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Formulas Are For The Classroom

Some time ago I spent several years intensely researching how communication works, to the minutest detail, in everyday settings. Before doing that, I had already learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work to “teach” communication skills, by conducting a variety of counselling, therapy, and life-skills groups.

As a result of that experience, I cringe when I hear about formulaic, textbook approaches to try to help people develop better communication skills in their relationships.

Let me acknowledge, before I say anything more, that “tried-and-true” communication “techniques” such as active listening do have their place as a starting point. But I’ll never forget the lessons I learned when I tried such approaches with groups of abused women, and later in my work with abused men, when they replied to my well-intended use of step-by-step communication and problem-solving formulas with comments such as, “Would you like to try this in my home? They’ll laugh at you.”

What I learned to do instead was to explore with them some basic questions about their own experiences: when they felt respected and when they did not; when they felt ‘heard’ and understood and when they did not; and so forth—and then, in the therapy groups I was conducting, I videotaped them talking in pairs about real subjects that had importance in their lives. When I played back the videotapes in the context of the groups, I was able to ask them many questions such as, “How did you know your changing emotions were being properly understood? How did you know your partner understood your true intentions, and respected your motives? What did the listener do that helped to achieve these outcomes?”

After some days of doing this together, participants learned that they were successfully developing and enhancing their own ways of speaking and responding to one another, using the basic principles that were inherent in the formulaic step-by-step approaches, but not copying them. They were learning to communicate in ways that felt natural to them, and sounded natural when they used them, and that actually worked in their homes. The general response I received from group members was, “This actually worked in my home. They did not laugh at me, or dismiss me, they took me seriously.”

Similarly, when I work with couples and families in my therapy work at Arbour, I find people are actually relieved when I tell them I don’t like to use textbook, “tool”-based approaches to help them communicate more effectively. “Whew,” I often hear, “we’ve already tried that.” Instead, I help them to explore and develop their own, natural-to-them, ways of communicating that then become instinctive and sustainable in their own homes.

One of the outcomes of my own in-depth research on communication was the insight that all intentional communication is persuasive communication to some degree, whether we know it or not, no matter how hard we try to avoid being persuasive. Even when we are using textbook skills such as active listening and “advanced accurate empathy,” we are still inevitably engaging in a process of persuasion with one another.

This issue has been a subject of much discussion and debate in the therapy field for the last 50 years, and what it comes down to is this: We must not delude ourselves into thinking we can ever completely avoid using persuasive, or manipulative, or directive, communication with one another.

All we can do is learn to be very attuned to how we are using persuasive, manipulative, directive dialogue, and to be mindful of whether or not we are doing everything we can to try to respect and understand each other first and to be transparent about our motives and interests.

Studies about this go back as far as Aristotle, who wrote a tome (called Sophistical Refutations) on the subject of unfair debating practices. I read that book and discovered we are all using those “unfair debating practices,” every day, in the way we communicate with one another. And unfortunately, no step-by-step formulas and techniques can get us fully in the clear. But we can learn to be mindful and accountable for how we put our intentions into practice, and to “meta-communicate” (that is, communicate about how we communicate) to develop our own, natural and sustainable, communication practices.

I find the process is often very rich and rewarding. To quote American psychologist Jerome Bruner, “It is as if they were on a journey without maps—and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and map-making.”

Richard Routledge


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