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C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Talk

This lesson is a part of an audio course The Nature of Effective Communication by Dr. Dalton Kehoe

Unfortunately, in our lives, for every good thing, there is a bad – and in our talking lives, it's called C.O.N.T.R.O.L. talk.

We use what I call "light" CONTROL in our talk all the time. This happens when someone says something that we think is incorrect and we say, "Actually, I think it's the other way around…" or "Didn't that happen on Wednesday, not Tuesday?" It involves any disagreement where you momentarily try to get control of a conversation to make your point. In this form, light Control is not about us or about them, just about the content of the talk.

Of course, teachers use light Control endlessly in the classroom or in seminars. They need to get their points across in an orderly fashion. Again, this kind of talk is about the subject matter, not the other people in the room.

Whether we are presenting to a group or to one person we, unconsciously begin with the assumption that the people we're speaking to feel good about themselves. After all, we generally live lives based on C.O.N.N.E.C.T. talk, and that allows us to feel right in any situation. So unless our Control talk is aimed directly at them – we're attacking their ideas directly or them personally – their sense of self as a positive whole is likely being reinforced by our attention, and they can listen.

But what if the Control talk involved is aimed directly at them. What if we deliver critical comments, or in the heat of the moment – "cheap shots" – about them or their behavior? Again, if this happens in passing or for a moment, and perhaps with some humor, I call it light C.O.N.T.R.O.L. talk…it's meant to show our momentary frustration. Usually, they can ignore them or "cheap shot" us back.

However, what if we present our views on something and they intensely disagree. Or we're in a situation where we're trying to be nice, and they’re being persistently rude or dismissive to us?

Earlier, we called situations like this the 3D's – moments driven by Differences, Disagreements, and Disorder. Each one of these categories contains a potential threat to your sense of yourself as a competent speaker and person. That's why we hate them. They arouse powerful negative emotions within us.

Since you can't face the psychic pain of having yourself diminished or destroyed, you are driven to defend yourself and your ideas. You automatically respond with the first four elements of this second kind of talk we all share…C.O.N.T.R.O.L. talk.

In moments of threat, you are "hijacked" by your adaptive unconscious mind. When its limbic system processes incoming information as threatening, it instantly floods your mind and body with the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. This increases your heart rate by 100 beats in the next beat and intensifies your breathing as it prepares your body to do battle to defend your self. All this overwhelms the deliberative functions of the conscious mind. And the C.O.N.T.R.O.L. talk just starts. So just as we did with Connect talk, let's break it down.

You automatically respond to a threatening other with a "C." criticism that is intended to "O." overwhelm them by "N." neutralizing their words and implicitly "T" threatening their sense of self. If they resist your words or respond in kind – the stakes are automatically raised – "R." righteous anger appears inside of you and pushes you into an "O" overt Attack – on them. In effect, you are "L" – laying blame for the situation on them. Now you're no longer disagreeing, you intending to silence them.

Aggressive C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Talk is at the root of all of our negative talk.

It is a personal attack on the other person. We intend to overpower them – shut them up. We are driven to neutralize the power of their words or actions by threatening their sense of self with even more damaging words. It's personal.

The point of this is to negotiate a change in them so we can feel or be right. I call this persuasive C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Talk because we shift from the information-sharing style of C.O.N.N.E.C.T. to the rhetoric of informal persuasion. It is no longer, let me tell you my story; instead, it's let me tell you your story – "No, no, that's not it. Let me tell you how this really goes."

We do this without noticing the fact that, at best, this is an imposition, at worst, it's a form of psychological violence. We have reached into their minds and are telling them how they ought to think, feel, or believe about something. We may listen for a moment, but only for leverage – only for agreement with us or for weaknesses in their replies so we can undermine them. We may ask questions, but only to see if they agree with us – "Do you get it?" – or to trivialize their responses – "Are you kidding?" spoken with contempt. C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Talk is not really about them – it's about us.

Needless to say, most people actively resist being told how to think or feel about anything. Their self-esteem is on the line, too. They also need to feel right. So they resist our first efforts, and we have to repeat ourselves. Moreover, we somehow believe that repetition will compel them to give in. Most often, what happens is that our persistence generates more resistance, which is demonstrated in their intense use of C.O.N.T.R.O.L. on us.

As it goes on, C.O.N.T.R.O.L. talk escalates to blame. When we lay blame on others to solve problems, it relieves us of any responsibility. It tries to cut off the rise of competitive C.O.N.T.R.O.L. Talk from them – and the possibility of us having to take any responsibility at the end of the struggle.

At the non-conscious level, our adaptive unconscious automatically engages our "self-serving bias." Remember, we always take credit when things go "right for us" and blame other people or circumstances, when they don't. In these moments, our adaptive unconscious shifts our emotional stance from open and appreciative to closed and defensive. And in this process, C.O.N.N.E.C.T. talk instantly disappears. We become vigilant and defend ourselves.

For most of us with secure attachments, as described by Bowlby, this shift is situational. It only happens in those moments when our ideas are being criticized.

For the remaining 40% of the population whose parents used Control talk regularly to raise their children, they need to feel right at all costs is persistent. They just need to win to be OK with themselves.

No one wants their self-esteem undermined by being told their behavior is inappropriate, their ideas stupid, or that they have no say in the matter at hand.

"Just agree with me, and we're good" is not an option for most of us. So both people are now engaged in a classic argument – an interleaved series of "turning against" bid responses.

Awash in feelings of frustration, anger, and plausible negative arguments presented by their unconscious minds, each speaker's conscious mind plays the role of prosecutor or defense attorney. They search for "reasons." They utter arguments, assumptions, and judgments as they go. Moreover, they assert them as if they were stating objective facts, when they are uttering no more than automatic, "don't like" responses from their adaptive unconscious minds to protect their self-esteem and conversational face. Often, the loudest wins.

Surely, there must be a better way to solve problems than competing CONTROL talk. There is. It begins in our next segment.

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Written by

Dr. Dalton Kehoe

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