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10. Listening and “feedback filters”

When people talk to us, we have a kind of “inner translator” that processes the message. Like the game of Chinese Whispers, sometimes the real message doesn’t get through.

If you have low self esteem, your inner translator may be doing a bad job. Look at the following examples of what is actually said and how someone with rock-bottom self esteem could translate them:

The original messageThe mistranslation
“Is that your child in the road?” “You’re an awful parent! You can’t keep your children safe!”
“I’m so pleased my son’s talking already!” “My child is better than yours. Your child is a slow developer - probably takes after the parents.”
“Aren’t you going on holiday this year?” “If you’d had a successful relationship and were clever enough to get a good job, you’d be going on holiday. You’ve failed in life and you’ve failed your children.”
“It’s a lovely day…” ”…which you’re spending at work/job centre/childcare instead of enjoying it.”
“Have you seen my email?” “You haven’t replied to my email!”
“I like your new look.” “You’re a show-off, wasting your money on clothes.” Or even “Your new look is an embarrassment!”

Can you see how those bad translations can lead to aggressive responses? Sometimes people do try to hurt you with a hidden message, but much of the time people are just saying what they mean, sometimes in a clumsy way, but it’s your inner translator who is causing the trouble!

Try these examples. For each of the comments below, write how you might respond if your low self esteem has caused you to mistranslate the question. Then, write an assertive response: an answer that doesn’t mistranslate the question or take offence. We’ve given you an example:

A commentA low self esteem responseYour assertive response
“How are you getting on with that work I asked you to do?” I’m really sorry, I’ve been really busy and my child’s been ill. Anyway, it’s not fair to give me so much to do without proper training. I’m really stressed and you’re giving me too much to do! I’ve made a start on it but I’ll need more time to complete it all. Can you let me know what you think of what I’ve done so far? How much more time do we have?
  1. “How’s your little one getting on at school?”
  2. “That’s a nice car - was it expensive?”
  3. “I saw your holiday pictures on the internet.”

Can you see how sometimes you feel put down and insulted when no one actually means to insult or demean you? People often say things in the wrong way. Sometimes it is only you that is putting yourself down!

It’s not just you that can mistranslate the things others say. They will mistranslate what you say as well! Look at this little scene to see how things can go wrong:

Nigel and Sally

Nigel is a teenager who has been getting really bad results at a new school. He is being bullied and has been playing truant. Recently he has had some meetings with teachers, and this week he’s tried really hard and has attended school every day. He has been doing some homework, but is taking a break to make contact with friends on the internet.

Nigel’s mum Sally, coming home from a hard day’s work. “Can I interrupt your game?”

Nigel’s not playing a game. He’s on social media trying to build better friendships with people at school. He thinks Sally’s telling him off for not doing his homework. “I’m just chatting, okay?”

Sally doesn’t know what “chat” is and thinks Nigel would rather play with his phone than talk to her. She wants to offload about her difficult day at work. “Sorry for speaking I’m sure. How wasschool, anyway?”

Nigel feels like his mum’s angry with him, and it’s not his fault. And now he thinks she’s accusing him of bunking off school too when he’s been trying really hard this week. “It’s not fair! You never give me any encouragement. If you hadn’t split up with dad I’d still be at a decent school!”

Sally is offended and thinks that’s a cheeky thing to say. She tried really hard to make the relationship work and suffered a lot from the break-up. She feels angry and guilty that Nigel’s had to go to a new school. She spent a lot of time finding a suitable school and it seems she’s made a bad decision and ruined her son’s education. It makes it worse to have her son reminding of it. She throws her bag on the floor. “I’ve had enough of your cheek! You’re no good, just like your father…”

Where it all went wrong: Can see how this short scene has ended up so bad? Each misunderstanding caused an even worse one.

Imagine if Nigel had answered the first question in a different way. “Don’t worry mum; I’m just having a homework break and chatting to some people I met at the new school.” Spend some time thinking about how each stage of this scene could have gone.

Next we’ll look at how assertive communcation can help avoid arguments like the one between Sally and Nigel.

Next: 11. The bad translatorBack: 9. Negotiation

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