Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Getting Significant Others to Tell You the Truth, Part I: Judgments Masquerading as Descriptions

As I have mentioned in many posts in this blog, the key to effective problem solving for dysfunctional families is to initiate metacommunication (talking about the nature and manifestations of rules by which the family operates, as well as talking about the way the family communicates), and then learning how to do it effectively.  Many strategies were discussed previously in my two series, Ve Have Vays of Making You Talk and How to Disarm a Borderline.  

Many of the strategies described in the Disarm posts need not be limited to dealing with family members who have significant borderline behavior, but work well on anyone trying to avoid telling you that they are purposely frustrating you because they do not want you to pursue certain lines of questioning.

In this new series of two posts, I will describe situations in which individuals with whom one is attempting metacommunication seem to be answering the questions that have been posed to them but are, in actuality, avoiding answering the questions.

In the second, upcoming post I will describe a strategy used by people who do not want to tell you their real motives for why they did or did not do something - thereby blocking your efforts to understand them and their motives better: descriptions masquerading as explanations.

In this post, I will cover a problem that crops up when one family member questions another family member about his or her relationship with a third party.  I call it judgments masquerading as descriptions.

This applies in situations in which the goal for the metacommunicator is to avoid being triangulated into the relationship of two other family members who are at war with one another.  According to family systems theory, when any two family members are having an unstable relationship, they will often rope in a third party as a sort of buffer.  

Two of the three members of the triangle may seem to gang up on the third, but there is usually much more to the story than that.  If deemed necessary, the alliances can quickly shift, so that the person ganged up upon can suddenly join either of the other two parties to gang up on the third, who had previously been allied with the other member of the triangle.  The goal of triangulation is avoidance of the underlying conflict, not its solution.

In the process of roping in a potential triangulee, so to speak, one of the original warring dyad – will call him #1 - will tell stories about the other (#2) designed to provoke outrage at #2.  #2 will be said to have engaged in some dastardly behavior or other. 

In this situation, in order to prevent triangulation, The metacommunicator (#3) should then try to get a more complete description of what has transpired, to make sure that #1 is not leaving out any information that might change #3’s perspective about both the events in question and the reasons why #2 may have reacted the way he or she did. 

When first asked about a particular interactional relationship episode, #1 may  respond with a rather global judgment about the other person involved rather than a specific description of what actually took place. 

A woman, for example, might describe her father as “controlling.”  Unless #3 knows precisely what she means by “controlling,” he or she is in no position to judge whether this characterization is accurate.  #3 might have a very different conception about what constitutes “controlling” behavior and what does not, as well as about what behavior it is that the father might be attempting to “control.”  

A typical scenario in which #3 might conclude that he or she is being misled might go something like this: #1 states globally that her father tries to control whatever she does.  Dad might, unbeknownst to #3, call her incessantly on her cell phone whenever she goes out on a date.  Upon further inquiry or observation, however, #3 learns that the father bankrolls his daughter’s every whim, no matter how reckless, whenever she asks him for money.  #3 then draws the incorrect conclusion that the patient’s characterization of the father as “controlling” is completely distorted.
Notice something peculiar in this particular case.  If #1 knows that #3 may come to know facts which would call into question #1’s “judgment” about #2, then the goal of #1 may be to provoke #3 into siding with #2!  In other words, the goal of the triangulators may be to create a situation in which two people gang up against them!!  Also, if #2 creates the situation in a way that keeps it rather ambiguous as to exactly who did what to whom, this allows #2 to manipulate the triangle so that the potential metacommunicator can be provoked to change sides several times over the course of a long period of time, depending on what seems useful at the time the switch is provoked.

In order to avoid this scenario, it is important to find out exactly what behavior the father engages in that leads #2 to use the term “controlling.”  In other words, what specific behaviors and suspected motives of the father are entailed by #2’s use of the term?  Even people whom most others would find very power-oriented do not try to control absolutely everything that their family members do.  They would not in most instances care, for example, what time family members brushed their teeth. 

In this case, for example, the father is attempting to control his daughter's dating life, while letting her do whatever she wants in most other areas of her life.  In fact, he seems to be enabling her to do what she wants in those other areas.  So the judgment "controlling" is both correct and incorrect simultaneously.  Nobody is one was all of the time when it comes to almost any conceivable characteristic.  To think otherwise is black-or-white thinking, or "splitting" if you will.

#3 must be a good investigative reporter and ask for specifics using follow-up questions.  He or she should ask for detailed examples of misbehavior by other family members, and run down implied but unspoken implications.  In the above case of a judgment masquerading as a description, #3 should ask for illustrative examples.  He or she could ask, “What exactly is your father trying to make you do or not do?”  If #2 responds with another global generalization such as, “Everything!” #3 should persistently ask for some prototypical examples.  

After an example of an interaction is finally given, it may still be necessary to ask for further clarification: Exactly how did the father’s behavior lead #2 to conclude that he wanted to control one of her activities?  The father’s statements as reported by #2 may sound relatively innocuous to #3, but such may not be the case.  #3 might ask, “What was it about that statement that made you think that he does not want you to get married?”

To summarize, to find out what #2 really means, #3 needs to ask for behavioral descriptions, not just the patient’s opinions regarding the other person's personalities. Metacommunicators must ask follow-up questions. They can ask for clarification of vague or confusing statements and inquire about seemingly insinuated but unspoken implications. 

To continue with the example a woman who described her father as “controlling,” the metacommunicator would learn much by asking the patient the following additional questions: What do you mean, in behavioral terms, by “controlling”? What is your father doing and saying that indicate that he wants to control you? What do you believe to be his motives for wanting such control, and on what do you base this belief? What part of your life do you think he wants to control? What exactly is he trying to get you to do or not do? How does he go about trying to control these aspects of your life? Under what circumstances does he act in such a manner, and under what circumstances does he not act that way? What are you doing or saying that might be provoking a “controlling” response?

In obtaining concrete descriptions of interactions rather than globalized judgments, it is also important to find out what the people in the described relationship vignettes actually said to one another. Finding out specifically who said exactly what to whom in reported conversations that were conflictual, adversarial, or anxiety-provoking for someone often adds a tremendous amount to a person’s understanding. Family members who may otherwise omit important details often are able to provide very accurate details of affect-rich conversations because such conversations are so emotionally salient for them. 

One should try also to elicit as much as possible about the whole conversation, not just a part of it. In particular, the way conflictual conversations end may provide important details about the patterns of mutual invalidation that often characterize poor communication in families. Statements such as “Mom did not respond at all after I told her that” are ambiguous and should trigger further requests for clarification. What did Mom actually do at the point of “no response”? It is impossible to not behave.  

Did Mom turn around and walk out of the room? Stare silently into space as if in a trance? Roll up into a fetal position? The answer to such questions allows #3 to better understand #2’s need for avoidance and ambiguity in their discussions of important issues.

The more specific and detailed the questions you ask, the more accurate the picture of the other’s relationships becomes.


  1. Dr. Allen,
    I've been reading "Stop Walking on Eggshells" by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger--self-help for BPD family members. In it, they claim that parents who are not BPD can have children that are. From your family systems perspective, is that possible?


    1. Anonymous,

      Yes, not only possible, but true. And vice versa.

      There was actually a study that looked into that, and found that only about 20% (I forget the exact number) of the parents of patients with BPD had the disorder themselves. I think that may be a little low (some of the parents may have been barely subthreshold - like 4 characteristics instead of the required 5), but not by a whole lot.

      Also, there may be some differences between first and second generation people with the disorder, although all kinds of variations are possible.

  2. Dr. Allen,
    So from a family systems perspective, the emotional state in parents that give rise to BPD in offspring is not, in itself, BPD (I've just read "Dysfuntional Families," and may not have fully grasped it as yet)?

    1. Correct. The "emotional state" in the parents is a conflict over their role as parents: they think parenting is supposed to be the end all and be all of human existence, but they either hate the role or view it as an impediment to their personal fulfillment. There are zillions of ways this can play out.

  3. Dr. Allen, if you're in the position of metacommunicator, what if the other 2 parties are completely unreliable narrators?

    Or is it your belief that, with patience, the metacommunicator can get the truth from either party?

    1. Hi Altostrata,

      This post is about one of the ways to get to the truth, but sometimes it's not a very easy task at all.

      As a therapist, I have become adept at spotting "holes in the plot," so to speak, which indicate that I am not getting an accurate or a complete picture. I then have strategies to get the truth out of my patient (see my blog series, "Ve Have Vays of Making You Talk").

      The tactics that patients use to keep things from me are often the very same tactics their parents have used on them. I can use that knowledge to then train them to get to the truth with the parents.

      I believe that where there is a will, there's a way, but it does take a lot of patience!

    2. That seems right.

      I've found it a lot easier to spot "holes in the plot" than to get any constructive conversation going about them.

      On some occasions, life is too short to deal with the evasions, etc.