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Controlling Through Denial: “That’s Not What I Said”

·702 words·4 mins
Communication Relationships

“I need you to come to the office as soon as you can,” my editor said.

“O-o-h okay,” I stammered. After all, the phone call was pretty confusing. Usually he emailed me.

“And bring your tapes,” he said, before hanging up.

I was there within the hour and handed him the cassette tape from my last assignment.

“Thanks,” he said. “Sit down.”

And I did.

“So I had a couple of angry people come by this morning, all related to your last story,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “But all I did was write down what they said.”

“That’s why I called you in. I need to know if I’m going to fire you or promote you.”

He played the tape I’d given him, and the superintendent’s raspy voice was there. Complaining about the new teaching candidate. And city council. And the last 4 teachers they had hired.

When I had first arrived at the school board meeting, the board members had plied me with biscotti and handed me a media slick, a summary of the meeting that hadn’t happened yet. “It’ll be an easy assignment and you probably won’t be needing those,” they said, gesturing to my notebook and tape recorder.”Enjoy yourself.” But they spent the entire meeting, a public one, off agenda, talking about other things, mostly complaining.

My editor stopped the tape.  “I’ve heard enough. Good job.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“What worries me is that you were just filling in. Makes me wonder what was going on there before with the other reporter  since they felt like they could just hand you whatever and you would print it,” he said.

“Well, it was really good biscotti.”

Controlling by Not Understanding

My experience as a fledgling newspaper reporter has come in handy time and time again.

It taught me to pay special attention to people who are uncomfortable when their own words are repeated back to them.

Healthy functional communication, especially during times of conflict, requires that both parties repeat and paraphrase what the other has said. Counselors train to do this, and many good listeners learn this intuitively. However, a very common controlling habit is when a person refuses to accept any paraphrase and may even reject direct quotes of what they’ve just said to you. You can repeat their exact words back, and they tell you, “That’s not what I said.”

You may even find that they argue one thing, you acknowledge it, and they turn around immediately and argue the opposite, putting you into double binds. It’s almost as though they’re on the run from you. In a way, they are.

Since the goal of communication is ultimately to understand one another, if they refuse to let you understand their point of view, then in a twisted sense, they “win.” And wearing you out through your efforts to connect with them is a one-two punch. You become so exhausted that you don’t have time to make any points of your own.

What to Do

On its own, this controlling habit stops short of abuse. However, it’s definitely a good wake-up call. It may just be a signal to evaluate the relationship and look for other patterns that might be problematic. One way you can test the ability to address the behavior is politely pointing it out when it happens and observing their reaction. It’s best to do this in an undramatic fashion. Assume good will until proven otherwise.

If they deny or dismiss the behavior, then you may want to limit contact with them, if you can. This might work with an acquaintance, a coworker, or perhaps even a metamour. With someone you’re more enmeshed with, like a serious romantic partner,  counseling can play an important role, depending on the severity of the behavior.

For a really good step-by-step framework on how to have these kinds of difficult discussions and have them go well, I recommend Crucial Conversations.

Keep in mind that repeat offenders may find it tough to break the habit. This is because many times people deal with anxiety through subtly controlling or critical behavior. As a result, they can be very invested in repeating those patterns, as they use them to cope.



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