The Myth of Lowfat Communication


If you find yourself on a plane that is playing Judd Apatow’s film This is Forty, beware that watching it may actually make the plane ride feel longer, which seems impossible, given that it stars the delightful Paul Rudd.

But I mention it because it has a scene in which the protagonist couple tries to fight correctly, like their therapist taught them. They begin their communication with “I” statements, followed by feelings: “I feel sad when you lie to me.” Then, like good communication students, they pause, supposedly listen, and retort: “I feel scared when you overreact.” However, the structure quickly devolves into name calling and other therapeutically formatted attacks, e.g. “I feel you are an asshole.”

Why, when they “followed the rules,” was their fighting still so mean?

Because what each partner wanted, more than peaceful and clear communication, was to tear the other’s head off. When the aggressive impulse is lurking and leading underneath the content, no well-meaning model of communication stands a chance.

I’m sure you’ve been a recipient or giver of the dreaded “Oreo” form of feedback — in which you sandwich your complaint between two lovely pieces of praise. Perhaps you’ve studied non-violent communication, used “I” statements when reporting your hurts or repeated back what you heard your partner say in order to improve the chances of being understood. Although these and other models of “good” communication can be an important part of a well-balanced repertoire, I generally refer to programmed models of communicating as “lowfat communication.” Low or non-fat foods are packaged to be good for you, when in actuality the lack of fat (which is arguably good for you, but that’s another blogger’s cross to bear), is compensated for with toxic additives. What is sold as nutritious, can still be deadly.

What is so complicated about mastering conflict is that aggression cannot be cut out of the equation. Like all types of fat, all types of aggression are not bad for you. Some types are useful and actually healthy, and specific types, such as blame and violence, are lethal. When you try to remove all aggression via healthier means of communication, as in processed lowfat foods, it will be compensated for in passive and toxic ways.

More than correct format, effective communication requires that each person in a relationship take a moment to consider the intended outcome of the fight and the impact that the communication might have. Each partner must become aware of when their switch has been flipped and their desire to hurt, for protective or other reasons, has been activated. When the need to attack is present and overrides all other forces, it is extremely challenging to achieve self-control and make responsible choices. The impulse will be to continue fighting, but the more effective choice is usually to stop, tend to the upset, and re-group.

I invite myself and my clients to become familiar with their aggression through simple questions:

  • What does my body feel like when I want to attack or blame?
  • What happens to my heart?
  • What happens to the tone or quality of my voice?

This helps them to have choices in the heat of the moment, before they’ve crossed a line and created a rift that cannot be undone.

A large degree of emotional sophistication needs to be present in order to detect aggression within and make the right choices around it. Most people do not want to acknowledge their aggressive and destructive impulses because they are painful to bear witness to. “Not me! I am not angry,” they say, and in so doing, they cut themselves off from the very knowledge that will teach them about their sensitivities, their boundaries and their power. They may look at the characters on the screen or at the table next to them and say, “I would never act like that.” Then when they unconsciously slide into tantrums in the boardroom or the bedroom, their judgments render them blind to their own out-of-control behaviors. Such people will never fight fair. 

But really, there are no rules. Sometimes, as in the following example, giving way to aggression can be authentic and effective. I recently worked with an executive whose biggest fear was being accused of being a bitch. She was so disciplined and careful about not raising her voice or escalating with her staff that she went on frequent walks around the block and trips to the ladies room in an effort to diffuse her activated emotions. Her staff jokingly referred to it as her “time out.”

But there came a time when one of her directors pushed her too far. After being chided repeatedly for lateness or outright absence at important meetings, he lost his phone and was practically unreachable two days before an important deadline. He didn’t bother to let people know why he was out of contact because he thought they’d just try to reach him via email, but that was expecting a lot during a time when no one had extra time to plunk out complicated inquiries and directives.

When he flippantly defended himself on the matter, she authorized herself to give it to him. Somehow, after all these years of good behavior, she let her anger out full force, even in front of a few others. Miraculously, it was the right move. It finally alerted him to the impact he was having on the whole office, and others were relieved as well. People showed her respect. He was indignant at first, but quickly straightened up.

Because it has been a large part of the subject of my Relationship as a Team series, I have been rightly accused of “focusing a lot on fighting.” I stand by my belief that since conflict is an inevitable and healthy part of a working team, paying enough attention to master it is worth it.

So here’s what I want to say to you after four posts about fighting fair: Give yourself a break. Eat some real fat. Give your humanity, of which aggression is an irrepressible force, back to yourself. Learning how to fight well is a long journey, with many road bumps along the way, in which you will get lost, foggy, bruised, and yes, on occasion, even mean.

Let’s hope the casualties are few and far between.

And remember, Love Yourself, no matter what.

Do you resonate? How do you lead in relationship? Leadership skills can help reduce drama and increase fun, creativity and satisfaction in our relationships. Want to learn how to stand in your authority in intimacy? Don’t miss your chance, in the Intimate Authority Online Course

13 responses to “The Myth of Lowfat Communication”

  1. Alli Polin says:

    Blair – I’ve felt the presence of venom even when I knew the right things to say. Thing is, despite my nice I statements and feelings statements my partner could feel the presence of the venom too and when he tried to point it out, that’s when I exploded. You’re right – it’s important to know the physicality associated with the emotion so we can acknowledge its presence and fight not only a fair fight but an honest one without the hurt or the venom leading the way. Thanks!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Alli,
      Thanks for that story. I’ve been there too. One time, after many mishaps, I felt how angry I was, which was a win, but I couldn’t bring myself to disengage, so I just kept repeating, “I’m so mad!” and it actually helped to diffuse things.

  2. Samantha says:

    Great post Blair!

    I couldn’t help but pause when you mentioned you have been rightly accused of focusing a lot on fighting. Well, I’m glad you DO spend time focusing on it because avoiding it doesn’t make conflict go a way nor does it cause anger, frustration, and irritation to magically evaporate in our day to day lives and relationship encounters.

    If ONLY it worked that way! : )

    Since my post about anger and now, what you are touching on here is about the same area that is part of the shades of grey I’ve been exploring. I’ve sort of covered the gamut in considering various views from both psychology and religion. And there are even differing views in psychology on how to address anger when it arises; such as the days when it was recommended people run out and beat up trees or yell, hit and scream at dolls or yell and hit pillows, etc. Some say that’s effective while others believe it makes anger worse because it is rehearsing/practicing anger instead of actually addressing it.

    Same when it comes to what you pointed out in this post regarding conflict and the “I feel statements…’

    I’ve been there in my own life. Even in the present. Where I ‘KNOW’ what the so called ‘appropriate’ psycho lingo is and we can go through the motions verbally all we want. Yet when anger is present….those words aren’t going to be able to mask what we are really feeling at the time. It naturally infuses the words regardless of what those words are.

    On the one hand, yes, we want ‘civility’. We don’t want people flying off the handle, going postal, and killing each other. On the other, we don’t want to be so detached from authentic emotion that we aren’t allowing those natural feelings to do what they are intended to do. Communicate to us when something is or isn’t in alignment with our highest good. (could be internal as well as external factors)

    For example, I feel passionately frustrated about a particular circumstance in my life in the present. When people fear anger, we will tend to want to avoid any and all ‘passion’ in our voices and behaviors etc.

    Well…I feel frustrated because I happen to CARE about the ‘situation’. My feelings may not CHANGE the situation at all. However, at least it lets me and others involved KNOW that I DO care about it! As a human being, are we to simply dispassionately LAY DOWN and call it a day and avoid letting our feelings be known? Do we just accept everything with no fight? No zeal? No reaction at all?

    I can’t always do that.

    I want to be able to manage emotions so that they don’t cause harm to myself or others. However, I don’t really have the goal of striving to be EMOTIONLESS in my daily life. There’s a difference.

    Thanks for writing this post. When I write my next post on anger I’ll be adding this one as an additional reference.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks so much for your well-balanced and honest perspective. There is a fine line! Passion is the meat of many an impactful speech. Attacking is not okay but we still feel the impulse and must manage it. Here is the link to your fabulous anger post which summarizes much of what you said and has lots of other important information on how to manage it. I appreciate your reading and comments, Samantha.

  3. Lalita Raman says:

    Lovely reminder and post Blair. I have realized that keeping pent up emotions doesn’t hold in good stead for ourselves in the long run. Being emotionally aware and having a sense of EI doesn’t mean not expressing. I think the key is being aware and thereafter being mindful in the moment of choice.

    You have mentioned some great points.

    Thank you

    • Blair Glaser says:

      You nailed it and it is a lofty task, isn’t it Lalita? To know that keeping things pent up is not useful, but expressing with full force can be even worse? I recommend in the Fighting Fair series that each person find a way to release the excess of their triggered feelings as best they can on their own, with their own practices, in their own time, and come to the understanding of what needs to be said for moving the relationship forward. Thanks for reading, sharing and for your insightful comment.

  4. Terri Klass says:

    What an authentic post, Blair! I agree that healthy conflict is essential for teams to achieve great things. Having said that, I also know that we each have our own way of managing conflict and knowing that about ourselves is essential.
    I am not fearful of conflict and have learned over the years that it is far better for me to say something initially rather than let it churn. I have also learned that it is so important to be respectful of the other person’s point of view while still stating my wants, needs and desires.
    Great post and series, Blair!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks so much, Terri! Great point — each has his or her own way of managing conflict, and knowing that information is so important. I love what you say about being respectful of the other’s point of view. I speak a lot about that in the post about Translating as a skill – the ability to read and interpret the other’s behavior from their perspective. Thanks again for your reflections!

  5. Tom Rhodes says:

    Blair,
    This is a great post. Over the years I have tried to find a way to let my emotional switch trip earlier and softer. I found that the build up could cause emotional explosion not solutions. So I moved the switch to where I address things earlier and calmer making for better results.

  6. A refreshing and insightful read! Learning to embrace conflict has been and continues to be a big part of my inner schooling. I think what you say above about ‘fighting fair’ is a helpful way to think about standing up for ourselves without putting down another and also in helping us to acknowledge where we might have gone wrong without feeling as though we’ll never recover from such an admission which is what usually prevents us from wanting to admit have done something wrong. I guess because all too often we think that being wrong and doing wrong are the same thing and so leads us to want to see ourselves as ‘being right’? I also love that quote about being willing to see the impulses within us that we find hard to stomach just because they don’t fit with the picture we have of ourselves or the picture we want to others to see. Finally, I especially appreciated what you said about the desire to hurt stemming from a desire to protect. I think that seeing where it is coming from helps us to characterize the impulse as neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good’ but as ultimately rooted in love. If we condemn those impulses in others because we don’t think they are part of who we want to be (or appear to be), then we’ll condemn the very same ones when they appear in ourselves. But seeing any given impulse as ultimately rooted in love makes such an impulse something we can look at more easily and accept in order to begin to understand it…and ourselves. When I think of things this way, it begins to make more and more sense, and I feel a sense of relief. I literally feel this sense of relief as I’m typing that I can be that much more accepting of the rough and sharp edges of things I might do or say. Thank you for sharing the link in your newsletter of today! p.s. You mentioned above that this is part of a series? Just a thought: Can you add the links to the other ones in the post above? I did a search and found part 1 and will go from there to see the others.

    • And…actually to bring it full circle, I feel this opens me up to being more understanding of the rough and sharp edges of the deeds and speech of others (though that understanding doesn’t obligate me to indulge it). And it makes them seem less threatening if ever they do embark on a tirade or the like. SO, yes, thank you!

      • Blair Glaser says:

        Yes! Admitting we are wrong can be so difficult, and we often fight just so we don’t have to! I hadn’t thought of these impulses as being rooted in love, but, as always, Manisha, your insights and reflections make the post better, clearer and more easily digestible!
        I love that your thinking helped you take the whole sharp edges thing less personally and ultimately relax about conflict. I think that is THE MOST important aspect of becoming skilled at it: to realize it’s natural, inevitable, and pretty creative. And . . . here is a link to the whole Leadership in Relationship series! Thank you for your interest! http://blairglaser.com/blog/category/leadership-in-relationship-series/

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