Do You Communicate To Relate Or To Control?


Relating builds trust and intimacy. Controlling fosters defensiveness and resistance.


In my research (published in the book, Getting Real: 10 Truth Skills You Need To Live An Authentic Life) I discovered that 90% of most peoples' communication is motivated by the unconscious intent to contol. Do you communicate to relate or to control? And do you know the difference?

When your intent is to relate, you are most interested in revealing your true feelings, learning how the other feels, and connecting heart-to-heart. When your intent is to control, you are most interested in getting things to come out a certain way— avoiding conflict, getting the person to like you, being seen as knowledgeable or helpful, etc.

Communication that is controlling aims at creating a favorable impression. Communication that is relating aims at knowing and being known, seeing and being seen. 

Most people are not aware of their intent. They may be aware that they want to be understood, but that’s about all. Even the intent to be understood can be controlling. So instead of thinking that all your communications are simple and transparent self-expressions, I urge you to you humbly acknowledge the fact that sometimes you are trying to get the other to understand you the way you wish to be understood, to create a certain impression, or even to manipulate the other person into giving you what you want. Controlling is not a bad thing when it is done candidly with awareness. But it is destructive to trust when it is done covertly or unconsciously.

Learning the difference between relating and controlling can help you deal better with unpleasant emotions such as hurt or anger. Let’s say your date just showed up an hour later than planned, and you are upset. You have several options:

1. You can express your feelings in the interest of transparency, with the intent to reveal yourself in a non judgmental way (relating);

2. You can act like it doesn’t matter—even though the truth is that you are feeling upset (controlling);

3. You can act cold and distant as a way of punishing him for being so thoughtless (controlling);

4. You can tell him you’re upset and ask him what happened (relating);

5. You can tell him that you notice one of your childhood fears is being triggered—e.g. the fear that he doesn’t really care about your feelings (relating);

6. You can tell him that if he is ever an hour late again, and doesn’t call, that you’ll probably stop seeing him (controlling).

Can you see the difference? Relating involves self-disclosure, curiosity about the other person’s reality, a willingness to be vulnerable enough to allow yourself to be affected, and an ability to step back and notice your reactions. Controlling involves one-way communication, an attempt to get the other to feel bad, or an attempt to look good or appear on top of the situation. Relating grows out of the desire to be real, to be transparent. Controlling arises from the need to be right, to play it safe, to punish, or to avoid feeling vulnerable or uncertain. Relating builds trust and intimacy. Controlling leads to mistrust and defensiveness.

So the next time you feel frustrated that your date or partner is not "hearing you," check in with your deeper motivation--are you just focused on getting what you want, or are you revealing your needs and feelings in a way the other person can empathize with?