Category Archives: Communication

An advice for women who want to be taken seriously

American society seems to be more divided than ever, and one of those divisions is between women seeking to be respected and macho “meninist” backlash. The whole society is steeped in two seemingly opposing, but similarly traditional influences upon women; one is religious pressure on women to be compliant and traditionally feminine; the other are ever-present mass-media models of girly and sexy behavior. Lately I notice those models are changing slowly, which is a good sign.

Yet it often surprises me how women in American-made videos, even those made by anonymous Youtube users, seem focused on their appearance, from over-the-top makeup to high-pitched or throaty voices that often sound childish or simply unnatural. Also their non-verbal language too often seems focused on how they look or how much sex-appeal they project, rather than the meaning of what they are saying, or projecting their own personality. The whole impression makes it sometimes difficult to look beyond the facade and see an actual individual.

Just like boys and men often “buy into” models of toxic masculinity, girls and women often “buy into” models of toxic femininity. This might feel natural for people who grew up surrounded with such models, but for those who grew up in a more moderate environment, it all seems very fake and lacking personality. I dare say it would influence subconsciously even people who are used to this.

In most of Europe, it’s normal for adult women to talk in voices about an octave lower than American women, and to project much less sexy and much more “utilitarian” behavior. (Lately, there are plenty of young girls imitating American female models from mass media, complete with “voice burn”,  but they usually grow out of it by age of 25 or so.) I’m not saying this by itself is enough to eradicate patriarchate, but it certainly encourages a more balanced relationship between genders.

Realistically, how easy is it to take seriously someone who sounds like they are 12 or even 5 years old, especially if they seem overly focused on their looks on top of that? I would like to believe it’s only common on television and in movies, but those few times I visited America it seemed that most women were following such role models. It was quite common to hear a 50+ ys old woman sounding more like a 5 ys old, at least from the perspective of a different culture.

Toxic femininity is not so often talked about compared to toxic masculinity, probably because it’s less threatening and less likely to have harmful consequences for others. Yet it has subtler but pervasive consequences for the women who follow that model (and, by extension, women in general). In theory, people should respect you and see you as a person no matter how you look and sound. In reality, people will form instinctive biases based on your looks and behavior, and if you seem focused on a shallow self-image, people will form a shallow perspective of you, too.

So my advice for women is: sure, use some makeup, but not so much that it makes you look like a plastic doll. When you talk, project your personality and your message into your speech, not the desire to be attractive (or even the need to appear overly confident, which can also come across as fake). Try to develop a deeper voice pitch, it instantly makes you sound more adult and more genuine. Michelle Obama is a good example, and she is widely respected and perceived as a complete person (at least among everybody who doesn’t harbor visceral hatred towards what she represents). To take an example from mass media, compare the voice and behavior of Catniss Everdeen in “Hunger Games” movies to the voices of Capitol women. Who is more likely to be perceived as a genuine person?

Focus on projecting who you are. Let go of the image you think society expects from you. If you are deeply steeped into such a role, you might first work on connecting to your real self, discovering who you truly are. This can make your life happier and more balanced on many levels.

Communication styles: directing and informing

Amongst many other details when it comes to relationships and communication, it’s useful to be aware of the difference between two basic ways to express a wish or a request: directing and informing.

Directing style expresses a wish, a request or a demand directly: “Shut the window”, or more gently: “Shut the window, please”, “Would you mind shutting the window?”, or even, “Maybe you could shut the window?” Regardless of all the added courtesies and mollification, the request is still clear and unambiguous.

Informing style is descriptive and indirect; it gives information in which a suggestion or a wish is implied as a possibility, for example: “It’s too noisy in here with the window open!” Informing people prefer to motivate than to express expectations.

Needless to say, the difference between these two communication styles can often cause misunderstanding and frustration. An “informant” might ask, “Would you like an ice-cream?” when it’s actually they who would like an ice-cream. “Directing” people might not understand the embedded wish, so if they say, “No”, the possibility of compromise might be lost. “Informing” people then might hear “No” as a refusal of their own wish, rather than a statement of personal preference by a “directing” person.

People who use directing style might simply not notice when a request is expressed in an informing way, which might make the other person feel ignored or dismissed. If they do recognize the embedded request, “directing” people might perceive it as manipulative, passive-aggressive or even victimy. They prefer to have clarity: first, is it a request? Second: what kind of request it is? Third, how important it is? They can find informing style way too … uninformative.

“Informing” people, on the other hand, might perceive directing style as bossy, especially if used without “please” or “would you”. They might feel that such a style gives more importance to a request than to people, which is what they wish to avoid. This is not how “directing” people perceive it; for them, it’s all about clarity.

Another example of communication used by “informing” people might be “Did you… ?” instead of “Would you… ?” For example, “Did you pack a bottle of juice?” instead of “Would you pack a bottle of juice?” A “directing” person might again be frustrated with the implication of unexpressed expectation.

I remember a conversation quite a long time ago, when a friend of mine said she preferred to imply a wish indirectly, so if other people wanted to refuse it, they wouldn’t have to say “No” directly, which might feel uncomfortable to some. I replied that I preferred to know if there was a wish at all, instead of wondering what was implied. A “directing” person might not recognize that the ambiguity is meant as courtesy and might even perceive it as lack of integrity. This is one of the reasons why, when working with couples, we repeatedly warn people: “Presume good intentions!

On the other hand, “informing” people can sometimes misunderstand a simple information as an embedded request, even when there is no request. This is understandable – if we use a certain communication style, we expect other people to use it too. This can be frustrating for such people if they feel they cannot fulfill the request or even understand it. If such a person is a man receiving an information from a woman (for example, when a woman just needs to vent her emotions), confusion and frustration can be even more pronounced, considering that men often have an urge to “fix women’s problems” (I’m not sure how it works with homosexual couples!) The person who gave the information might then be confused and frustrated that the information was understood as an indirect request when it wasn’t meant to be.

There is no “good” or “bad” here (although personally I definitely prefer clarity!). It’s important to recognize and appreciate these two communication styles, instead of blaming other people for using a different one than you. All by itself, this little difference probably doesn’t mean much if a relationship is good, but it can act like “fuel on the fire” if a relationship is already in a mess.

Dealing with fighting parents

Instead of a long post, this time I came to share a genius solution which one of our training students in Zagreb, Croatia came up with when either of her parents tried to turn her against the other.

Her parents continually tried to argue through her, such as, “Your mother did that”, “Your father said that” etc. This is sadly common. When fighting parents use such passive-aggressive strategies,  this often creates huge problems for young children, such as anxiety, low self-esteem, responsibility problems and chronic inner conflict. How did she deal with this in her younger age, we didn’t ask at that time, but here is what she came up with as an adult:

She told her parents: From now on, if you insist on telling me what the other one said or did, you have to refer to the other one as “my chosen one”. No more “your father” or “your mother”. If you want me to listen, you can only say, “My chosen one did this”.

Genius, isn’t it? Such a simple expression that makes it very clear whose is the responsibility. Non-aggressive, truthful, argument-proof, although, sadly,  not necessarily fool-proof. Do your parents fight through you? Try this! And let us know what happened.

Personal courage

For sensitive people, it can be difficult to express an unpopular opinion. You might write something publicly – an article, a comment – only to find out later that your words were twisted to extremes and savagely attacked. You might pour your heart and longings in front of the world, only to be mocked or dismissed with artificial, cold politeness.

You might object to generalizations of all sorts – generalizations against Muslims, against Western society, against hypocritical “patriotism”, against the passive-aggressive lamentations about “humans being so much worse than animals (author and his/her friends excluded, of course)” etc.  You might object to pseudoscience and extreme views. You might feel that you are trying to be friendly and helping people let go of prejudice and come to a mutual understanding. The problem is, this is not what many people want.

We are wired to defend our prejudice. We are wired to defend people we feel close to, even against evidence that they might have done something wrong. Those generalized, extreme ideas help people feel more powerful and better than others. They will not take it lightly if you try to take them away. They will easily find excuses to attack you. You might write about people being kind and compassionate – and somebody will always find a way to interpret it as if you suggested that their dear old grandmother should be strangled in her sleep.

Should you give up and stop bothering? The pain of rejection might make you feel that it’s not worth it. Your need to belong, your instinct to be a part of a group, might scare you into avoiding trouble, especially after many unpleasant surprises already behind you.

But it’s not about changing other people – or at least not specific other people, or at least not quickly. It’s about being true to your conscience and your values. You are putting your thoughts out there, not to elicit a specific reaction, but to be at least one voice in midst of many, perhaps a voice that might make some small difference here and there. Even more than that, it’s about supporting yourself in face of fear and pain.

Some people will hide between artificial, oversimplified “political correctness” to avoid talking about complex problems. Some people will misunderstand your words, whether accidentally or semi-deliberately. Some might try to insult or frighten you into submission.

But it’s not about fighting them. It’s about gently, lovingly challenging yourself to be brave, to own your words, to make mistakes and learn. That is courage. Sometimes you will choose wrong words. Sometimes you will make assumptions based on inaccurate data or rumors. Sometimes you will be perfectly correct and reasonable, but people just won’t like what you say. And twisting words is so easy.

Yet for every person who attacks you, there might be three that are silently considering what you said. Perhaps they cannot find courage to approve you publicly, but it doesn’t mean that you were unheard and unappreciated. Aggressive people are usually the loudest, and gentle people are more likely to observe in silence. Still, they are there and they are many.

If you expose yourself, you will often be attacked. Sometimes you will be wrong, even if you take care to write with highest integrity. Your mistakes will be used against you. Yet, every mistake means that you are building wisdom. How could you become wise if you avoid experiences? Slowly, you might become slightly more bulletproof, even if expressing unpopular opinion might never be easy. But you will feel alive – much more alive than if you were hiding like a hermit crab in its shell.



Are you critical to others?

Criticism can have different causes, but one often overlooked is fear.

Is it difficult for you to set boundaries? Do you have trouble saying “No”, or do you avoid conflicts? If you doubt your ability to defend yourself, you might expect people to know in advance where your boundaries are, and respect them without you needing to remind them. That is very unlikely to happen.

Even if people didn’t have toxic role models (and most do),  our genetic diversity includes different levels of emotional sensitivity or empathy, and different temperaments. What is hurtful to one person might be normal to another. Think about sensitivity to noise: a noise that might be distracting and stress-inducing for one person, might be stimulating or barely even noticeable to another. Emotional sensitivity is similarly different amongst people.

Some people come from families in which raising voices, disagreeing and arguing was normal – most of the time perhaps even friendly. People from quieter families might be totally unprepared for such communication style.

It get’s worse if one’s family was aggressive or manipulative – if a child was controlled through guilt, fear or shame. Anger is a natural, instinctive reaction to guilt, fear and shame. Such people, even as adults, might respond with anger as soon as their guilt, fear or shame threaten to raise their heads. Those emotions might not be realistic – it might just be an automatic reaction to small triggers.

People whose boundaries weren’t respected in their childhoods, will probably have learned to suppress their anger and avoid expressing themselves. Fear and anger in combination may lead to criticism. You might call people irresponsible, rude, selfish or stupid in the privacy of your own mind. You are also likely to resort to passive aggression. Perhaps it is so normal to you that you barely even notice when you do that. Even if you notice, you might feel that there is no other choice.

People cannot read your mind. We are already dealing with so many other influences every single minute of our lives. It’s so easy to be distracted if nothing else. Misunderstandings happen for all kinds of reasons – and if not clarified, can lead to complex, unnecessary consequences.

Also, it seems to be almost an instinct for most people to take whatever they feel they can get. If somebody is pliable, easy to manipulate, insecure or overly generous, few people have the self-awareness and self-discipline to notice when they start exploiting the situation and to stop themselves from doing so. If somebody is more insecure than you, do you feel an urge to dominate? This is an instinct that might be weaker in some people, and stronger in others.

Criticism won’t help. The first step (a sequence of steps, more likely) is to deal with inhibiting emotions from childhood and learn to empower yourself. The second step is to learn new habits – clarity, standing up for yourself, communication skills. This might include choosing new role-models.

The first few times you try a new approach might be frightening. You need to be well prepared for anything that might happen and willing to support and comfort yourself. But you will survive; if you make mistakes you will learn something from them, and each time you will feel stronger and more comfortable, until you feel confident in your ability to cope with people. Perhaps then you will notice that criticism doesn’t feel so necessary anymore, that it doesn’t come so automatically.

The more you feel willing and able to protect your boundaries, the more you can feel relaxed amongst people and even tolerate some of their less pleasant traits. Still, it’s normal to feel some level of discomfort if somebody is behaving in unhealthy or threatening ways. Emotional discomfort is a normal and healthy warning signal. There is a huge difference, though, between adult and childish emotional discomfort. If your emotions are adult, you will be motivated rather than debilitated.

5 reasons to hate manipulation

Quite often, when discussing or reading discussions about manipulative marketing and other ways in which individuals cheat other people out of their hard-earned money (or time, or energy, or anything), I see people admiring skillful manipulators. Many will describe successful manipulators as “smart”, “brilliant strategists”, basically as people to follow and model. Some people are convinced that manipulation is “just a business strategy” and therefore justified.

I wish I could grab those people and shake them. I’m not so surprised at the blatant, open lies that manipulators are happy to present to their fellow humans. I’m much more surprised and frustrated seeing the praise and support such attitude often receives.

Some months ago I was reading a book about recognizing manipulative strategies. While the author was advising his readers how to be prepared and avoid being cheated and damaged, his admiration for “social engineering” (the sugar-coated term for manipulating others for personal profit) was screaming from every page. Between the lines, that book was much less about how to protect yourself, and much more about the thrill of deception.

I find manipulation despicable for several different reasons. While I cannot hope that my opinion would make any significant dent in global marketing strategies, I can at least vent my frustration in a socially acceptable and hopefully useful form here. I’ve already shared some of my thoughts about manipulation in this article, but now I have some more to write here:

1. Manipulation preys on what is good in people. Manipulators focus on people’s hopes, dreams, desire to be kind, or simply basic trust in others, and think of all kinds of ways to exploit these traits. (Of course, they also prey on people’s fears and greed, but this doesn’t diminish the truth of the previous statement.)

As a consequence, people become less and less friendly, less and less trusting, and more and more cynical and closed towards each other. I’ve read articles about experiments in which people were offered money in the streets, out of the blue, no strings attached, and most refused to take it. The authors of those experiments would write about how surprised they were with such a mistrustful attitude, and would lament “human nature”.

But can we really blame anybody for being suspicious, when we live surrounded by lies and deception, more and more elaborate each day and ignored by laws and governments? If that “free money” was just a scam, if people decided to trust and were cheated as a consequence, they would have probably been blamed as greedy or stupid. So it comes to “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. People become cold to each other, and manipulators are to blame.

2. Manipulation is a form of violence. Centuries ago, it was common and quite normal for people who had big swords to hurt or kill anybody who was weaker. You didn’t need excuses to send people to war. You often didn’t need excuses to kill somebody just for looking at you in a wrong way. People who had swords and skill to use them, were proud of their physical power and considered themselves above others because they possessed such power.

Many people nowadays have the same attitude towards manipulation. Instead of physical power, they consider it a proof of mental, intellectual power over others. Feeling of power is very seductive. It can encourage us to make excuses for abusing other people. Just like physical bullies, “intellectual” bullies feel that their skill gives them right to hurt others.

In reality, it’s less about skill and more about willingness to act out of integrity, willingness to damage other people for one’s personal profit. Just like many physically strong people don’t become bullies just because they can, many intelligent people choose not to manipulate even if they could do it very well. For me, this is what proves mental strength, not being skilled in cheating others.

3. Manipulators blame their victims. It’s not just an excuse, it’s a whole strategy. I read about a court in America that declared certain lying marketers “not guilty” because “no sane person would believe such marketing” (or something like that, I’m quoting from memory). Unfortunately, I can’t find the link anymore, but even if that story was false, the reality shows that this exact approach is in use all the time, by individuals and organizations.

Many times I’ve heard or read people comment, “Well, if people are so stupid to fall for this, it’s their own fault!”

I want to make something clear here (I wish I didn’t have to, but it seems ignored most of the time). It’s not a crime to be stupid. It’s not a crime to be naive. Close to half of all people have below average intelligence, that’s pure math. It’s the matter of genes and upbringing, which nobody has the chance to choose for themselves. Some people are officially stupid. It’s not their fault. Some people are insane. It’s not their fault either. They didn’t choose their disabilities. The crime is in intentional, elaborate deception, not in mental (dis)ability.

Besides, many times it’s less about stupidity and more about lack of information, lack of experience and perhaps about basic trust in people. But of course, it’s easier to call people stupid because this is a better excuse. People who cheat and manipulate others will also cheat and manipulate themselves (for their own benefit, of course).

4. Manipulation dehumanizes people. Manipulators think themselves special, better than others. They treat other people like machines, trying to figure out how they work and how to exploit brain mechanisms. They reduce people to blobs of primitive instincts and treat them that way, often quite openly. They have to do it, in their own minds, to justify their own lack of integrity (except if they are psychopaths, but I refuse to believe that psychopathy is so common).

When people try to manipulate me, they basically declare that they see me as an inhuman object, there to be exploited and not worthy of a straight approach. When I see other people admiring deception and hoping to “jump that train” themselves, I can expect that there will soon be even more of that attitude going around. I cannot change it. But I reserve the right to be irritated.

Lately I almost feel like there is a sort of informal “cult” of deceptive marketing; so many young, ambitious people get almost religious in their enthusiasm for the benefits of such strategies. They choose to ignore all the consequences and their own inner warnings, just like cult members. Just like in cults, they feel themselves better, almost somehow “chosen” over others.

5. It bloody works. It works way better than I would like to admit. People like magic and big promises. Many people like to be sold hope, even if they suspect that they are being cheated. We all like to believe that magic is possible. Quite a few people continue paying for same products or services even when they obviously don’t help. They basically pay for hope, not for reality. This gives wings and motivation to anybody who values money more than integrity – and it’s so easy to find excuses to do so.

I wish I could say it isn’t so. I wish I could claim that the benefits of manipulation are temporary and long term consequences overshadow the advantages. But it would be like telling faery-tales. I could probably say that manipulative people are not likely to have successful intimate relationships. On the other hand, most such people don’t seem to care so much about relationships anyway – and, just like people with big swords centuries ago, they are often surrounded by flatterers.

I don’t see that things would change any time soon. I can only hope that this is a stage we have to go through to learn something from it. Perhaps in a few centuries, the society will grow up enough to start rejecting and punishing manipulative behavior, just as in modern times it (more or less) rejects and punishes physical violence. This is a tricky task, but if that happens, the world will become a happier place.


Just a small everyday confusion

We had a young construction worker over these days, who did some stuff around our house. A couple of days back, my partner and I made a trip to the town to get some supplies. Soon after we came back, the construction guy came and asked me in a hushed tone if my partner was angry. (Spoiler: he wasn’t.) I thought he said “hungry” instead of “angry”,  so I said: “I’m not sure… but I certainly am!”

I could see his eyes getting big, so I checked quickly and we clarified it easily. Years back, I probably would have dismissed it as unimportant or would have been too shy to ask. I imagine many arguments start over similar kind of misunderstanding, when people don’t notice or don’t react to non-verbal communication. Wise of our construction guy to check if his presumption was right, too!

Soon your family will probably gather for Christmas holidays and you’ll have much more free time to communicate than in most other days. Pay attention to small details. Happy holidays!