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I spent the evening tonight reading more of the book “Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day” by Anne Katherine, M.A. and as I was reading I was so wishing I had read this section of the book before my encounter with a long time friend yesterday.

When my friend visited yesterday things got loud rather quickly. She was speaking in a way that suggested I should know what she was talking about, but I didn’t have a clue. I thought we were talking about one thing and it seemed she was talking about another. When I asked her questions about what was bothering her, her answers contradicted her own complaints.

Several times during the ‘discussion’ I told her, “I just can’t do this, it isn’t making any sense. I just can’t do this.” I was quickly developing a migraine and I just couldn’t follow what she was saying.

When she’s trying to explain something she starts to describe the situation, but as she’s doing so she’ll take a number of detours as things she’s saying or thinking about distract her and her commentary will begin to move in incoherent circles. She continues to speak as if you know what she’s talking about. When this is happening she often says something and contradicts what she’s just said, within the same sentence.

I’ve gotten in the habit of stopping her and trying to clarify what she’s talking about, as in the past after she’s shared something and come back to it later and I didn’t recollect what she was talking about I was accused of just ‘tuning out’ and not really listening to her, so I try to make a concerted effort to listen and understand what she’s talking about.

I stopped her several times and repeated something she’d just said back to her, telling her I didn’t understand, didn’t she just say “A”, but in the same sentence she also tried to say “B”, completely conflicting things. Her response every time was “No” and then she repeated just what I’d just said to her and changed the direction of the discussion to a more obscure thing she’d mentioned previously. I kept trying to bring her back to the first topic, as I still hadn’t gotten a coherent explanation so I could understand what she was talking about.

It was at this time when she started making self-deprecating comments, as responses to my difficulty comprehending what she was talking about. She was avoiding my questions and kept changing the direction of the discussion, arguing, often, against her own previous statements and arguing anything I said to her, whether I was agreeing with her or not. It got very confusing.

Tonight I read the following passages from the book mentioned above:

“Ignoring boundaries is itself a response. We sometimes feel that if a person tromps over us after we’ve said no, then we must not have been clear. We can get caught in the trap of explaining again and again, meanwhile letting the other person take advantage of us.

If you find yourself trying to educate the other person over and over, you are working too hard.”

“It’s okay to point out that the other person is ignoring what you are saying.”

“A healthy conversation resembles a tennis game. Person A tosses a conversational ball by making a statement. Person B returns the ball by responding in a way that includes an acknowledgment of person A’s meaning. Then person A returns the ball by responding in a way that acknowledges person B’s response. The conversation may travel over different subjects, but each response in some way connects to the other person’s previous comment.

In a billiard ball conversation, each successive comment is in a new direction, connecting poorly or not at all to the previous comment. Person A makes a statement. Person B puts a different spin on the statement and then responds to the new spin as if it were the original meaning. If person A restates their original meaning (trying to establish a tennis game conversation), person B again gives it a different spin and goes off in a different direction, bouncing off their own thoughts, instead of taking in the meaning of person A.

Such a communication style could, over time, cause a loss of clarity and motivation…”

“This style not only makes communication nearly impossible, it also is a crazy-making experience… The subliminal message from person B is ‘I discount everything you say, even if you say what I say.'”

“Now look at the “hit and run” statements. I use this term when a person throws a punch or discounts the speaker in some way, and then pretends they haven’t or goes on in a different tone as if the barb didn’t sting. It feels crazy-making to the receiver, whose head is spinning, trying to reconcile the conflicting messages.”

The author suggests an appropriate response to a billiard ball or hit and run style conversation might be:

“Communicating with you is obviously going to be more work than I want to put into it. You keep changing the meaning of what I’m saying and negating both my… thoughts and speech. This is too much trouble. I quit.”

The author concluded this chapter with the following:

“Your job – if someone is committing communication violations against you – is to notice the big picture, take yourself out of the situation, and save your energy and goodness for someone who can appreciate them.”

“Billiard Ball Conversation” perfectly explains what my friend was doing yesterday. I’ve experienced this several times lately. My friend has a habit of double-speaking and changing the direction of the conversation at will, whenever she feels pressured or can’t explain something she’s already said. She also has a way of taking something very simplistic or generic I’ve said and creating a huge issue out of it, giving it much more importance than I intended or making it personal.

I don’t seem to have much success when it comes to putting a stop to such ‘discussions.’ I get frustrated, I start to become anxious. I find myself doing just what’s described here, explaining over and over again what my position is, trying to educate the other person as to what I’m trying to convey and even when I say “I’m done”, “I can’t do this anymore”, I tend to let the other person bully me into accepting their ‘crazy-making’ assault.

I think sometimes when two people are having a conversation, folks start to think ahead about what they want to say or a different thought comes into their head and they share it, either not realizing that’s what they are doing or thinking that somehow the receiver understands what they are talking about and that they have changed directions. I don’t think it’s always the result of a purposeful dismissal or avoidance of what the other person is saying.

When my friend was here I kept trying to bring the conversation back to the original topic, though the more I tried to do that, the more she seemed to deviate away from it, going off on tangents that were incomprehensible to me. I couldn’t begin to understand how a lot of what she was ranting about had anything to do with what we had originally been talking about. The more I tried to get us back on track the more she resorted to the self-deprecating comments and emotional threats. The more I tried to share my thoughts and ask questions the more angry and frustrated she got that I didn’t understand… not understanding was, of course, my fault.

I’m really through with this kind of nonsense. When someone is going off about something that’s bothering them, when they need to vent, want someone to listen, I try to be there, but when what they are ‘sharing’ is incoherent, I can’t be bothered anymore. If they can collect their thoughts and ‘pick a topic’, I’m more than willing to listen.

One of the things I’ve taken away from this book is that if someone makes a request of me to listen to them, or let them vent, I should consider if it’s the best use of my time and energy, and whether they have violated communication boundaries in the past before answering ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

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