How to Deal with Quicksand Conversations
Have you ever been in a conversation where each new statement that is uttered leaves you feeling like you are sinking further and further into quicksand? Most everyone has. As you say something, the other person responds in a way that seems to totally miss what you were trying to get across, and the more they say, the more the whole conversation becomes muddled. Finally you just give up because you can’t tell what’s going on anymore, and it becomes clear that there isn’t a remote chance that any real communication is going to take place.
The reason this happens is because at least one person in the conversation is not using words to actually communicate. They are using words to “evoke” emotions or feelings in the other person, and the words they use may have nothing to do with the subject at hand. This is called “evocative communication.”
Let’s backtrack a little so you can get a good grasp on how this works. There are two basic types of communication, which are called communicative and evocative.
Communicative communication is straightforward meaning that the words that are being used match the message the person is trying to relay. The content of the message is clear in the words, and there are no hidden meanings. You don’t have to guess about what is being said. It’s straight up.
The intention behind this type of communication is to create understanding between those sending the message and those receiving the message. The mood is collaborative and the goal is to be clear. I say something to you in the hopes that you can really understand what I’m thinking, and we can be on the same page, at least in the sense of both knowing what we are talking about. This is true even if we don’t agree on a point. We will both understand what’s being said and we both want to know what the other thinks. With communicative communication, words are used to create understanding, collaboration, and respect.
Let’s take an example. A woman says to her husband:
“I am really upset about something. It seems that most nights, I cook dinner, clean up, supervise the kids’ baths, and get them to bed. After dinner, you get settled on the couch and watch TV. I don’t think this is fair, and I am beginning to resent it. I would like us to both participate in the evening chores until they’re done so that we can both have relax time.”
That’s clear isn’t it? The problem has been stated, the feelings about the problem have been expressed in “I” statements, and a solution has been offered. Even if the receiving partner doesn’t agree, which would be the husband in this case, the communication has been clear. He knows what his wife is upset about, how she feels about it, and what she wants from him to resolve the problem.
Now for evocative communication. In this type of exchange, words are not always directly related to the real intention of the statement. Someone makes a statement that has uncomfortable feelings attached to it and is indirect. You respond to what you think has been said, and they say something back that twists your words in a way that almost accuses you of saying something else, or saying something negative, or what they say doesn’t seem to really respond at all to what you said. The subject is changed, the words take on a very emotional tinge, and the more you try and return to your original point, the more skewed the conversation becomes until you don’t know what’s going on at all.
What you do know is that the feeling is uncomfortable, and often antagonistic, upsetting, or even angry. You heard a statement which you interpreted based on the words used, but somehow the meaning has become very unclear and you find yourself in verbal quicksand. The more you talk, the worse it gets. You can end up feeling accused, misunderstood, manipulated, and at a loss as to where to go from here. With evocative communication, words are not used to promote understanding or consensus. They are used to produce a feeling state in you that in most cases is very uncomfortable.
Back to our example. The wife in this case says:
“It must be nice to plop on the couch and watch TV whenever you want.”
Sarcastic for sure, and unclear. She hasn’t mentioned anything about the chores not being divided up equally, or about feeling resentful that her husband isn’t helping her. She has thrown out a sarcastic remark intended to produce feelings of guilt, but the exact reason she is upset is not all that clear. The husband is left with trying to figure it out. He may respond with, “Well, I’ve worked all day and I’m tired. Aren’t I entitled to a little relaxation?” She may come back with, “Everything’s always about you. You, you, you!” He may say, “I don’t really understand what you’re so upset about?” She may say, “That’s the problem. You don’t think about anyone except yourself.”
We can keep going, and as you can see, the conversation will stray further and further away from what is really bothering her. Not only that, it has now become very generalized and personal. The husband is confused, hurt, and feels attacked, and the wife is more resentful than ever because she feels he not only doesn’t understand her, he doesn’t care.
This kind of communication is like quicksand. The more you struggle to get on the same page, the further down you sink. It occurs more often in intimate relationships, but it also can occur at work or in a more benign situation with someone you don’t know well. It is most powerful and difficult to deal with when the person who uses the evocative approach is in a position of power such as a boss, a parent, an elder, a teacher, etc. It is also difficult in an intimate relationship such as a marriage or couple.
The hallmark of evocative communication is that the message or messages sent by the person who is using that mode of communication are meant to make the other person feel something that is emotionally uncomfortable. The feeling and intent may be more obvious as in the case I described above where the primary emotion is anger or antagonism, or may be much more subtle where the person is seemingly calm and smiling while delivering words that make you feel small, less than, incompetent, stupid, dismissed, demeaned, and the list goes on. What stands out is that the communication creates an emotional response in you that ultimately feels bad or confused.
Conversely, when you are involved in a “communicative” conversation, you have a positive emotional response even if the other person is not in total agreement. You feel respected, valued, smart, accepted and equal to the other person. No one is “one upping” the other person, and no one is provoking a conflict.
In short, evocative communication is used to discharge emotions and communicative communication is used to create and foster understanding while imparting information. Two very different types of communication.
What To Do When Someone Uses Evocative Communication
As soon as you realize that the conversation is becoming emotionally tinged and you can’t tell what’s going on, it’s best to stop talking about the subject you originally started with and instead comment on the emotional response from the other person. Back to the example where words are being used to produce guilt, the husband in this case might say,
“I can see you are upset about me watching TV right now. What exactly is bothering you? Have I hurt your feelings in some way?”
That kind of attention to the person’s feelings will help diffuse the uncomfortable emotion and open the way for a real conversation. In essence, you invite the person to tell you what’s really wrong by noticing their emotional state and showing that you care about how they are feeling. This doesn’t mean you are going to agree with what they say, but it will put the conversation back on track using communicative rather than evocative communication.
Sometimes even this will not work and the person becomes defensive or denies that anything is wrong in which case there is nothing you can really do, but at the very least you have stopped the quicksand conversation that was spinning out of control.
There are people who are unwilling to have conversations where consensus is reached. Their primary motive is to disrupt, create distance through antagonism and conflict, and discharge negative emotions. Usually people with that communication style have conflicts with many people and you may want to just steer clear. It is not possible to have a real communicative exchange with someone who is not willing to participate.
To review in shorthand, here are the characteristics of communicative and evocative communication:
- Creates consensus
- Is characterized by respect and empathy
- Fosters connection
- Delivers an exchange of information
- Produces clarity and understanding
- Ends on a positive note, even when there is disagreement on the subject
- Creates disagreement
- Is characterized by covert accusation, disrespect, and lack of empathy
- Fosters separation
- Obstructs information exchange
- Produces confusion and misunderstanding
- Ends on a negative note with no agreement on any point
What’s Your Style?
(1) Try watching your conversations over the next week with everyone with whom you speak and see if you can identify when evocative communication is being used.
(2) Try watching your own language in conversations and evaluate for yourself when you are using communicative language and when you are using evocative language. Okay, don’t pretend now that you don’t ever use evocative communication.:) We all do. It’s just a matter of how much and how well we can identify and correct it.
(3) When you catch yourself using evocative communication, think about why. What are you trying to gain from the other person? What’s the real purpose of it? Can you get what you want by being more direct and clear? Are you afraid of something or avoiding something?
(4) Practice using “I” messages when talking about emotional issues. This means that instead of saying “you make me feel . . . .”, you say “I feel (whatever the feeling is) when you . . . .” Always stay away from accusation. Own your own feelings, but be clear about what they are and directly communicate them. It is impossible to really have an information exchange if there are unresolved feelings that are not communicated directly. They will get in the way.
Note: I first came across an explanation of communicative and evocative communication from Charles Sarnoff who has written some excellent books on children’s therapy. In particular, Psychotherapeutic Strategies in the Latency Years, (Jason Aronson, Inc., 1977) stands out. It is a book primarily for clinicians, but you may find it of interest particularly if you work with children ages 6 to 11.