The Four Stress Communication Styles and how to ‘Level’ for Harmony in Relationships
“I’ve just seen the bank statement and you’ve booked yourself on yet another yoga retreat. You never stick to the budget. How can you be so irresponsible? You’re always doing this! What’s the matter with you? It’s just not good enough”.
“Oh darling I’m so sorry. Please don’t get angry with me. I really didn’t mean to upset you. If you don’t think we can afford it I won’t go. I’m sure I can get a refund if I write to them right away. That was really terrible of me, dear me”.
“Upset? I’m not upset! I simply remember you explicitly stating a fortnight ago to this day when we set out the monthly budget, that you would not spend any money without us agreeing it. We must agree all fiscal matters together or we’ll have another deficit on our hands and God knows what might happen then.
“Hey sweetie! Look at that stain up there? Isn’t it awful? What do you think about redecorating this room? It’s looking really shabby at the moment. What colour do you think would look good in here? Cup of tea?”
When we are stressed or at a low ebb, we tend to adopt a defensive style of communication. Virginia Satir (1916–1988) renowned psychotherapist widely regarded as being the mother of family therapy, defined four stress styles: Blamer, Placater, Super-reasonable and Distractor. Satir observed that people react to stress and threats to their self-esteem with one of the above defensive communication styles. We tend to use one or a mixture of these styles out of shame, guilt, fear and low self-esteem as a way to protect ourselves. Our style is often habitual from an early age, and we rarely realise how it alienates our partner. When partners get locked into automatic repetitive use of their style in arguments and conflict, the style itself becomes the core problem. All four stress styles mask insecurities that keep us from understanding each other.
The Blamer is critical, complaining and a fault-finder. They can be grandiose dictators, controlling, relentlessly nitpicking and speak in generalisations: ‘You never do anything right.’ They don’t take responsibility for their part in things, hence will make it all about the other, saying things like: ‘If only you hadn’t done that everything would have been alright. It’s your fault’.
On the inside, the Blamer is desperately unhappy and feels lonely and unloveable. The Blamer is angry with the world and everyone in it because they anticipate not getting their needs met. Their learned defence for this unhappy situation is to go on the offensive.
Often described as grumpy, disagreeable, hostile, tyrannical and nagging, the Blamer at the extreme may be paranoid or violent. The Blamer goes on the attack and resorts to anger as a way to manipulate and coerce. Anger in the Blamer is a secondary emotion to mask their deep-seated vulnerability and fear which the Blamer is unable to own or express.
The placater tends to be ingratiating, a people pleaser, apologetic and a martyr. They are extremely ‘nice’ pushovers and often timid. Placaters don’t like saying ‘no’ to anyone, they are ‘yes’ people, often saying things like: ‘Whatever makes you happy’. They don’t like rocking the boat.
The Placater has low self-esteem and often feels helpless or worthless. They want peace at any price. They are self-effacing and look to others for their sense of self, deriving their value from outside-in approval. They have difficulty expressing anger and play their cards close to their chest, holding their feelings inside which can result in them feeling depressed.
The super-reasonable is cool, calm and collected, as you might expect. They choose their words carefully, often using elaborate language or uncommon words. They expect people to perform efficiently and conform to the rules.
The super-reasonable is logical, disconnected from their feelings and tends to quote facts, statistics, authorities and tradition. They hate admitting their mistakes, because in their mind they can’t possible do any wrong. But they often have detailed memories of exactly when and where you made a mistake or hurt them and will quote them to you in an argument You’ll often hear the super-reasonable saying things like: ‘That wasn’t my fault it was because the instructions were not clear enough’. ‘I could have told you that would happen, it’s obvious’.
The super-reasonable is uncomfortable around displays of emotion, and denies it in themselves and others, believing it gets in the way of their cool logic: ‘Upset? l’m not upset? Why do you say I’m upset?’ In their mind emotions are unreliable, unpredictable and dangerous.
People who adopt this style are often described as pedantic, rigid, resistant and dogmatic. They might be construed as narcissistic, insensitive, unfeeling, lacking in empathy and in the extreme cold and robotic. But underneath the cool exterior they have a need for justice and fairness, a longing to be right, good and accepted. They fear being found lacking and imperfect and yearn to belong and be loved.
The Distractor is recognised as someone who is talkative, unfocused and often frantically active. They are erratic, purposeless and sometimes out of touch with reality. They may avoid eye contact, don’t like answering questions directly and are quick to change the subject or ignore the point being discussed all together: ‘Problem? What problem? Let’s go and have drink’. When they get stuck into a project they find it difficult to know when to stop and exclude everything else. At other times they procrastinate and are unproductive, flitting from one thing to the next.
Inside, the Distractor is frightened, distrustful and worried. The underlying principle of this style is: If I ignore the problem it doesn’t exist. Maybe it will go away or take care of itself. Confronting problems is painful and far too risky. They are hard to pin down, and will often use humour as an avoidance strategy. This evasive quality means they are not easy to get to know as they frequently change the subject of conversation and will fill in pauses to avoid awkwardness that may reveal their own inner discomfort. They do not like sitting still for long; short periods of contact is preferable to this light footed individual.
Virginia Satir and her team of researchers estimated that roughly 50% of the population are placaters, 30% blamers, 15% super-reasonable, and 0.5% are distracters. That leaves 4.5% communicating in the productive congruent style which Satir called the Leveller.
The leveller will express themselves without blaming, placating, distracting or being super-reasonable. What they feel, say and do will be in sync. The leveller responds with integrity, unifying thoughts, feelings and behaviour in a heartfelt, straightforward way. They can manage problems realistically with their ability to accurately assess situations and communicate their feelings, desires and intentions honestly.
Being able to level with someone is useful in situations where there is tension, where you want to confide, convey information or solve problems. The qualities we see in levelling are a transformation of the four defensive styles. Satir referred to this as ‘humanising’ the other styles.
The blamer humanised in the leveller substitutes anger for assertiveness and the ability to speak their truth and stand up for their needs in a non-threatening, non-aggressive way. The placater humanised replaces fear with a genuine concern for the welfare others with the capacity for giving loving care with sensitivity and empathy. The super-reasonable humanised is when frozen rigidity and denial is replaced by the ability to take a fresh perspective, stay calm and rational whilst being real and vulnerable and staying in contact with the feelings of self and others. The distractor humanised is the ability to drop evasiveness whilst still having some fun, being playful yet staying on topic, honouring difficulties whilst being light about it but always staying true to the feelings of others.
Most of us will have a default style, but it is likely that we may adopt several styles for different situations, including levelling. There are many combinations and patterns and it may be difficult to distinguish one from the other at times. This is where body language is often a giveaway. The illustrations show an exaggerated stance for each style. In real situations, body language is likely to be much more subtle, but distinguishable all the same.
The key is to bring awareness to our physical form in communication. Look out for the habitual pointing finger, the pleading gesture, the smiling mask and the rigid crossed arms. Body language is an under-recognised emotional trigger working at an unconscious level. The styles in action can activate your partner’s sympathetic nervous system in the fight, flight or freeze response. The key to revoking your old stress styles and initiating new behaviour is to allow a few seconds to think, feel and soften your body before responding. Levelling can be difficult when touching upon powerful emotional issues or private thoughts and feelings because of perceived risk of hurt, rejection or ridicule. But the leveller will attempt to communicate that as a basis for open dialogue.
Understanding the stress styles can help you to become a leveller, get closer to your partner (or colleagues at work) and recognise their and your own defences that contribute to your unhappiness. For instance if your spouse starts blaming you angrily, instead of blaming in return, placating, distracting or being super-reasonable, you could level with them by addressing their concerns directly and acknowledging their primary emotions of fear and vulnerability hidden by the anger.
“Have you got a moment to go through something with me? I’m concerned about an item on the bank statement. Looks like a payment for a yoga retreat. I don’t remember a discussion about this. Did I miss something?”
“No you didn’t miss anything. I can see it must have been a shock for you, I’m sorry. I was going to tell you. I really need a short break and had to get in before the bookings closed. I am going to make it up from my savings account.”
“OK darling, I was shocked. There’s a lot in this for me. I would prefer in future if you would discuss your plans with me. I want to be more involved in your life and feel sad you didn’t find time to discuss this with me. We had agreed to keep finances straight on this account, so that’s why it’s important we work together”
“You’re right, and I’m sorry. I have been stressed, distant and reclusive and I know I haven’t been communicating well with you. I feel sad about that. I appreciate all the work you are doing to keep our finances in order. I do want your support and for us to be a team and I want to be better at sharing my inner world with you.”