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Bite Your Tongue

ae-CarlAlaskoMonterey author offers pointers for effective communication in new book

We can all recall a time when we reacted poorly in a social situation—whether it was in response to an insensitive remark, a missed curfew, a sudden change of plans, or otherwise. While hurtful words and damaged feelings are natural reactions to such emotional triggers, Dr. Carl Alasko, a recently retired psychotherapist based in Monterey, believes he has the answer to gracefully navigating these situations.

His new book, “Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication,” offers readers the tools necessary for constructive converszation. Using real-life examples brought to him by clients throughout his 25 years of relationship and family psychotherapy, Alasko illustrates five rules for confronting difficult social situations that may arise in the home, in the bedroom, and in the workplace.

“The more you follow these rules, the happier you will be,” the book promises in its first pages. “And the more successful you’ll be in life.”

Alasko recognizes that for some, it may seem unnatural to use a script or pre-determined rules for conversation, but in his experience, people find more direct interventions useful.

“[Clients would] say, ‘we don’t have time, we’re fighting and we want a way out of it, please tell us what to say,’” he explains.

To help us get started, Alasko breaks down his five rules:

1. Decide in advance what you want to accomplish.

“The strategy behind almost every communication is that we almost always want to be either neutral or caring,” says Alasko. “If we thought about it, we would agree that we rarely want to say something that will push another person away from us and create stress.”

He urges readers to examine the intention behind a statement before saying a word. Without a thoughtful beginning, a casual statement can easily be perceived as insensitive, and trigger a negative reaction. While it does take some discipline, Alasko assures that those thoughtful moments before speaking “may be the most valuable seconds of your entire day.”

2. Say only what you need to say; nothing more.

Take the following example: Your partner comes home late without calling … again. He or she walks in the door and you explode with a tirade of angry remarks.

“Stop right there,” Alasko says. “All you need to say here is: ‘It really upsets me when you’re late and you don’t call.’ And then you’re done. Don’t huff and stamp your feet. You’ve delivered your message, and you shouldn’t have to say anything more.”

By removing excess emotional content from your statements, you reduce the risk of confrontation, according to Alasko.

3. Don’t ask questions that don’t have an actual answer.

“Many questions we ask are not questions; they are disguised criticisms,” explains Alasko. “There isn’t an actual information request behind a lot of ‘why’ questions. Many imply that the other person doesn’t care enough, or is irresponsible, or just plain stupid.”

These crafty criticisms will almost certainly incite a negative response from the recipient and lead to hurt feelings. Instead, Alasko recommends taking a moment to think of what it is you really want to say, and rephrasing those potentially hurtful questions into neutral suggestions.

4. Do not use blame: no criticism, accusation, punishment or humiliation.

This rule is especially important for parent-child communications and in situations between romantic partners, says Alasko.

“A critical accusation can be something as simple as ‘how come you couldn’t do your darn homework when you told me you did it?’” he explains. “That statement says: you’re a liar, you’re irresponsible, you're incompetent. It’s extremely difficult to be on the receiving end of that as a child and not feel humiliated.”

He adds that blaming others only creates negative emotional reactions. Once the receiving party has experienced that negative reaction, it will either manifest as a scathing comeback or pent up resentment.

5. Always be ready to stop when things get too heated.

“It takes so very little to trigger our fight or flight response,” notes Alasko. “In confrontations, our blood pressure goes up, heartbeats elevate, and within two seconds, your ability to think clearly is compromised. Once that happens, you’re likely to say something that makes things worse.”

According to Alasko, no one is obligated to stay in an argument. He advises that couples agree in advance that anyone can ask to end the conversation at anytime. This, he says, is not only respectful, but also builds trust between partners.

“I have never seen this rule abused,” he says. “It's a safety valve that facilitates productive discussions.”  


For more information, visit carlalasko.com. Find all of his books—‘Say This, Not That,’ ‘Emotional Bullshit,’ and ‘Beyond Blame’—at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, 423-0900. Read Dr. Alasko’s advice column, ‘On Relationships,’ each week in the Monterey County Herald.

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