Since the pandemic I’ve noticed an explosion of public communications that I’m not sure never existed before.
Alongside public communications that give straightforward instructions such as ‘Mind the gap between the train and the platform’, ‘Hold the handrail’ I have noticed signs saying things like ‘Be Kind’, ‘Please show respect to each other when travelling’, ‘Respect everyone’s space’.
So what? you might say, What’s wrong with kindness and respect? For me the problem with using words like ‘kind’, ‘respect’, ‘responsibility’, ‘careful’, ‘helpful’ are that they mean different things to different people, cultures and generations.
I’m sure you must hear conflicts between people where they will say things like ‘you don’t take responsibility’, ‘you are a bad communicator’, ‘you don’t show me any respect’? or see adults saying things to children like ‘play nicely’, ‘calm down’, ‘be good’, ‘be nice’? only to see the conflict escalate or the child’s behaviour continue or even worsen?
In relationship therapy behaviours that partners struggle with often get assigned a word such as ‘childish’ in the hope that it will make as much sense to the other person as it does to them.
Invariably the partners being told they are childish, narcissistic, thoughtless, selfish etc feel hurt, unappreciated and think they are not understood. Often the partner will therefore counter with similar use of language and might say things like you are ‘bossy’, ‘controlling’, ‘too emotional’.
They might feel better, thinking they are getting something off their chest, but they will usually feel even more annoyed the next time the behaviour happens. Often it is this reason why partners come to therapy.
If you are having the same conversation then you are not actually having the conversation! Rarely do I find that people want to keep having the same conversations and this means that the communication is simply not effective.
In therapy I always ask partners to give an example of a situation where they concluded the partner was for example selfish.
What I am interested in is exactly what the partner did and the response it generated, how it felt and what thoughts came up. I am then able to ask the partner for their response so that we can arrive, eventually, although it might take some to-ing and fro-ing, at the source of the misunderstanding.
I remember years ago when I went to dinner at someone’s home with my mum, the hosts were people who we did not know particularly well and my mum left some food on her plate when everyone else at the table had cleared theirs. The host spotted the food that my mum had left and at that moment I felt embarrassed and could not understand why my mum would do such a thing.
On the way home I asked my mum about her leaving some food when she never left food on her plate normally. She thought for a moment and simply replied that she had been taught as a child that it was good manners not to completely clear her plate and that maybe we hadn’t been out to dinner together like that before.
It amazed me to the extent that even today I often think of that as proving how, even when you believe you know someone really well, it is still possible to misunderstand their behaviour.
One of the reasons often given for not giving clear instructions is that it is patronising or too autocratic. Often partners or parents will say something like ‘I shouldn’t have to tell you what to do’ or ‘if you don’t know by now’ – such statements usually lead the child or the partner feeling ashamed and embarrassed because what they hear is that they have missed something.
Of course we can all forget something as simple as holding a handrail – can’t we? And if that is one of the big reasons why people get injured then I appreciate that knowledge and expertise being shared with me.
For me kindness, respect, care, responsibility are all about sharing our expertise and knowledge when we know something that can help. So please if any of the folks who are responsible for public communications are reading this can I ask that you tell us exactly what we can do, not what we should be?
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach
UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych
Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.
Read more blogs by Nicholas Rose
Read the previous one – Mind Matters – Nature or Nurture?
See all Nicholas’s Mind Matters blogs here
Read a profile of Nicholas here
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