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Communication Styles

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 37 - February 1999

Working as a psychotherapist brings one into contact with various styles of speech patterns. Many of these are habitual ways of disturbed communicating.

For example, we have all probably has the painful experience of listening to someone who floods the ear with extraneous words, a constant flow of verbal diarrhoea that has no sense or meaning – "logorrhoea" is the technical label. Such people love to drown us in useless verbiage, words that have little to say. But behind the barrier of speech lurks a half-hidden agenda: I want to confuse you so you'll leave me alone, or something like it.

Other speakers set up barriers in different ways – the tangential speaker somehow manages to take the conversation off-target. If you begin talking about his current wife, for example, he will shift the topic over to another direction – perhaps his aunt Susie. Again, the goal is to confuse the listener, to avoid bringing up painful areas of discourse.

Even more obvious is the "contrary speaker". His immediate ploy is to shift to the opposite side of where the talk has been heading. So, if I open with a gambit of – "last time we met you mentioned that you were quite depressed", he counters with, "No, I recall I was feeling elated", or some other 100% shift in the wind. Some of these characters will even insist that the weather is wonderful when it is pouring rain, anything to play contrary.

Related to this is the person who plays both sides – on the one hand this, but on the other hand that; I'm sure most of my readers have had lots of experience with this. Nothing is ever clear, all discourse is a misty two-sided glob, with him taking both sides at once. A good way to avoid any commitment.

This reminds me of the most wily of all: the broken-field runner. He will zig-zag this way and that way. Wherever you are, he takes another side of the field, like a football player who moves all over the pitch, skilfully avoiding the opposing team. This does make conversation extremely enervating! Some have an uncanny ability to shift the terms of any would-be dialogue so that one can never really pin them down as to what they actually mean. You never know where you have them, and this is, of course, their goal... to avoid responsibility.

The "yes-but" man manoeuvres in a similar fashion. He will agree with almost any statement under consideration, but always with a holding-back clause. "Yes... but..." and then he reverses himself and ends up somewhere else other than what was initially stated.

The next characterological type is endemic among psychologists and other academics – people who speak in incomprehensible jargon, coin new words, neologisms, which are often unknown to others, and shower the listener with so many abstractions that one has soon forgotten where one started.

We haven't yet considered the differences in external behaviour while speaking: some people stare you down, others never look you in the eye while speaking, but are constantly flitting about, etc. Then there is the tone of voice to consider: how about the guy who drones on with a monotone so that listeners are soon put to sleep. As a psychotherapist, one learns to listen to the music, not only the content of interpersonal speech patterns.

We have discussed various types of miscommunication patterns and now it is time to consider what to do when confronted by people who confound us with such mechanisms.

Of course, many people are quite pleased with the dysfunctional style they have used for a long time, and under no circumstances will they try to change. In fact, any criticism of their speaking style often elicits enormous anxiety and resistance in people. Remember, many people prefer not to communicate clearly with others, and then as a psychologist, it is only to accept their decision with a sigh and a short statement such as "Well, you are o.k. the way you are..." But, you may be missing something.

As a psychotherapist my job is to point out to patients what they are doing. Often they may not be aware, at least not at a level approaching awareness, of their mode of speech. Again, since I know it is painful to have one's speech patterns attacked directly, I proceed as gently as possible in bringing to their awareness my experience of their barricade of words. For example, I may say, carefully, "I hear you saying this... Are you aware that I can't follow your line of thinking here?"

Sometimes more directly, I say: "I don't understand what you are telling me; could you please repeat that in simpler, direct language." Or perhaps, more boldly: "I hear you saying this; do you mean that?"

For various patients, I may even suggest simple experiments: such as, for the next ten minutes, could you please try to speak in short sentences of no more than 4-5 words. (This for the practitioner of verbal obfuscation.)

Sometimes, depending on my own level of frustration and boredom, I yawn and say – "I don't follow any of this." Or "Is there some wall between us, I can't understand a word of what you are saying."

Naturally, in some cases, my attempts to clarify communication do not succeed at all, while at other times, there is a glimmer of awareness, and an attempt to change a lifetime of non-communicative speech which may lead to a true dialogue.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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