Stripping Down the Layers of Communication

Posted on May 14, 2014

layersDr. William Glasser developed the principles of Choice Theory, which in my opinion is the most workable model of modern counseling. He taught that there were five potential motivations for any of our behaviors:

1. Survival (food, clothing, shelter, breathing, personal safety and others)
and four fundamental psychological needs:

2. Belonging/connecting/love

3. Power/significance/competence

4. Freedom/autonomy, and

5. Fun/learning

With so many things motivating us, often we are affected by more than one motivation at a time.

For instance, consider a dating couple. He likes to attend hockey games and invites her to join him. She seems eager and yells loudly with all the fans at the game. What he does not know is that she is only mildly interested in hockey. So why is she getting so excited about the game?

First, he is excited about the game and she enjoys being around him when he’s thrilled about something. Second, she likes that feeling of being part of his inner circle that she gets when he invites her to a hockey game. Third–and she probably is unaware of this one–she feels like she now has the upper hand in the relationship since she has accompanied him to one of his fun exercises. So she has fulfilled three of her basic motivations: Fun, Belonging and Power.

But assume one day that she gets lost in the arena coming back from the snack bar and can’t find her seat. When she calls him on her cell phone, the noise of the crowd prevents him from hearing her call. She panics, and for fifteen minutes she lives in fear and anger. Finally, she goes out to the car and waits for him there.

When the hockey game ends, he goes out to the car, baffled as to why she didn’t return. She immediately gives him some multi-layered communication. Instead of telling him the story, she says this:

I hope you and your friends enjoyed your little game while I waited out here all alone”. Let’s break down what she is trying to say.

First, her need for safety has engendered fear and anger. She blames him for this, even though she is the one who was lost. She wants him to know how she is feeling.

Second, she no longer feels like she is in his favored circle since he didn’t come looking for her. Actually, she doesn’t really know if he did–all she knows is he didn’t find her. She wants to let him know she feels left out.

Third, she wants to regain her sense of control by making him feel demeaned.

Fourth, she needs to know she still matters to him.

The unfortunate thing is that there is no way he can understand all of this from the one thing she said. So instead of asking questions to find out what she’s talking about, he primarily hears her anger and responds to that. He feels defensive–after all, he didn’t really do anything wrong. He wrongly assumes that because she is angry, it is his responsibility to deal with that. It isn’t. People have a right to be angry with us and we are not required to respond in kind.

He asks her “What’s wrong with you?” He says this because he cannot understand why she is so angry at him. He doesn’t know about her fear, loss of control and sense of not belonging. So his question “What’s wrong with you?” makes matters worse. She is so devastated because she now feels the “not belonging” part more acutely. She refuses to speak to him on the way home. He is baffled by all of this because he didn’t understand the many layers involved with this process.

Several weeks later, they came to me for counseling. I normally don’t do counseling with both members of the couple at the same time. But after hearing their story, I decided a little teaching was in order. I explained the five different motivations that we all have. Then I had her tell me what she was trying to accomplish by going to the hockey game. After a few minutes she was able to accurately identify why this was important to her. Then came the crucial part: I had her analyze what was bothering her about getting lost. We all decided together that it was the sense of having failed her boyfriend and looking foolish in front of his friends.

I looked over at him as she came to this realization. As she explained this, I could see compassion on his face. He was concerned for her. This is what she wanted in the first place, but just didn’t know it. So I asked her how she could have expressed what was going on inside of her to make it easier for him to understand.

Like most people, she didn’t know.

So I walked her through it. First, she needed to understand what was bothering her. Most of our negative reactions come from the separation between our Ideal World and the Real World. The Ideal world is where all our motivations/needs are satisfied (Note: When has that ever happened?). The Real World is the place where only some of our needs/motivations are met. This is what engenders our reactions. So she needed to understand what she was feeling. If she wanted him to understand, she needed to express things in single layers. She needed to make sure he understood each layer. She would know she had accomplished this when the inner turmoil began to subside.

Here is what she came up with. She identified three single layered statements she needed to make that night:

“Honey, I was afraid because I was lost.”

“I hate feeling like an idiot, especially in front of your friends. I am afraid that I have slipped in your opinion of me”

“I was angry because I assumed you didn’t come look for me”.

When she expressed these three things to him, he understood. Because she saw his understanding, it ended all the difficulty between them.

When you feel these negative emotions, always ask yourself, “Which of my needs are not getting met?” and then, “Do I need to tell someone about this?”

Often, for God-followers, it is best to talk to God about these things first. After all, the Bible does say in Philippians 4:6-7:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

More about these verses in the next article.