We have now had about 17 mass killings this year (of 4 or more people), and the year isn’t finished yet. Mass killing are one of the most heinous forms of destructive communication, the ultimate acting out of feelings. A while back President Trump said to Kim Jung Un, President of North Korea, that if the Korean leader continued to escalate his development of his nuclear arsenal, Un would experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” This, again, is the most destructive kind of communication—a harsh death threat.
When people verbalize their negative feelings with the goal of fostering understanding and resolving a dispute, they are using constructive communication. When they are acting out, they are using destructive communication, and their goal is to be right, to win, and to persecute their opponent.
One of those in the rebellious wing of the liberal movement, the pop singer, Madonna, who has as her goal to topple Trump’s administration, suggested that someone bomb the White House. Others have advocated that someone assassinate Trump, and even behead him. These are examples of destructive communication.
We have people calling other people names such as “sexist,” “racist,” “homophobe,” “white supremacist,” “reactionary” and “libtard.” We are split into two sides. One side calls the other side “deplorables.” The other side describes the former as “crooked.” Each side thinks there are only two ways of looking at things. Each side thinks it’s either their way or the highway. Neither side sees the complexity of things.
It is common on TV news shows for panels of experts to begin shouting at one another and to treat each other with disrespect. “That’s idiotic,” one will way to another. “Only a bleeding-heart liberal would say such a thing,” another will say. “That way of thinking is simply racist,” another will say. “You’re a leftist through and through,” yet another will say. Often two or more participants on these shows will be shouting at the same time and a competition will ensue as to who is going to win out and continue to speak.
What happened to civility? What happened to mutual respect? What happened to treating others the way you would like to be treated yourself? These are now considered relics of the past. Calm, rational discussion, apparently, is for weaklings, for those who enjoy “white privilege.” The goal now in television shows, meetings, conventions, business gatherings, or almost any kind of get-together, is to win. That can only be one right side, and all the other sides are wrong.
The same thing has apparently happened to couples. Occasionally, as a psychoanalyst, I am required to do couple’s therapy, and I find that destructive communication has also now permeated marriages. Couple’s shout at each other and try to win. They want to prove they are right and their partner is wrong. They don’t listen to each other and they feel justified in not listening because they have already decided that anything their partner says is going to be wrong. They focus on each other’s problems and make each other the cause of all strife.
“It’s your fault,” one partner will yell. “You’re selfish. All you care about is yourself. You never do anything for me and the kids.”
“That’s what you always say,” the other will interrupt. “But I don’t see you ever suggesting that we sit down and talk and try to work things out. I don’t see you taking any initiatives. It’s always me who has to bring things up. It’s always me who has to initiate talking about things, and then you say something like, ‘Oh, there you go again.’ And then you dismiss me.”
The inability of people to express themselves in ways that foster resolution and peace, rather than communicating in ways that add to strife and dissolution: this is the essence of destructive communication. Nowadays, destructive communication, whether between couples in counseling, groups in our society, or countries in the world, destructive communication is in the forefront.
Today, destructive communication has become chic. Old fashioned debate, which follows rules of decency, is viewed as the communication of losers—that is, of white males who are angry about “losing their power and privilege.” Yet, I remember a time when constructive communication was common practice in the United States. I remember a time when Republicans and Democrats respectfully disagreed with one another. I remember a time when husbands and wives respectfully disagreed with one another.
There was equality between couples before the 1970s; at that time, by and large, they listened to each other and considered what each was saying to the other and made compromises and real commitments to each other. And, for the most part, the mainstream then was comprised of moderate people, and the moderates formed a strong center that kept us grounded in reality.
“Those who speak do not know; those who know do not speak,” said Chinese philosopher Lao Zi. I would say those who speak do not know how to speak constructively.