Danny Silk often talks about how “behaving your needs” is a mark of immaturity. Babies cry when they need. Little kids pout or sulk or throw tantrums. As we mature, we learn to use our words to communicate what we need in our relationships.
“I need some space right now.”
“I need more time with you.”
“I need you to stop bringing disrespect into our relationship.”
“I need more help around the house.”
Far too often little kids grow up in all kinds of ways but not this one. They get taller. They shave. They get education and careers and spouses and kids and mortgages. But they still behave their needs.
Bob Hamp often talks about the difference between overt and covert communication. Overt communication is about content. What was said. What could be transcribed. Covert communication comprises all the other components of communication: things like body language, tone, volume, facial expression, etc. In healthy and effective communication, there’s alignment between what is being said (overt) and what is being communicated non-verbally (covert).
When overt and covert communication are not aligned with each other, it’s the covert message that always does the actual communicating. The covert message always trumps the overt message when they are not congruent. If I say “I love you” but my distance, tone, facial expression, body language, etc. communicate “I feel contempt for you,” then it’s contempt, not love, that will be conveyed and received.
This is how manipulation works. People convey what they want through non-verbals while what they actually say verbally says something else. This is an attempt to avoid confrontation. When you confront them with “You communicated x or y,” they reply with “but I said a or b.” And they’re correct. There is often very little wrong with what they said. But what they communicated was toxic. Because what they communicated was in the covert realm of non-verbals, and because confrontation has to happen in the overt realm of words, the disconnection between the covert and the overt makes confrontation very unproductive.
Because the covert communication actually communicates but is un-confrontable, the manipulator ends up often getting what they’re after without accountability.
Bob Hamp says that this kind of manipulation is always about power. It’s always a bid for control. Always. It’s a bid to either avoid submitting to authority or to gain illegitimate authority. It’s a strategy to avoid connection or it’s a strategy to gain inappropriate access and/or influence. It’s the way people violate boundaries.
If you’re in a relationships with someone who behaves their needs. If they withdraw, or pout, or throw tantrums, or threaten, or catastrophize, or play the martyr, or play the “God card,” or…you realize this list could go on and on…then you’re being manipulated. Instead of using their words to express their needs (which would bring reciprocal accountability to the relationship), they are behaving their needs. They are covertly communicating their needs without alignment from their overt messages. The authentic vulnerability of maturely using their words to express their needs feels risky, fearful, weak, even powerless. So instead they manipulate. This is about self-protection. This is about control. This is about power.
“Ted, your room is a mess,” I say.
“I will clean it up later.”
Two days later his room still isn’t clean.
Do you see what’s happening here? What was my overt communication? I made an observation about the state of Ted’s room. What was my covert communication? By relational context, tone, etc., it’s very clear that I am asking Ted to clean his room. This is about authority and power. It always is. It would actually be healthier on my end, even though my authority as a parent is legitimate, if I aligned my covert and overt communication.
“Ted, I want your room clean before dinner. Would you like to do that now or after lunch?”
But look at his response. What was his overt communication? He committed to cleaning his room at some point in the infinite future. This is non-confrontable. If I attempt to confront him, at whatever point I confront him he is able to simply reply that he intended to clean it later. Later just hasn’t arrived yet.
What was his covert communication? His unresponsiveness to my instruction communicates something about power. He doesn’t like to be told what to do. He doesn’t really respect my authority. He’s communicating something, but in a way that makes it a bit complicated to confront. It’s a bid for control and power, in his case illegitimate power.
There is a single skill in communication and confrontation, that if learned and mastered, would absolutely move your relationships toward healthy communication without manipulation.
1. Identify the covert message.
2. Make it overt (put it into words).
3. Present it to them in the form of a question.
“Ted, in choosing to not clean your room it feels like you’re trying to tell me that you think you don’t need to follow my instructions, that you don’t want to respect my authority as a parent. Is that what you’re trying to communicate?” – I’ve identified the covert message and made it overt, putting it into words.
I am not going to be manipulated. At the same time, he will need to grow in his capacity to use his words rather than behaving his needs (in this case his perceived need for freedom without responsibility). By putting his covert message into words, I’ve now moved the conversation into the arena of accountability.
Bob and I were on a ministry trip together a few years ago. We were training a group of leaders who minister to young people and, when we arrived, the building was occupied by those leaders as well as some of the young people they minister to. We walked in with the ministry director, who had set our agenda to train the leaders. One of the students, a girl who had recently joined the group, walked right up to Bob (who she had heard of from another setting), angled her body in a way that put the ministry director outside of the conversation, and said:
“Bob Hamp! I’m so excited that you are here!!! I was praying this morning and I really feel like God said that you have a word for the students this week. Would you be willing to meet with us?”
Now really…is there anything wrong with the overt part of this message. She’s excited to see Bob. She prays. She hears God. She wants to learn from Bob. She wants the other students to benefit from Bob’s presence in the ministry. Wow. What an amazing young lady.
But what was her covert message (always about power)?
“Is the ministry director really in charge or can I be in charge? Am I going to be able to set the agenda in this ministry or not?”
Though there was nothing wrong with what she said, there was everything wrong with what she was communicating and why. Normal. Common. But very unhealthy.
Bob gracefully moved his positon to include the director in the interaction, pointed out that it was not his role to set the agenda, he was there to serve at the invitation of the director.He refused to be drawn into a manipulative play for power. Later, another leader in the ministry, pulled that (very sweet but misguided) young lady aside and made her covert message overt, asking her if that was the message she was trying to convey.
My understanding is that she said “no, it wasn’t.”
Of course it was. But it wasn’t one she intended to convey overtly with the accompanying accountability. And what did she learn? That such manipulation wasn’t going to be effective in this setting. That she would need to align her overt and covert messages. That she would need to learn to use her words to communicate her needs and that accountability was going to be a norm. This is a way of communicating that’s going to benefit every relationship she has going forward.
Are your covert and overt messages aligned in the way you communicate? Do you behave your needs, or do you communicate them with honesty and vulnerability?
Are you good at recognizing when the overt and covert messages you get from others are not aligned? When you recognize that, can you make the covert overt by putting the covert message into words? Do you confront effectively by asking the other person about their covert (now made overt by you) message and whether that was what they were intending to communicate?
This is a HUGE skill in healthy relationships. Practice it. Grow.