situation.
I'll talk more about the Five Effective Rules, and other strategies, in my next post.

Carl Alasko, PhD. Author of Say This--Not That
Also author of Emotional Bullshit and Beyond Blame
All published by Tarcher/Penguin