By N. Pfeffermann, January 21, 2018
Can listening to the news in the last six to eight months improve your life? Yes, it can.
Listening to the news painted a new picture of individuals and systems. It clearly shows that we need change more than ever before and understanding communication in leadership positions is key to build mature systems and a stable economy for long-term growth.
Many articles and trainings focus on leadership communication skills, for instance, how to clearly communicate visions, engage employees in strategic programs, be present and ask the right questions that will foster productive and intelligent communication, actively listening to other people (e.g. Brent Gleeson, 5 Tips for Improving Leadership Communication, Forbes, May 2016). So, what is the missing point here?
This article brings to light how enhancing leadership communication skills positively affects systems and why the emotional age plays a vital role in understanding the difference between leadership communication and political communication. It provides a new system view and is a series of three articles by the author exploring the impact of communication on both individuals and systems from a multidisciplinary perspective.
Long before the economic meltdown Brooksley Born tried to warn about the threat to the financial system and was shut down by leaders of the Clinton administration. Why? In fact, nobody wanted to listen and the ‘man behind the curtain’, Alan Greenspan, could communicate in a way that “no one understood what he said, but he said it in such a way that everybody bought it” Arthur Levitt, SEC Chairman, 1993 - 2001, Frontline ‘The Warning’.
The recent example of Hollywood, published by the journalist Ronan Farrow, reveals a very similar story of one ‘man behind the curtain’, Harvey Weinstein, and his enablers, the ‘army of spies’, who helped to track targets and shut down their attempt to speak up and speak out what needed to be heard for making better decisions and taking the initiative in leading necessary change to the system including strategy, structure, operations, and culture.
Both examples demonstrate the importance of knowing communication blueprints and its effects on financial, political and societal systems as well as biological, psychological-emotional systems of human beings. What is a communication blueprint? A communication blueprint is a navigation system, so-called knowledge scheme, which helps us to interact, act and reflect on situations and events in our life. We have learned in childhood how to relate, engage and interact with other individuals and, hence, it is the knowledge scheme ‘how to communicate’ which is deeply anchored in our subconscious. It is so basic that often times the way how we communicate is a given.
The Example ‘There and Not There’
Maybe Brooksley Born and the abused women and men could improve their communication skills (body language, voice and negotiation skills) to obtain different results? Certainly, we can learn business communication, negotiation techniques and how we can use our voice, actively listen to others and ask the right questions in many courses at universities, business schools and educational institutions. But it would have made no difference.
A better question is: How can we communicate with a person who is there and not there, can’t we?
A communication blueprint is different for each individual on the basis of how the upbringing looked like and how an individual has experienced relationships with caregivers and other individuals. If a person has experienced emotional abuse in childhood or had a caregiver who was emotionally and/or physically unavailable, this person has learned to relate to and interact with a caregiver who was ‘there and not there’ resulting in a similar communication blueprint in adulthood.
Let’s have a deeper look at disempowering transactions and a repertoire of abusive tactics, which explain the two examples and, hence, communication blueprints in toxic relating networks and its negative effects on individuals and systems. You can find 10 diversion tactics in the appendix below.
(a) Toxic Triangulation: It is a transaction model with an abuser, controlled target, and passive enabler(s). The triangle makes it very hard to detect the true cause of conflict, drama, and stress. It is a power game to create tensions between controlled target and enabler(s) leading to distraction from the abuse. Communication seems to be ineffective, not fruitful or progressive and cannot lead to (re)solutions because the abuser does not want it. Normally it is defensive communication: The controlled target and enabler(s) want to avoid power plays, anger, negative consequences, and violent outbursts of the abuser at all costs. The enabler(s) are passive and tolerating to the point where it becomes an extremely toxic, fear-based communication climate and a negative, unhealthy system, far away from resilience and effective communications.
If this abusive communication blueprint is not understood and identified as a tactic, it is frustrating and exhausting to try to implement change and effective communication. And it doesn’t matter how many meetings, workshops or award-winning image videos are implemented to find a solution and bring forward a new idea. As a purifying moment it goes so far to finally destroy relationships, businesses, and systems.
(b) Gaslighting / Cognitive Dissonance: Another name for gaslighting is crazymaking or brain-washing. It is the most dangerous and subtle manipulation tactic out there. The abuser misdirects, reframes and twists conversations with the aim to disorient, confuse and frustrate the target. Communication with the abuser never leads to any concrete results or goes on and on in a circle with changing topics, argumentation lines and confusing, senseless remarks. Over a period of time the target starts self-gaslighting, dissociation, losing his/her own reality and feeling guilty for being a human individual with needs, thoughts, opinions, values, and moral standards—life-fading is the worst-case scenario which can lead to helplessness, depression, disempowerment and regression. The target has no voice, gives up and does not speak out because it was learned and intentionally conditioned ‘I am powerless. It only leads to more pain.’
(c) Play Victim / Hoovering / Love Bombing: The abuser plays the victim at the beginning or in the hoovering stage of an abusive relationship. This subtle tactic supports opening up to the abuser and believing ‘It is me.’ because the abuser is so kind, innocent and friendly. In conversations the abuser effectively mirrors the target, gives great compliments, pays attention to details and is very engaging and available. After building trust and letting the guard down, the abuser starts to constantly devalue and violate emotional, physical and psychological boundaries or feels boredom and soon disengage/discard. It is a toxic cycle of abuse which normally leads to trauma bonding and internalized toxic shame resulting in going back to the abuser to find closure, get love & approval, feel safe again, understand what happened and solve the problem. It is not love, passion or chemistry, it is a strong chemical reaction of the brain and emotional, addictive reaction to a toxic, abnormal situation in life. It can lead to PTSD or C-PTSD and many health problems (addictions, depression, burn out).
(d) Smear Campaign / Stalking / Isolation: The abuser goes further and not only controls the target but often the whole system which leads to smear campaigns, stalking and isolation. Typical communication forms are gossip, storytelling, insults, and re-framing to provoke reactivity, silence and self-sabotage. The target should behave ‘crazy’ so that the abuser can better destroy the target’s reputation and support network. …
Those diversion tactics show that a communication blueprint can explain system dynamics resulting in the need for a better understanding of communication in leadership positions.
Fig 1. and Fig. 2. show the difference between leadership communication and political communication. The three basic elements of clear, effective communication are as follows:
Emotional age: The emotional age encompasses emotional intelligence and communication blueprint, which means (1) at which age we stay ‘stuck’ in our personal development with respect to emotional regulation and attachment and (2) how we relate, engage and interact with others based on our upbringing and relating networks in childhood.
Capability to lead: The capability to lead depends on the emotional age and is defined as the ability to positively captivate and inspire people around the world, connect and interact with human beings to systematically co-create solutions and focus on system innovation and long-term growth (methodology approach).
Communication model design: Communication model design is a powerful technique which describes the rationale of how leaders [individuals and organizations] create value through communication, reach different markets, and successfully link a strategy approach to a communication approach to achieve goals.
NEW APPROACH: WE ARE ALL LEADERS IN LIFE. We are Liminal Persons.
“Liminal is who we are. And right now is your time as a liminal person. … The world needs you. At a time where the world is putting up its borders and trying to divide people into this or that we need people like you who can bring in fresh perspectives. ... You are in good company along with innovators and changemakers of the world. … You belong here as does every part of you. ”
Individual leaders can surely make a difference in the world, but I think it is difficult when a solid foundation is absent and being ‘there and not there’ has become the status quo in relating networks. It is exhausting and makes it difficult to build impactful businesses and create growth opportunities. How can we fix it?
A first step in this process is to be prepared and committed to better understand how financial, educational and corporate systems were build. It is NOT complex because it points to similar problems and key themes: Assumptions and expectations of how relating networks function based on communication blueprints (see article ‘It’s Time to Re-Think Ways to Create System Growth’). It is a collective, learned belief system that needs change and, hence, it needs amendments and refinements in educational and corporate systems.
For example, Porter’s value chain (1985) is still the basis for organizational functions and job descriptions and corporate tax systems define how to build a firm’s resource set and assets. In digital business, however, we can see a change from primary to secondary activities in order to develop new business models and successful community platforms (e.g. information and knowledge management is not a secondary activity in true digital innovation, it is at the heart of value creation). Another example is even bigger than the Enron case and Arthur Andersen & Co., it is the so-called culture of ‘gamesmanship’ (Arthur Levitt) and deceptive reporting of financial results and turnarounds. In this context, communication is key to (re)build trustful relationships with partners, investors and the public and a communication model design can help to better avoid wrongdoings and abusive political behavior.
From Politics to Capability: A New Capability-Based View
A second step in this process is to re-think systems and commit to building new solid foundations. It presents tremendous challenges for executives, digital/business transformation managers and strategy & innovation units. Why? Because the true cause is often ignored in outsourced project management with short-term goals and in particular in toxic systems it is excluded from the ‘ingredients list’ for business transformation and growth.
One new approach is the capability-based view which ultimately leads to a shift from politics to capability and from political communication to leadership communication. That includes relational communication management and communication trainings to empower individuals in building mature systems in the long-run.
APPENDIX: 10 Most Common Diversion Tactics - The Communication View
It is not a complete list of diversion tactics. This list provides an overview of common tactics independent of the type of abuse (covert, overt, deliberate, and unconscious). I have studied dysfunctional systems and disciplines for more than 20 years, but I am not a psychologist!
+++ Warning: Abusers are highly trained. Be aware of clichés and don’t confuse true victims of abuse and PTSD with Borderlines or Borderlines with Borderline-Narcissists and Psychopaths. It requires intensive training and communication trainings with specialists to identify communication blueprints and arm yourself with a personal toolkit for dealing with those abusive experiences in life. +++
1. TOXIC TRIANGULATION
It is a transaction model with an abuser, controlled target, and passive enabler(s). The triangle makes it very hard to detect the true cause of conflict, drama, and stress. It is a power game to create tensions between controlled target and enabler(s) leading to distraction from the abuse. Communication seems to be ineffective, not fruitful or progressive and cannot lead to (re)solutions because the abuser does not want it. Normally it is defensive communication: The controlled target and enabler(s) want to avoid power plays, anger, negative consequences, and violent outbursts of the abuser at all costs. The enabler(s) are passive and tolerating to the point where it becomes an extremely toxic, fear-based communication climate and negative, unhealthy system.
2. PROJECTION (BLAMING)
It is a subtle or direct one-directional transaction between the abuser and target to dump wrongdoing and avoid responsibility. This defensive mechanism helps the abuser to blame the target and avoid being accountable for any actions and words. The abuser is not able to self-differentiate which means to understand the concept of self and other individuals. Projection helps thereby the abuser in a (passive-)aggressive way to violate boundaries and project his/her negative feelings and core beliefs onto the target. The target feels disorientated and stressed out because the feelings are not ‘real’. On the other hand, the target also projects onto the abuser his/her good qualities and, hence, oversees the abuse.
3. GASLIGHTING / COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
Another name for gaslighting is crazymaking or brain-washing. It is the most dangerous and subtle manipulation tactic out there. The abuser misdirects, reframes and twists conversations with the aim to disorient, confuse and frustrate the target. Communication with the abuser never leads to any concrete results or goes on and on in a circle with changing topics, argumentation lines and confusing, senseless remarks. Over a period of time the target starts self-gaslighting, dissociation, losing his/her own reality and feeling guilty for being a human individual with needs, thoughts, opinions, values, and moral standards—life-fading is the worst-case scenario which can lead to helplessness, depression, disempowerment and regression. The target loses his/her own voice.
4. WORD SALAD / MINDREADING / DRAMA / LIES
Word salad is a conversation tactic to deliberately overwhelm a target with buzzwords, images and circular reasoning to finally say and commit to nothing. It helps the abuser to confuse the target and prevents getting closure in a cycle of abuse: (1) withholding closure is power and control over the target, (2) avoidance of committing to wrongdoing and taking responsibility, and (3) it means unfinished business and, hence, a possibility to start a new cycle of mental and emotional abuse because the target wants to solve the problem and understand what was said and happened. It is a subconscious programming which leads to believing all the lies and emotionally-charged, negative messages of the abuser over and over again. Non-closure often leads to more drama and pain in those cycles of abuse.
5. IGNORING / WITHOLDING / SECRETIVENESS
Communication is used in a cat-and-mouse game. The abuser intentionally withholds information, emotions, attention, intimacy and opinions to keep the target stuck in uncertainty and reactivity. In the silent treatment the target feels confused, worried, anxious, and doubtful, for instance, the abuser disappears or is present but does not answer questions, suddenly leaves the room, checks e-mails or starts a phone call while the target is talking about a specific topic. It is very effective in generating fuel from the target and makes the abuser powerful. Being punished with the silent treatment means feeling invisible, devalued, rejected and not enough in the presence of the abuser. Non-communication is thereby a way to deny appreciation, validation, approval, and love.
6. ENTITLEMENT / SUPERIORITY / GRANDIOSITY
This tactic is often used interchangeable with the term ‘narcissist’. Engaging with those types of abusers can re-traumatize targets because the abuser diminish achievements, manufacture stress and fear-based, catastrophizing situations, sets impossible standards and expectations, and generalize with blanket statements. The abuser feels threaten by the achievements and talents of others and must win the game. The inferior target most often feels being controlled, out of balance, and shameful for not being worthy. The abuser wants to be the center of attention and is completely self-absorb in conversations including a hyper-focus on flaws, ‘I am busy’ interactions, and micro-management of PR and other activities to control events and outcomes. The abuser feels entitled and shows no remorse.
7. PROMISES / FANTASY LAND / ENMESHMENT
In an abusive relationship the abuser expects from the target to take care, fix and heal, and make the abuser feel better. The target burdens him/herself with his/her emotional baggage and the abuser’s destructive, negative emotions. Oftentimes the target grew up in a dysfunctional system and learned to take care of the parents and other siblings (the parentified child). As a result, the reactive target over-owns his/her responsibility and wants to fix problems and make things work. The abuser knows it and can easily play with promises, future faking and ‘tangle the carrot’: One day we are happy, you get this job, I recognize your competence, etc. It is a false core belief and the enmeshment leads to an undeveloped self, depression, self-doubt, obsessive thinking, and addiction.
8. PLAY VICTIM / HOOVERING / LOVE BOMBING
The abuser plays the victim at the beginning or in the hoovering stage of an abusive relationship. This subtle tactic supports opening up to the abuser and believing ‘It is me.’ because the abuser is so kind, innocent and friendly. In conversations with the target the abuser effectively mirrors the target, gives great compliments, pays attention to details and is very engaging and available. After building trust and letting the guard down, the abuser starts to devalue and constantly violate emotional, physical and psychological boundaries or feels boredom and disengage/discard. It is a toxic cycle of abuse which leads to trauma bonding and internalized toxic shame resulting in going back to the abuser to find closure, get love, feel safe again, understand what happened and solve the problem.
9. SMEAR CAMPAIGN / STALKING / ISOLATION
The abuser goes further and not only controls the target but oftentimes the whole system which leads to smear campaigns, stalking and isolation. Typical communication forms are gossip, storytelling, insults, and re-framing to provoke reactivity, silence and self-sabotage. The target should behave ‘crazy’ so that the abuser can destroy the target’s reputation and support network. The abuser craves the position of power and control and therefore knows very well that it is also important to deliberately build a community of supporters, so-called flying monkeys, who keeps the abuser in his/her own power strategy. The addictive flying monkeys/enablers and the abuser constantly trigger, provoke and make the target feel less than and ‘not belonging’ to the group. That builds a toxic ‘powerhouse’ and web of abuse.
10. BULLYING & AMBIENT ABUSE / INDIRECT INSULTS
Most overt abusers like to bully, attack and violate boundaries. It is obvious and everyone knows about bully behavior from schools, workplaces or public situations. Contrary to the typical harsh comments and ‘Oh, you are too sensitive’ remarks of overts, ambient abuse takes places on an ‘invisible’ level to silence and put the target down. For example, a seemingly great compliment is painful and threaten the target in a specific context and ‘in-between the lines’ this insult opens a wound. Nobody else can understand the target’s pain and it is very difficult to explain others, even present witnesses, that the seemingly great compliment is a threat. The abuser is sadistic and enjoys seeing the target in pain, fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) due to the abuser’s indirect and/or nonverbal communications.
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