Friday, January 25, 2013

Disclaimers: The Good, Instead of the Bad and the Ugly

In an earlier post Words that Work, I discussed the idea from political consultant and polster Frank Luntz that “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” This blog has also discussed in detail how talking to one’s family about dysfunctional patterns requires just the right type of wording and tone of voice. 

Disclaimers can be used to alter listeners’ perceptions about what another person is saying.  They can be very helpful in making something that otherwise might be perceived as an attack or accusation much more palatable.  

It is also true that disclaimers can be used in for more nefarious purposes, such as in deceptive propaganda. I wrote about this latter purpose in two previous posts on plausible deniability 8/31/11 and 6/19/12.

The odious purpose is summed up very well in the cartoon below:


In this post I will focus on the use of disclaimers for doing good– their advantageous employment in discussions that aim to achieve solutions to ongoing problems within a family. As a psychotherapist, I find them to be very useful with my patients, and I also coach my patients on how to use then when they attempt metacommunication with family members.


Disclaimers are pre-statements that acknowledge the potentially unpleasant nature of an issue at hand, proclaim the lack of any ill intent on the part of the the person making the statement that follows the disclaimer, and give others the benefit of the doubt concerning their motivation for engaging in problematic behavior. Disclaimers can also be used to avoid power struggles that tend to occur when someone might be perceived as sounding like a know-it-all or like someone trying to “put one over” on the other person. 

Disclaimers can make it possible to bring up for discussion just about anything. Of course, tone of voice is extremely important.  If someone is trying to bring up problematic family behavior with other members of the family, a scolding or sarcastic tone will automatically nullify any advantage conferred through the use of disclaimers.  Usually, tone should be matter of fact as well as friendly sounding for maximum effect.

In the type of psychotherapy I do, unified therapy, I frequently need to bring up and explore a patient’s problematic or counterproductive behavior, or describe potentially unflattering hypotheses about the patient’s family relationship patterns. Patients have a natural tendency to become defensive in these situations, and a therapist runs the risk of provoking a negative reaction of some sort. The use of a disclaimer often makes the initiation of such discussions more palatable to the patient. 

When making interpretations regarding a patient or his or her family, the therapist’s use of disclaimers leads the patient to become less likely to get defensive and more likely to consider the merits of the therapist’s proposition. Later on in unified therapy, therapists teach patients to make use of disclaimers during metacommunication with their family about relationship patterns and issues. 

Disclaimers can be used in innumerable ways. A few examples will be given here of the types of situations in which disclaimers are useful. The examples are also meant to give the reader a general idea about how disclaimers should be phrased. 

First, when bringing up someone else’s seemingly provocative behavior, the metacommunicator might say something such as, “I know you’re not trying to anger me when you do that, but when you do [such and such], it would be easy for someone who did not know you so well to get the wrong idea.”  

Second, in situations where the Other has a hard time discussing a certain topic, one might say, “I know this is hard to talk about, but it sounds like it is really important.”

Third, family members often hold the belief that certain behavior from another family member is purposely meant to “ask for” or elicit a nasty response.  They may be reluctant to say so, however, for fear they will be branded as self-serving or even crazy.  The metacommunicator can often get the Other to acknowledge such thoughts by putting the burden of “craziness” on himself or herself:  “This is probably going to sound crazy, but I wonder if sometimes you get the idea that mom wants you to steal money from her. After all, she keeps leaving it in plain sight.”

Fourth, disclaimers are useful for bringing up for discussion the obvious ways that the Other’s behavior causes problems without sounding like a critical parent or insulting the Other’s intelligence. The metacommunicator might say, “At risk of sounding just like Mom, and as I’m sure you already know, attacking Dad does not seem to solve anything.”

Fifth, many times a metacommunicator has an hypothesis about what might be going on in the family, but is not sure. However, the Other may take umbrage at the implications of such a hypothesis. This happens for many reasons, including that the possibility that the hypothesis in question is flat out wrong. Giving the other an “out” so that he or she can easily reject the proposal without getting into an argument can solve this problem. One can say, “I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but I wonder if [such and such] might be happening. What do you think?

Sixth, whenever a metacommunicator brings up the behavior of family members who seem to be contributing to the speaker’s problems, others will often defend their family. They do so despite the fact that they themselves are at wit’s end with the relative that is being discussed. Defending one’s family from a perceived attack even if one is angry at them oneself is quite a natural reaction, but may preclude much useful discussion about the possible reasons for the family member’s misbehavior.  A useful disclaimer that may prevent this from happening is, “I’m not trying to turn Dad into a villain, but…”

Last, metacommunicators should also make use of disclaimers when explaining their thoughts and reactions to significant others. This is part and parcel of the important strategy of giving family members the benefit of the doubt as to their motivation when asking them to be aware of and change behavior that the metacommunicator finds problematic.

For example, they might say, "I know you wanted me to be successful, but it often appeared to me that you did not" or "I know you really do care about me but..."  If the other then says that the metacommunicator is stupid for thinking or feeling the way they do, the metacommunicator can humbly say, “Maybe so, but that’s how it looks to me, and I’m sure you don’t want me to get the wrong idea about you, so I thought it would be important to let you know how this looks to me.”

Of course, disclaimers do not always have the desired effect, but they do often enough that employing them is an excellent strategy.

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