What’s Your Communication Type?
People’s communication styles generally fall into four types: placater, blamer, computer and distracter. Awareness of these styles as they appear in families, in couples relationships, or as you engage with the world at large, and learning to replace them with a more authentic style, can improve communication. While we may be able to communicate with integrity in non-emotional situations, in stress situations involving our self-esteem, most of us adopt one of these four communication styles to hide our feelings.
1. Placater: apologetic, eager to please (hides fear)
2. Blamer: fault-finding, critical (hides pain)
3. Computer: super-reasonable, abstract (afraid of feelings)
4. Distracter: irrelevant, talkative (afraid of reality)
We tend to learn these communication styles early in the life. As we mature, we may come to understand their inappropriateness, but when we are triggered, we may revert to these earlier defense mechanisms.
People use these styles to avoid the threat of rejection. We placate so that the other person doesn’t become angry. We blame so that the other person thinks we’re strong. We compute by using big words to show our self-worth; we distract in hope that the threat will go away.
Suppose you’re on a family vacation and the car suddenly loses power. Dad, the blamer, driving, pulls to the shoulder as the car comes to a stop, then turns to his teenage son: “This is all your fault! You must have done something to the engine when you were out last night.” Mother, the placater, turns to her husband and says, “It’s probably my fault. I should have had the car checked at the service station before we left.” Son, the computer, says, “Statistically there’s less than a 1% chance of failure with this type of engine.” Daughter, the distracter, says “Let’s use our cell-phone and order a pizza.” We observe that while each member of the family models a different communication type, none really deals with the current problem.
Of course, it’s unlikely to have this particular make-up in a family. Virginia Satir, who devised these labels, estimates that roughly 50% of the population are placaters, 30% are blamers, 15% are computers, and ½% are distracters. (If you’re doing the math, that means that only 4 ½ % communicate authentically, but Satir’s associates have said that even that figure is much too high.) But the gender stereotypes do seem to apply: men tend to be either blamers or computers; women tend to be either placaters or distracters.
You can read passively about these communication styles, but in order to really appreciate how they work, it may be useful to role-play each one. Often our bodies respond to a threat to self-esteem. Virginia Satir devised physical stances that exaggerate aspects of each style to make them obvious. Putting the body into a particular posture also helps to invoke certain feelings that might not otherwise come into awareness.
As a placater you get down on your knees, fold and lift your hand, and raise your head so that your voice comes out whiny. You imagine being so worthless that you’re grateful that other people allow you in the same room, breathing the same air. Naturally you accept any criticism they have to offer because you have no personal value of your own. You’re lucky they’ll even talk to you. While you’re in this position, practice saying things like, “I’m helpless; I’m worthless; whatever you want; never mind about me.”
As a blamer you stand with one hand on your hip, the other arm extended with finger pointed. Your throat muscles become tight, your eyes bulge and your nostrils flare. Others are responsible for anything that goes wrong and you are eager to let them know it. You point at one person after another and tell them what they’ve done wrong. It doesn’t matter whether you’re accurate; the main thing is to exert your power. When you’re in this posture, practice saying things like, “What is the matter with you? I am the boss around here; you’re just like your mother (father, etc.).”
As a computer you sit on a chair with legs crossed, hands folded on one knee, and you speak in a dry monotone. Practice being completely motional, as if you were channelling an enormous supercomputer. Use the longest words you can think of, whether you really understand their meanings or not. Nobody else will understand them anyway, so it will make you appear smarter. Remember to keep every trace of emotion out of your voice. Think of HAL in the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey. While in this posture, practice saying things like “I’m calm, cool and collected; everybody knows that …; obviously …”
As a distracter you put your knees together in an exaggerated knock-kneed position, hunch your shoulders, stick your buttocks out, and send your arms and hands flailing in opposite directions. Think of those giant blow-up toys that you sometimes see advertising sales. Your limbs move all about so that your movements distract other people. Interrupt other people with remarks that have nothing to do with the conversation at hand. Stare off into space, or pick imaginary lint of someone’s clothing, or become fascinated with some small object. While in this position, be frantically active and unfocused; avoid eye contact, change the subject and say irrelevant things: “Problem? What problem? Let’s go to the movies.”
After taking each of these positions, and uttering the corresponding remarks, reflect on what they feel like. Is this pose familiar to you? Or does forcing yourself into this position suddenly recall some earlier incident in your life? Do any of the poses make you feel afraid or disgusted?
As an exercise, imagine that you and your family are going to plan a Christmas vacation. Taking each role in turn, adopt the suggested posture, and while in that position imagine the kinds of things you might say to each of the other types: placater; blamer; computer; distracter. Imagine how you might react to anything one of the others had to say. How do you feel about yourself and about each of the other family members? When you have thoroughly immersed yourself in one role, move on to the next and carry out the same procedure.
Ineffective communication can create considerable pain. Each of these communication styles attempts to conceal or dismiss feelings and to avoid authenticity. Virginia Satir writes: “In the placating response you hide your needs for yourself; in the blaming response you hide your needs for the other; the computer hides his emotional need for himself and for others. These same needs are ignored in the distracter, and in addition he hides any relationship to time, space, or purpose.” [p.93]
There is a fifth communication style that Virginia Satir describes as levelling. In this response words, body posture, tone of voice and facial expression are all congruent, all convey the same message. Levelling shares feelings rather than trying to conceal them.
Since most of us start with one of the four ineffective styles, we can think of levelling as a way of transforming them into more positive styles, that is, using the positive aspects of an existing style. The placater can be sensitive, loving and empathic without being submissive or self-denying. The blamer can be self-assertive without trying to demolish the partner. The computer can use intelligence to analyze, plan and solve problems while still taking into account his or her own feelings and those of the partner. The distracter can keep the ability to have fun and maintain a balance between pleasure and purpose.
You can’t change your communication style overnight. But one key to developing a levelling style is to use mainly “I” messages: “I feel …,” “It hurts me when …,” “I am afraid.” Starting a message with “you” often makes it sound like blaming.
Levelling isn’t easy. We’ve adopted ineffective communications styles for reasons having to do with our early survival and they won’t go away just by our wishing it. But role-playing a communication style can help us to make conscious a style that may have been unconscious. Playing these roles with your partner can help both of you to become more authentic communicators and to provide healthy models for your children. If you don’t level with your partner, you’re almost forcing your children into inauthentic roles, because they can’t learn to be real if you’re not. You don’t necessarily have to play this game with your children, although it can be fun if you’re brave. But if you and your partner have unhealthy roles, your children are going to imitate you. If you and your partner learn to be levellers, your children will imitate that.
The first four types of communication result in manipulation, avoidance, dishonesty, or resistance to creative change. The levelling response comes out of integrity: the unity of beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. A levelling response allows you to deal with problems realistically by assessing the situation accurately and communicating your responses, desires and intentions honestly.
Bandler, Richard, John Grinder and Virginia Satir (2000). Changing with Families: A Book About Further Education for Being Human. Palo Alto, California: Science and Behavior Books.
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