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How to Deal with Negative Conversations

Sabotage in Personal Conversations


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		  Sabotage in Personal Conversations   

You want to clear up a misunderstanding, but the conversation  quickly becomes complicated and escalates into a crazy argument  that resolves nothing. Or you want to know what's going on, and  ask, but feel attacked instead of answered. The communication  territory seems like a minefield. You tip-toe around important  subjects. Trust and safety have disappeared.   

This condition is what author Mira Kirschenbaum calls  "off-the-table-itis," a pattern that kills relationships. More specifically,  "partners with off-the-table-itis kill relationships." In her insightful  and practical book, Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay (Plume, 1997),  Kirschenbaum asks a series of penetrating diagnostic questions,  including this one:   

"Does it seem to you that your partner generally and consistently  blocks your attempts to bring up topics or raise questions, particularly  about things you care about?"   

If the answer is yes, it will be impossible to collaborate on solving a  vexing problem. Your choices are few: Shut up, or shut down.   

Many of the couples I've worked with initially report that "We've  just got a few communication problems. We need a little help fixing  those and we'll be fine." So they think. But, as 12-steppers say, "Denial  is not a river in Egypt." What seem to be only "trivial communication  problems" that require some tinkering may in fact be a single problem  so huge that it undermines and even destroys any attempt at authentic  communication.   

Let's diagnose. Do you observe any of the following?   

You say, "We need to talk about the way you handle the finances."  She acts so miserable that the experience becomes an ordeal, and  you regret bringing it up.   

You both agree to give each other feedback, but when you do so, you  receive a barrage of criticism about how you always do it wrong.   

You bring up a problem you are experiencing, and your partner tells  you what's wrong with you for having such a problem.   

These are a few of the symptoms of "off-the-table-itis."   

If your relationship suffers from this "-itis," the problem will not  clear up by itself. Once a communication pattern is firmly set, there  is no change possible from within.   

Now, it could be that the difficult partner is simply unaware of what  he or she is doing. In such a case, gaining fresh awareness from an outside observer may help that person stop the destructive pattern and learn to communicate more supportively. Maybe.   

However, if the partner is unwilling to look at the "off-the-table-itis"  pattern or is not open to change, big trouble lies ahead. After all, how  can you fix those things you can't even talk about?   

The larger question for anyone stuck in such a relationship pattern is  this: "Can I be safe being real? In other words, "Can I say what I feel  and think without being stonewalled or attacked?" If you can't, you'll  find no happiness or satisfaction. Instead, as Kirschenbaum suggests,  "You'll suffocate if the dirt hits the fan whenever you try to shoot the  breeze."  


Loren Ekroth 2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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