Monthly Archives: October 2016

How To Controlling People

It was a very sobering idea for me to discover that I was a controlling person. I didn’t like the idea at all. In fact, I’d been working very hard, for as long as I could remember, to be a noncontrolling person. I wanted to embody a “live and let live” philosophy.

I’d experienced ultra-controlling people throughout my life and, no sir! There was no way I was going to be like that. I’d burned sandalwood incense sticks, taken long walks along the beach, and listened to peaceful music. I did all the right things to get in the zone of being a noncontrolling person.

Even in my professional life I thought I’d found a way to be noncontrolling. While I was training to be a teacher I had been introduced to the idea that “The job of a teacher is to teach their students to get along without the teacher”. That attitude resonated strongly with my “live and let live” perspective and I embraced it. Later, when I became a parent I applied the same idea to parenting – the job of a parent is to teach their children to get along without the parents. As a psychologist I think that the job of a therapist is to teach their clients to get along without the therapist. Is the job of a manager to teach their staff to get along without the manager?

It was all going along so swimmingly until I discovered an explanation of control known as Perceptual Control Theory (PCT; www.iapct.org; www.pctweb.org). Initially, this theory really did my head in. PCT explains that everyone is a controlling person. What the?! That must mean everyone except me. Uh-ah … me too.

Early on in my learning of PCT I discovered that there’s nowhere to hide when it comes to control. Even being noncontrolling is control. Paradoxically, subscribing to a “live and let live” mandate is a control process. I like to see myself as a “live and let live” type of guy. When it seems I’m not behaving in a live and let live kind of way, that bothers me and I do things to correct it. Correcting things so they stay more like the way you want them to be is control in a nutshell.

Teaching other people to get along without me – whether it’s my students, my son, my clients, or my staff – is a control process. I have things I like to see and hear that give me the sense that other people are depending on me less and less. I really like it, for example, when other people figure out solutions to a problem they’re experiencing and share their solutions with me. I become somewhat perturbed, however, when other people come to me with problems accompanied by expectations that I will fix the problem.

When clients I’m working with want me to provide them with strategies, or when staff I’m managing want me to solve problems they’ve encountered, I get uneasy. This is not what I want to be seeing and hearing. In these situations, I do what I can to once again experience people solving their own problems. Doing things to experience what you want to experience is control.

Working hard to not control others is, ultimately, controlling. It took me a while to reconcile the idea that my “teach the staff to get along without the manager” mindset, was just as controlling as the micro-managers I like to avoid. It turns out that we’re all “control freaks”.

You can tell something is a control process by what happens when things do not go as planned. When I’m working with staff who like to solve their own problems, things just hum along peacefully and productively. If I encounter, however, a staff member who has an expectation that managers solve problems for them, then ripples begin to appear on the mill pond.

The hypothetical interaction might go like this: the staff member comes to me with a problem; I reflect the problem back to the staff member (and become aware that I’m feeling a little bit frustrated at spending my time this way); the staff member seems a little irritated and asks me what I would suggest; I begin to feel pressured to come up with an ideal solution and I offer some tentative and feeble questions about possible avenues to explore (with an inward sigh and a growing sense of backing up into a corner); the staff member feels fobbed off (yet again) and more urgently presses for an answer; I’m becoming crushed by the weight of the responsibility to produce the perfect, satisfactory solution, so I offer a few more inadequate strategies; the staff member, who knows very well all the complexities of the problem, immediately sees the holes in my ideas and explains curtly why they won’t work; and on it goes with both my staff member and me becoming increasingly dissatisfied.

In this instance, neither my approach nor the staff member’s approach is right or wrong. They are just different. And because we are both controllers, we have a recipe for turmoil when we share the same environment. I’ll be doing things to experience the workplace the way I want to experience it and the staff member will be doing the same thing. Since I am in the staff member’s environment and the staff member is in mine, we will both be doing things to each other to make our environments be right (from our different points of view). The problem isn’t with either one of us. The problem is with both of us. We want our shared environment to be in different states at the same time.

Recognising people as controllers is very helpful for understanding and improving interactions. I can still maintain the attitude that I’m doing a good job when other people I’m working with are learning to get along without me and, at the same time, I can accept that there will be speed bumps to negotiate whenever I work with a person who has a different expectation of my role. The speed bumps don’t arise because there’s something wrong either one of us. We’re both just controllers who want a shared space to be in different states at the same time.
So don’t avoid control, embrace it. Learn about it and appreciate it. Thinking of people as controllers will provide you and everyone who is caught up in your web of control with the best knowledge possible to calm the waters and set out on a lifetime of smoother sailing.

Know More About The Emotions of Social Interaction

While we are quite sensitive to negative emotional displays of those with whom we interact, we’re hardly sensitive at all to our own. In fact, we’re prone to self-deception in that regard, confusing the motivation of emotions with conscious goals and intentions. Because habituated emotional responses are dominated by the Toddler brain, we’re blindly committed to the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, avoidance:

“You’re critical; I give useful feedback.”

“You’re stubborn; I’m firm.”

“You’re wishy-washing; I’m flexible.”

“You’re raging; I’m upset.”

“You’re vindictive; I’m standing up for myself.”

Because objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior in emotional exchanges is so difficult, we need to understand the function of certain emotions in social interactions, which are likely to exert more influence on what you do than what you think you’re doing.

Anger Escalation and Retaliation

Although it’s the most contagious of emotions, anger is often an exception to the principle of reciprocity, the tendency to match the emotional output of others. Instead, it has a built-in escalation mechanism. Unless shame or fear of consequences inhibits us, we return anger cues from others with increasing intensity, and up the gain of any counter-response.

Automatic escalation has survival significance. Anger is for winning, not for ties. We don’t want to hurt the saber tooth tiger just as much as it hurts us. We want to destroy its capacity to hurt us.

Escalating anger, with its built-in retaliation motive, accounts for why, despite political rhetoric, the oppressed (actual and self-perceived), almost never settle for equality but feel compelled toward dominance or at least retribution. The notorious “cycle of violence” that infests certain regions of the world (and some communities in the United States) owes to the law of anger escalation and retaliation. Actual or expected reprisals and counter-reprisals keep the cycle going for generations.

Value Judgment: You must be moral, while I avoid guilt.

Most emotions represent implicit value judgments. In many ways implicit value judgments form the core of social interactions.

Value judgments allow us to predict and to some degree control the behavior of others. The ability to predict and control provides an illusion of safety. Unpredictable behavior raises alarm even when harmless. Think of your response when someone disrobes in public or speaks loudly in a restaurant.

A sense of safety in modern times is influenced less by actual dangers in the environment than by predictability and a sense of control. For instance, soldiers can feel relatively safe during hostilities if confident of their combat skills, which allow them to predict and to some extent control threats to safety. The same soldiers can feel unsafe in peacetime work negotiations, where combat skills are of little utility.

A primary instrument of social control is moral reprobation. We describe failures to sustain pro-social emotions like compassion and remorse as “inhumane” and hold deficits of sincerity and trustworthiness in contempt and disgust. Of course, value judgment is greatly influenced by the emotional state of the person making the judgment. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” is a common cry of people with low self-value who depend on presumed moral superiority for a tolerable sense of self. Only the shamed are likely to shame in ordinary social interactions.

Moral judgments, like all other emotional responses, are primarily reactions to inferred emotional states, rather than observed behavior. We regard emotional states, before and after the fact, as mitigating factors in both morally and legally proscribed behavior. We tend to forgive the penitent for greater offenses than the unrepentant. Studies of discretionary criminal sentencing indicate that murderers showing remorse are punished more or less the same as robbers who seem entitled to commit their crimes.

The value judgments of emotions concern other people’s behavior more than to our own. We tend to judge the actions of others in moral terms and our own in terms of utility—what works for us. Similarly, while we’re hypersensitive to unfair treatment, we’re hardly sensitive at all to our own unfairness. The latter takes determined self-reflection. Our judgments of others come easily; objective self-reflection takes focus, energy, and determination, if not a weekend retreat.

Self-Other Construction: We become what we make of others.

We tend to suffer the emotional judgments we make of others. When we’re dishonest, we don’t trust others; when we perceive others to be dishonest, we’re apt to be less than forthright. If we see others as unworthy, we become less worthy of cooperation. If we see them as dull, we lose interest. When we hold others in contempt we’re contemptuous. Hatred demonizes others at the cost of devaluing the most humane parts of the self. A toll of physical and emotional disorders befalls those who fail to sustain trust, enjoyment, compassion, and interest in others. Negative emotions directed at others is one of the worst things we can do for our health and well-being.

Emotions emerged over a much longer evolutionary history than language. Along the way, they developed considerable complexity that can easily confound social interactions. Those will be the subject of the next post.