Cooperation requires effective communication. Direct communication is the most effective means of communication when trying to cooperate. Indirect communication is used to attack, manipulate, or defend one's self. Each of these is explained below.
When communication is direct, a person means exactly what they say. There is no implied meaning, insinuation, or mixed message. Think of a scientist saying “The results of the experiment are positive”, or a journalist saying ”The accident occurred at 6pm”; this is direct communication. When you say "I like your clothes", and you are being direct, you mean you like the other person's clothes. People can communicate how they feel by being direct. For example, "I feel hurt that you didn't meet me yesterday" (this is sometimes called an "I-statement").
When being direct, the speaker's tone of voice is usually "plain" (even monotone), because they are not using a sarcastic or defensive tone (or any other inflection that creates a mixed message). Direct communication is the only form of communication in many fields, such as science, journalism, and in the legal system (a defendant would not plead guilty in court sarcastically, because the sarcastic tone would be disregarded and it would count as a real guilty plea).
In all important matters in society, people use direct communication. For example, when an airplane communicates with air traffic control, they say directly and exactly what they mean, in very specific terms. They don't use sarcasm or imply things, since the situation is too important to allow for any misunderstanding.
By comparison, indirect communication conceals one's true position or feelings. There are may ways to be indirect, an obvious example is sarcasm. If you don't like someone's clothes and you say (in a sarcastic tone) "I like your clothes", the literal meaning and implied meaning are opposite.
While direct communication has a goal of cooperation, indirect communication has a goal of hurting or manipulating another person, or protecting one's self. Below is an incomplete list of some different forms of indirect communication, grouped into attacks and defenses, along with a description.
- personal attacks:
- name calling -- "You're a pig!".
The purpose is to hurt the other person's feelings. If you were being direct, you might say "I'm angry at you, and I think you're a bad person.". This is truthful, but less likely to hurt the other person's feelings (if that is your goal). Note that name calling does not require any response from the other person...it's not a question, so no reply is required.
- belligerence -- "Why won't you do it?! Huh?! Why not?!?"
Repeatedly demanding another person submit to your demands. An example of a direct response might be "I've already answered you, and I'm not going to answer you again. We can talk about something else, or I'm done talking to you."
- sarcasm -- Using an affected tone and
saying the opposite of what you mean.
Sarcasm can be used to mock or insult another person, although it can also be used purely for humorous effect.
- contempt -- A harsh and hostile tone of voice
that expresses contempt for the person you are speaking
to (or about).
This is one of the "four horsemen of the apocalypse" for predicting divorce cited by John Gottman (see below).
- yelling -- Using an unnecessarily loud volume for effect.
An example of a direct response might be to say "Please don't yell, I can hear you fine."
- insinuation -- Implying what you mean with
For example, "If it's not your fault, who's fault is it!?!". An example of a direct response might be to say "Are you implying I am to blame?"
- defensive -- anything said with a defensive tone of voice,
a high-pitched tone that is understood to deflect blame.
For example, imaging the pitch used when a person says "What's your problem? I was only trying to help!". People are generally not aware of it when they are using a defensive tone of voice, but it's important to be aware of the tone of voice you are using if you want to avoid being defensive.
- dismissive -- To negate another person's problem
For example, saying "so what?"
- minimizing -- to reduce or de-value another person's problem
by characterizing it as less than it is.
For example, saying "It's only a scratch, you'll survive" when someone is hurt or injured.
- stonewalling -- obstructing another person's questions.
Giving only evasive, dismissive, or vague responses to another person, making no effort to answer their questions but trying to wear them down/frustrate them.
Comparison of direct and indirect communication
|Situation||direct statement||indirect (defensive)||indirect (attack)|
|A person is angered by a comment made about their pet||"I don't like your comment about my pet" (direct, possibly angry tone of voice)||"Do you have to talk about my pet?!?"(defensive tone of voice)||"You can't even take care of a pet, so shutup!"(said with contempt)|
|A person needs help, but is reluctant to ask||"I would like your help, but I'm reluctant to impose"||"I don't suppose you would want to help me?"(said defensively)||"I know you don't want to help me, so I'm not going to ask" (said in an insinuating, accusatory tone)|
|A person has been attacked and called names||(no response is required, as no question has been asked, so a direct response could be to say nothing)||"Why do you have to be such a jerk?"(said defensively)||"You've got a big mouth!" (said with hostility)|
The four horsemen of the apocalypse
In his book Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail, John Gottman summarizes his research on predictors of divorce. He found the four following behaviors, which all happen to be forms of indirect communication, could predict which couples would divorce. He called these behaviors the four horsemen of the apocalypse:
- Criticism (nit-picking personal attacks)
- Contempt (e.g. eye-rolling when the other person speaks, as well as using a contemptuous tone of voice)
- Withdrawal (e.g. stonewalling)
His research supports how harmful indirect communication can be to a cooperative relationship. As stated above, the purpose of indirect communication is to hurt or manipulate the other person, or defend one's self -- not to cooperate. If your goal is to cooperate, it's necessary to use direct communication.
Levels of communication
It's been said the first level of communication between two people is talking about things in the outside world; the weather, the news, etc. The second level is talking about each other; your work, family, and personal life. The third, and most difficult level of communication, is for two people to talk about the relationship between them. For example, "I'm glad we're friends", "I would like to go steady", "I wish you were more open with me and trusted me more", etc.
For two people to be close (and have emotional intimacy), they need the ability to talk about their relationship. They have to be able to openly discuss their feelings towards each other using direct communication. This is very difficult to do, and requires the ability to trust, listen with an open mind, as well as be direct.
top -- communication -- relationship contracts -- emotional intimacy
This page last modified 2023-04-30