Crash Course in Pulling Away from a 'Controlling' Communication Style
July 5, 2020 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Tips on offering suggestions in a way that acknowledges the agency for the ultimate end decision lies with that person, so that it doesn't sound 'controlling-out-of-love'?

I'd appreciate any form of guidance (answers, articles, books, YouTube, talking carrots) that either, from a positive angle, make the suggestion-like intent clear, or, from a negative angle, make it clear I do not intend it from a 'controlling-out-of-love' perspective.

Slight more background:

When going from my brain to my mouth, I had thought I was voicing some things with family in a way that was suggestion-like - that was presenting "heads-up-as-to-this-issue" and potential solutions in a way that conveyed them, but put it in their laps from then on out, acknowledging them as the final decision-maker of their lives. That was the intention, anyway. It seems as if it's coming across more controlling-out-of-love than suggestion-like.

I feel as if I'd make any legalese-istic preface ("I hereby acknowledge that...") wordy and awkward. I would note that sometimes this is involves giving urgent information to someone that they wouldn't have known otherwise, so completely not communicating about the issue at all isn't a great solution for the problem at hand. Simply sending a link, due to a specific family member's information-processing style, may not be a great solution for it either; sometimes I'm going to have to convey the issue, and I just need to learn how to do it better and/or how not to do it.
posted by metabaroque to Human Relations (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"You have the most information about your situation, so you are in the best position to decide what to do."
posted by katra at 7:47 PM on July 5

Phrasing things as a question (have you seen X/Do you know that y/Have you considered Z) can achieve this.
In general: "linguistic hedging" and the like is sometimes criticized but it has its purposes, including helping to signal what you're trying to signal.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:59 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]

"Here's the information I have about $TOPIC. Please let me know if you have questions as you decide how to move forward with $YOUR_ISSUE."

Like think in your mind that you're leaving a magazine on a table and whether they even read the magazine is within the locus of their control and not yours.

I do not know what your situation is, but it's also worth understanding that if the person decides to do nothing, or not do the best-for-them thing, and then comes back to you with some sort of attitude about it, that is dealt with in a different way. Sometimes it's worth understanding that people who have controlling tendencies (I fight it in myself) can also have developed that from dealing with exceptionally passive people who themselves can have trouble managing or understanding their own agency. So, think of it more as breaking a cycle that the two of you are in, but you may be the person who understands it and can then, thus, change it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 PM on July 5 [5 favorites]

You might make this easier to answer if you specify the relationship. For my adult daughter, I very clearly state that I found something that I think might be useful but of course she gets to make own decisions.

And here are some tips that bring it home : you only mention it that one time, no harping on it. You accept the decision when made (enthusiastically if possible). You don't tie other support/finances to be contingent on choosing your side. And no I told you so's.
posted by CathyG at 8:06 PM on July 5

You might make this easier to answer if you specify the relationship.

Adult child to senior parent, and adult child to adult sibling.
posted by metabaroque at 8:12 PM on July 5

One thing that helps me in conversations is remembering that a conversation is not something that one should seek to win (either rhetorically or "this is definitively the answer here"). If you feel like your family could benefit from something you know, present it as just that - something you know that might help them make a choice, not a prescription for them that they must follow. It's hard to walk that line sometimes, but finessing it like that can help a lot.

Also, treat your familial suggestions like cilantro - a little bit is generally plenty. The more you "suggest" things, the more likely it could be that you're perceived as the person who always wants to have/give the answer, and the more likely it is you'll be tuned out really quickly. That may not be your intent, but it could end up being an issue.
posted by pdb at 8:14 PM on July 5 [2 favorites]

I feel as if I'd make any legalese-istic preface ("I hereby acknowledge that...") wordy and awkward

If the choices are "having people ignore me because I come off as controlling" and "being a bit wordy and awkward" I know which one I would choose.

I will stop talking there however, as what you choose to do is your business.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:16 PM on July 5

“I thought this information might be helpful,”
“This article on mask-wearing had a graphic that changed my mind,”
“Not to belabor the point, I saw this video about how Mallard Fillmore actually contains a lot of right wing talking points, if you’re ever interested in continuing the conversation,”
But there’s only limited control you have over how you’re perceived, and without specifics it’s hard to provide more guidance (ie ARE you being controlling? Or is your family member just committed to making bad choices without blowback? )
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:32 AM on July 6

Try not presenting the information itself, but stating that you have some and offering to share it, if they would be interested. Other alternatives might include encouraging them to listen to advice they are getting or can get from a genuinely trustworthy source, rather than from you. If it is something where you feel very strongly that there is a right and wrong answer (eg mask wearing in the current situation) you may find it incredibly difficult not to come across as controlling unless you can really make peace with them taking the 'wrong' choice. And in general, you have to really try not to judge their choice - even as you care about the outcome.
posted by plonkee at 3:25 AM on July 6

"Oh, I read an article that gave me some new insights into that very thing...
"That choice came up for me once...
"That's a tough decision, and there's a lot of new/changing/complex information about X lately...
"I've gotten really nerdy about that topic. It's fascinating...

...let me know if you want the info I have / want to talk more about it / want a thought partner."

Another option is to "go upstream" in the process. You might want to give info directly related to the decision, but you can also interact with a different level of the process: "That's a tough/complex/strange situation to think about. How are you feeling about making that decision?" "How will you go about making that decision?" What sort of things are you considering as you make that decision?" Etc. And be open to them having no appetite for continuing the conversation.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:54 AM on July 6

Sometimes sharing information can read as passive-aggressive if there's an implicit request that doesn't get voiced. Is it possible something like that is going on here? Like "wow, the garbage can is really overflowing" vs. "can you take the garbage out?" I think there are some communication styles where the first one is more polite and some where the second one is, and maybe the people you're talking to are more of the second type.

That said, tone of voice matters too, but I find it hard to master and am not the right person to give advice on it.
posted by capricorn at 6:45 AM on July 6

At times, I have struggled with this too. It's not something you can necessarily fix by saying a certain set of magic words before each of your suggestions -- it's a process of building trust and communication over time. It sounds like you may be (inadvertently) communicating to your family members that you do not trust their judgement and/or that you don't feel comfortable unless you're in control of the information and decision-making. Walking that back is going to take time and practice, and it might require you to let go of some control. Here's what you're aiming to communicate (and hopefully believe -- communicating this insincerely is perhaps worse than not communicating at all):
- "I trust your judgement. You're an adult, capable of making your own decisions and gathering your information, and I respect that."
- "You have control over your own decisions and I have control over mine. I recognize that I can't make you do anything. I don't need to try to control your decisions in order to feel ok."

You can start to move towards that in practice by getting in the habit of asking for permission before offering suggestions. Do it non-judgmentally -- don't pressure them. It can also help to offer them an out. For instance:
- "Hey, are you interested in hearing suggestions on this? If the answer is no, that's fine too."
- "Are you open to suggestions about that? No pressure either way."
- "Are you interested in hearing suggestions, or are you more wanting someone to just listen?"
- "I have some ideas about $topic -- would you be interested in hearing them? If not, that's totally ok."

If they say "yes", then share your opinion. Don't go on at length about it. Don't pressure them into following it. Leave the ball in their court. "I'm thinking X, Y, Z, but of course the decision is yours." If at any point they start to seem uncomfortable with what you're saying, ask for permission again. "Is it ok if we keep talking about this, or would you rather I stop?" Learn to recognize the verbal & nonverbal cues that you are overstepping.

If they say "no", then DROP IT. Do not push. By respecting their boundaries, and doing so consistently, you are demonstrating with your actions that you respect their agency. You should fully expect that as you start doing this, you will often get a "no". That's ok. Live with it, feel what it feels like to accept it. You may find it very frustrating, or feel like what you have to say is so important that you need to override their "no". Don't give in to that urge! Only after they're sure that you'll respect their "no" will you start to get the occasional "yes".

Depending on your relationship, you may also be able to discuss this openly, acknowledging where you have overstepped in the past and letting them know you will be trying to do better. "I hear loud and clear that I have been pushing too hard with some of my suggestions. I really do trust your judgement and respect your right to make your own decisions, but I've realized that my actions are communicating the very opposite. I can't promise that I will do perfectly in the future, but I'm going to be making an effort to step back and give you some more room. Please let me know if you feel like I'm overstepping." Again, you'll need to follow up these words with actions.

After you have done this work for a while, you may start to build (or regain) trust. That can change a lot of things for the better, in ways that you may not anticipate. They may be more likely to hear and accept your suggestions, and you may feel like you don't need to offer as many suggestions. You may find yourself less stressed or worried about them. You may enjoy spending time with them more. I'm not sure how it will be for you, but I encourage you to stick it out and see what happens.

Please note that, in families where this type of overstepping happens, it can sometimes go in both directions. You may also sometimes be on the receiving end of unwanted suggestions. If so, you can say "no" to suggestions even if they haven't specifically asked for permission. "I'm not really taking suggestions on this at the moment, so let's talk about something else." If your family does work in this way, then this whole effort might be more challenging. Either way, consider working with a therapist if you feel like you could use more support.

Best of luck.
posted by ourobouros at 9:31 AM on July 6 [2 favorites]

Can you give us an example of an interaction where you thought you were (or were accused of) using a controlling communication style? Context and specificity would really help us figure out how to help you.

And in the meantime, my impression is that your Ask is a red herring, and your view of the problem is in need of reframing.

IMO you sharing information might be the problem - not (merely) your communication style. Off the top of my head I cannot think of many scenarios where sharing information with another adult without being specifically asked for said information, would not be an inherently condescending, high-handed, sticking-your-nose-in-others'-business type of act. Like -
  • If their decision is none of your business and you're sharing information in order to influence their decision one way or another, there's no change of wording that will hide your intent to control their actions.
  • If their decision will have a significant impact on you and you're sharing information with them in lieu of clearly stating your needs and openly owning your stake in their decision, then there's no change of wording that will neutralize your intent to control their access to your true position and motives and feelings.
So what do you do? Ditch the "Hi! Allow me to share some helpful information with you!" approach, and instead go for "Hi! I am feeling anxious about your decision. You know, the one that's none of my business? Yeah. That one. I know I've been controlling in the past and thanks to your feedback, I'm trying to change. I'm not going to give you any info or share my opinion unless you ask. And if I still make you feel controlled in some way, please tell me. I know my anxiety often leaks out. I'm still learning how to deal with it. Thank you so much for helping me be less controlling!" This approach is better because:
  • You're being honest about the fact that your own anxiety is what's driving your attitude, rather than their shortcomings which you're altruistically helping them correct by providing information.
  • You're directly asking your sibling or parent to meet your emotional need (patience with your missteps while you are learning to be better), risking their rejection or condemnation openly. This is radical vulnerability - the only way to build authentic intimate relationships.
  • This is an explicit request for emotional labor from your loved one for your benefit. Neither of you is being misled as to who is helping whom. Both of you will notice if the ledger is unbalanced. And if you find yourself asking for emotional labor from others more often than you're comfortable with, that is an EXCELLENT start to all kinds of self-reflection and self-correction, whether it's along the lines of "Maybe I shouldn't be so embarrassed to be vulnerable and admit I have emotional needs?" or whether it's more like, "Maybe I should learn to self-soothe when I am anxious."
The upshot of all the above combined is that YOU ARE CONSCIOUSLY STEPPING BACK FROM THE "POWER POSITION" (at the interpersonal level). You can't have control without power. Boom. Problem solved.
posted by MiraK at 11:02 AM on July 6 [4 favorites]

« Older can i eat this? future edition   |   Am I overreacting? Bad roommate situation Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments