How to Recognize Difficult or Controlling Communication Behaviors
Most people do some of the following behaviors sometimes – nobody is perfect and we can all be a little manipulative, pouty or domineering at times. And some folks are just generally irritating, but not so much that we can’t just roll our eyes and let it go. But here we are talking about people with a pattern of interpersonal interactions that makes most people around them uncomfortable, frustrated, guarded or even off-balance. These are the folks we may refer to as one or more of the following:
But how can just a list help? Isn’t it obvious when someone is making us crazy? Sure, but sometimes it helps to sort out exactly what the patterns are, so that we can recognize them “in the heat of the moment.” This helps us stay grounded and less likely to get emotionally caught up in the pattern. Passive-aggressive is a term that gets used a lot these days and most people understand it to be a remark that sounds nice, but feels kind of mean or unflattering. We often lump a lot of behaviors into this category, and all of the behaviors listed here can be considered passive-aggressive. However, this list is meant to help us unravel and name the specifics of certain behaviors.
When we can more objectively see what the other person is doing, we can then see more clearly what we are doing in response. Recognizing and naming behaviors (ours and others’) helps us separate the behavior from the person – the person is not bad, their behavior in that moment is bad. However, during stressful interactions, we often experience many strong feelings that tend to make us defensive and combative, or conversely, meek and submissive – all feelings that result in a core sense of one person being “right/good” and the other person as “wrong/bad.” These strong feelings throw us off base and away from stability. One way to get our stability back is to change up how we communicate.
Recognizing communication behavior helps us identify the parts we each play in these patterns. We need time to sort it all out dispassionately, in order to consider how we can change our ingrained responses that have resulted in our stress and frustration. Seeing complex and distressing communication patterns in a list, on a piece of paper, right there in black and white,
can reduce a sense of being overwhelmed; it shows us that we are not the only ones coping with these problems; and it can take a lot of the shame and blame off the table.
Notes before we begin:
- This material does not address domestic violence and/or the cycles of partner physical, sexual and mental abuse.
- The following list of behaviors seemed to fall into four broad categories:
The Wounded; The Hostile; The Deflection; and The Mind-Numbing
- This is only a partial list; there ever so many, many, many more.
See if you recognize some of the following behaviors in someone in your family or friends or co-workers whose communication style consistently gives you an uneasy feeling that you can’t put your finger on, but you sure know it drives you crazy:
Never Being Understood
Good listening and good communication, especially during a conflict, relies heavily on the act of paraphrasing or repeating what the other person has said. Counselors are taught this on day one, and all good listeners come to it intuitively. One habit of controlling people however is to refuse to acknowledge that someone has ever really heard or understood what they have said. Have you ever sympathized with this person, or showed you heard and understood them, maybe offered a suggestion or assistance, only to have the person’s complaint or concern start turning into something different? Yet another thing “you just aren’t getting”? In fact, their complaints sometimes seem to completely reverse themselves.
Or, they make it clear that their problems are so severe, and you have never had a care in your boring perfect life, that you can’t possibly understand the depths of their suffering.
Part of Never Being Understood is the dreaded “Yes, but” maneuver…
A complex tale of woe is presented to you, often involving mistreatment of the person by others. The person seems genuine in their strife and is hoping you can help them – which is why they have given you so many rich details. You may feel like you have been given a puzzle you know you can help solve. However, everything you say you understand, every specific suggestion you make, everything you say or do is now met with, “Yes, but…..”
“Yes, I’ve already tried that, they said I don’t qualify”
“Yes, but I already looked that up” “Yes, but I tried that and it didn’t work”
And sometimes it’s even a little snotty, as if they are saying, “Duh, of course I already tried that.”
Expects Mind Reading
This is when the person acts unhappy until you guess what they want. When you guess right and do or give whatever they wanted, they get two payoffs: they get what they wanted, and, they get to deny that they were trying to get you to do it – “I never asked you to clean the garage!” If you guess wrong….they apply guilt for you “not caring enough” about their needs –“If you really cared about me, you would have cleaned the garage” or “Why should I have to ask you just to be considerate?”
These are aggressively critical and controlling maneuvers, hidden behind a veil of “hurt” that have a number of uncomfortable consequences for you:
- You, like everyone else, has failed to be responsive and helpful (you didn’t pass the test).
- You are the bad guy for not really caring about them (someone who REALLY cared would know the answers to their problems).
- You only said things they already know (you are dumb).
So what are the underlying payoffs for our difficult friend?
- I’m smarter than you, I have deeper feelings than you, strangers are more caring than you, and, I’m so special, that even my problems are unsolvable!
CATEGORY: THE HOSTILE
“I asked the neighbor to help me move the boxes (and made you look uncaring/lazy) because I knew you really didn’t want to do it” even though you had said you would do it this weekend.
“I wouldn’t have affairs if you paid more attention to me.”
“I wouldn’t have to yell/hit/drink if you just left me alone/paid more attention, etc…
“You just can’t ever be satisfied.”
We all make mistakes and deal with the fallout. But the controller’s blaming puts you in a double bind, trying to defend yourself or make up for something that isn’t true or you didn’t do. In fact it may be clear that they were at fault, but you end up feeling blamed.
Total Shut Down
This is beyond taking a cooling off period from an argument or retreating to your man cave for a while or even storming off in a huff. This is the person who will routinely abruptly stop communication about anything from a simple discussion to a serious conflict, throw their hands in the air, and make an angry “pronouncement” -- “Fine, do whatever you want” “That’s right, it’s all my fault” “Nothing more to discuss, you are right and I am wrong” and then, as tension swirls, they will refuse to continue the discussion, because “it’s over.” These “pronouncements” feel confusing (assuming you weren’t being annoying or manipulative yourself) because you weren’t trying to get your way or blame anyone, you just wanted to engage in the discussion or issue at hand. So now you are left with no resolution, no input, frustrated, and unfairly “blamed,” again. It’s also a subtle putdown – You are such a dunce that I just don’t have time for the things you care about.
Asking Questions Instead of Listening
It is natural for a friend or partner to ask you some questions to help them understand your story and what you are feeling. And our instinctive urge is to answer questions, because not answering a question can seem rude or evasive. And usually people are asking us questions because they care, and that is how it feels to us. However, controlling people exploit your natural instinct to answer questions by asking a barrage of questions. A bunch of questions about even a simple statement puts you on the defensive trying to explain and justify, rather than just share the information. When questions make us feel frustrated, trapped or off-balance, instead of helping us feel more understood, you can be sure that a “controlling” tactic is taking place. The Inquisitioner may not realize they are doing it, and if they do, they have a good out (as usual) that again makes you the bad guy: “I’m just trying to understand!” This type of response is what I call “hostile” or “aggressive” listening
Consider this: Police Officers learn right off the bat that for safety reasons, they must learn to control certain situations and demonstrate authority. Being the only one asking the questions is a known tactic for asserting authority and keeping control. Being made to answer questions, rather than share your thoughts, makes sense if you are in a police line-up. It doesn’t make sense if you are in your own home trying to make plans for the weekend.
Needs All Your Time
Spending time with a loved one, either doing a shared activity or just being in the house together doing different things, is a lovely part of intimacy. And it is a wonderful feeling knowing that your presence is cherished. But it is a controlling move to insist on your presence simply in order to keep you from doing something else. The controlling husband “wants to spend time with you” but then spends that time working on his car. Or your wife declines the invitation to the family lunch but resents you for “leaving me alone.” The person wants your time – they just don’t want to spend it with you.
Never Ever Responsible
This is the person who accepts personal responsibility for problems only in theory and platitudes. “Of course it takes two to Tango!” “I’m not perfect by any means!” But when it comes to anything specific, well, THAT is clearly YOUR fault. “I know I’m part of this, but in this situation it is clear that I didn’t do anything wrong.”
But I Love You
Faced with a slew of damning evidence, or even just a perceived confrontation, you hear “But I love you, doesn’t that mean anything to you?” Our natural response is to say “Of course it does, you know I love you.” But that is met with, “Well it sure doesn’t feel like it right now.” And you are not an unloving person so reassurances flow from you as you think, “Wait a minute, weren’t we talking about something else….?”
You could say “I love this new meatloaf recipe you made” and all of sudden you realize your partner has been mortally wounded – with tears brimming - “Why didn’t you ever say you hated my meatloaf all these years!” Or, just the slightest irritation in your voice when the car won’t start (“sure, make it my fault the car battery died, I’m a terrible husband”) or a request to please take out the trash on the first asking, not the third (“Why are you always finding ways to put me down?”) can result in a level of hurt feelings and defensiveness that is way out of proportion to the situation at hand. Sometimes when this happens in couples, you can circle back and figure out together what’s really bothering your partner and you can then address it. But when there is a pattern of your partner feeling deeply wounded and defensive, especially when you try to talk about a difficult relationship issue, the wounded bird keeps the real issue off the table because now you have to spend time being extra nice and saying that’s not what you meant at all, etc., and then how can you approach a barely healing wounded bird with a concern about how they have been neglecting the kids or never wanting to have sex?
Barking Orders/Always Mad
Some people say just about anything and everything in a harsh, aggressive tone. “HAND ME THE PAPER!” “DON’T SIT THERE!” “GET OUT OF THE SUN!” “HELP ME UP!” Even a supposedly caring comment can sound loud and scary, “DID YOU GET ENOUGH MILK?” “DON’T ORDER THAT, YOU WON’T LIKE IT.” Being on the receiving end of constant yelling and orders can certainly rattle your brain and nerves. It makes it hard to think straight. And it keeps the “barker” in a shallow sense of authority. It can feel like the “barker” is implying that you are such an idiot every moment of every day that they must constantly tell what to do and what to say lest you make a horrible mistake that will end the world. You can see how difficult this would be for a child growing up with this type of parent. Is there an adult you know now who talks to you, and perhaps everyone, like this?
Ever met a person who simply cannot agree with anything? A tell-tale sign is that the difficult person will, if necessary, contradict his or her previous opinion in order to avoid agreement. You are telling friends how much you both enjoyed a movie, when he says in front of everyone, “I didn’t like that movie, it was boring” in direct opposition to what he had said earlier. Or, “Well, I may have said turn left, but that is because you handed me the map wrong.” This maneuver can range from embarrassing for them (because it’s so obvious) to frustrating (and embarrassing) for you because they are contradicting you. At its worst, it makes intimacy impossible, because vulnerability is impossible for this person.
Critical of Help/Critical of Everything Nice
Here the controlling person asks you to do something for them, saying they can’t do it for themselves. But of course it turns out you didn’t do it right, and you probably did it wrong on purpose because “you just don’t care enough about me” to do it right. “Thank you for the dinner you brought over but something in it was spoiled and I got sick.” “Why’d you get me a shirt that says Maui, I wanted one that says Hawaii.” “This ice water is too cold.” “That new car is too shiny.” Some of us try harder to make the person happy (and always fail) and some of us quit doing nice things for them (which is then seen as selfish). So even being thoughtful brings you strife one way or another.
A common theme running through these descriptions is a distinction in how you feel around a certain person or when they are doing a certain thing. As stated at the beginning of this article, some things feel within the normal range from good to irritating. But around some people, when they are doing a certain thing, you get a knot in your stomach, and feel frustrated, disbelieved, trapped, questioned, blamed, never good enough, and sometimes downright crazy.
If you feel like this around a certain person but not around other people, your feelings are sending you an important message. Listen to your feelings and take steps to change how you interact with this person. Make a mental note that their words and actions are far more about them than you. If you are not sure, look at the broader evidence: do other people find you inept and uncaring? Do other people yell at you or make you look bad in public? Do you get so frustrated you could scream when you try to make plans with other people? Do other people disregard your help and company? If no, then trust the facts even if you still feel unsteady.
Odds are, they are not likely to change, but you can. Therapy helps a lot, read up on the subject, get used to identifying how you truly feel and trust that feeling. Take a step back and remember that they are just a person doing a behavior, and you can take the time to decide how to respond. Not every question needs an answer. Underhandedness and unfair blame are not to be tolerated. And it is sad but true that you can’t make a person happy who works very hard to stay unhappy. You are only responsible for you: you’re honesty, integrity, kindness (which is different from being a door mat) security and boundaries. Set firm boundaries, remain calm, and remember that how a person then responds to your reasonable requests and actions is their business, not yours. If you find yourself wanting praise for your awesomely mature responses, or being mad that the other person didn’t act better now that you did, go back to the drawing board. Being clear, calm, polite and direct is like giving a gift: you don’t get to decide what the receiver does with it. But you do get to know that you are an awesome gift giver, and that all the other people you know and love treat you well.
If you find that around a certain person it is simply not possible for you to feel okay, then distance from that person makes sense. It isn’t mean or uncaring, it is simply a fact. It is nice and caring for you to take care of you. And believe it or not, it will be far less distressing to the other person than you think. Oftentimes they are on a very different emotional playing field. As unpleasant as it is to consider, your absence may be less hurtful to them as it is justification to take their behaviors elsewhere.
One final note (well, hardly final, volumes have been written on this subject, but a final note for now):
A person who acts in a very controlling or difficult manner is not necessarily a bad, uncaring, or unloving person. In fact they may wish they knew how to be closer to people (although this would be hard for them to admit or even consciously realize). And there are of course many levels to all of this. It is often the case that a controlling person’s actions are serving to avoid their feelings, your feelings, or both, because they lack the inner resources to cope effectively with those emotions. And ultimately that is a large part of why people become “difficult” to begin with: to avoid deeply buried and unresolved painful insecurities.
It makes sense to have sympathy for a person’s painful childhood or other traumas and to understand how those experiences have contributed to how they are now. This understanding can help us remember that their actions are not about us, they are more about their own pain and insecurities.
However, while you are compassionate about this, it is extremely important to remember that this is not something that you as a family member or friend can be responsible for or fix. And it doesn’t excuse the behavior, especially when it is emotionally or physically abusive.