We all of us live in a private world: of thoughts, evaluations, fears, emotions and fantasies. Most of what you experience, no one will ever know. It is uniquely yours. Does he like me? There’s not enough money. Oh my god, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m such an idiot. Idiot idiot idiot! She’s looking at me- quick, smile! Act friendly! We send missives to each other across the great chasm of our mental and emotional isolation, words and body language to alleviate this feeling of living banished inside a private B-movie.
Most communication ends up being strategic, and it’s getting more that way all the time. Strategic communication is designed to cause the other person to feel and behave in a certain way that fulfills our agenda. Although we may understand that communicating strategically is not the way we want to live, it is modeled to us so consistently that it just ends up becoming the default.
More or less all marketing is strategic. It’s designed to make you feel desirous of something you don’t have, or to make you feel inadequate in some way about your appearance, or your wealth, or your status, with the agenda that you will then give money to the entity that created the advertising.
Politics, particularly in the U.S., is entirely strategic. Politicians can be bought in various ways, by corporate donors, or just by the immediate needs and desires of their electorate. In order to get into office, you have to be popular, and therefore you need to “launch a campaign” in order to make people like you.
More or less all organized religion is strategic. A lot of it is designed to make you feel inadequate or disconnected from That which gives you life, so that the patriarchal structures can then provide exclusive access.
Sadly, a lot of educational institutions are also strategic, shunting the aspiring student along a conveyor belt of prepackaged knowledge. Each and every step is designed to help you meet another goal, pass another exam, and move on through the process so that you can eventually become an efficient cog in the socio-economic machine, buying and earning obediently.
The media was designed, long, long ago, in a land we can hardly remember, as a vehicle of honesty to counteract all these forces. It has also become, just within our lifetime, highly strategic, competing for the short attention span of its readership. The media has become polished at sensationalist headlines, page-turning copy, often fueled by fear to whip you up into a frenzy, and then win you, once you are addicted to the adrenal rush, as a loyal repeat customer.
Because almost everything we are fed systemically smacks of strategic communication, many of us have come to regard this as normal in our personal lives as well. Any time we communicate with anybody to persuade them to do anything other than what they would have already done anyway, we are communicating strategically.
:: Flirting and seduction is strategic, whether done with words, body language, or the selective display of naked skin. When we flirt, it may not actually be with the deliberate intention to end up in a relationship or in bed. Instead, it carries the agenda of wanting reassurance that I’m attractive and that you love me.
:: Very often when we enter into heated discussions with friends over dinner or in a café, the communication becomes strategic to win the argument or be right. It carries the agenda of wanting to shore up a position of superiority.
:: In fact, any kind of attempt to control anybody with rules or guidelines, suggestions or “feedback,” is strategic. It’s designed to have another person conform to my idea of what I think is the best way to live, and therefore to create a feeling of being in control. The ultimate expression of controlling behavior is, of course, violence.
:: Any form of harassment or intimidation is strategic. It’s designed to generate a feeling of fear in the other person, so they recoil back down and allow you to get your way.
:: Parenting is strategic whenever we do or say anything to herd the offspring to become closer to the idealized image we have shaped for them, and loose interest in, and curiosity about, their hesitant aspirations.
:: Compliments and the expression of affection can be strategic. Smiling broadly, you might say “Oh I love that sweater on you, the color compliments your skin so well. Lovely shoes, where did you get them?” This is another way to disarm a human being from the possibility of being real with you about potential discomfort.
:: Even blame and the assertion of a victim position are strategic. I remember Gay Hendricks said to me years ago in his observation of counseling so many couples, “Whoever is able to establish the victim position in a relationship assumes complete control.”
Strategic communication is not only about overtly lying. We are also being strategic when we withhold relevant information, which the other person would actually like to know. Having a secret affair, secret porn watching or gambling all require withholding, but not always lying.
We are also practicing strategic communication when we set up agreements of secrecy. Imagine that Alice is close friends with Bob, and both also know Charlie. Alice calls Bob one day on the phone. “Listen, Bob, I want to talk to you about Charlie. But this needs to be in confidence. I’m worried about him. It seems like he’s just running on empty, burning the candle at both ends. But please, promise me you won’t say anything to him about this. Charlie can’t know that we had this conversation. We’re only talking about this because I’m concerned for Charlie’s welfare.” It all sounds very benign, but what has been accomplished through this strategy is not only a breakdown of intimacy between Alice and Charlie, but also Alice has now made sure that Bob and Charlie have secrets between each other as well. I’ve noticed even among myself and my friends, who all arrogantly pride ourselves on being “conscious,” these kinds of little power games go on all the time.
Strategic communication is generally motivated by both greed and fear. Often we want to ride two horses at the same time. I want the security of my spouse and my family, and I want a lover as well. I can have both, so long as they don’t know about each other. I want the pleasure of my vices, but I also want the respect and trust of people close to me. So I lie. If I keep my vices secret, I can have my cake and eat it, too.
Strategic communication is often motivated by fear when we are insecure about what we already have, and we want to create a back-up plan. I want to have two lovers, who don’t know about each other, just in case one of them rejects me or hurts me. That would be so unbearable, I need something fall back on.
The antidote to strategic communication is called “honesty.” It’s strange, isn’t it, that these days we need to explain the concept and advocate for its forgotten benefits? Just over the course of a few decades, honesty has become something quaint and old fashioned, like writing with a fountain pen, or kneading bread at home. Admirable, but so inefficient. We have to deliberately decide to practice being honest. It has become the exception, rather than the norm. Most of us need a strong reminder now and then about why honesty is a good idea.
Let me tell you a little story.
Many years ago, I had a wonderful, beautiful girlfriend. We were so compatible with each other in every possible way, that I really thought this was “the One.” Forever. We would get married and grow old together. She was radiantly beautiful, funny, sensuous, very “spiritual,” and very intelligent. Nothing left to be desired. We rented a house together and made plans that we would both move there.
A few days before the move, she called me to say that her father had been suddenly diagnosed with aggressive cancer and she needed to go be with him for the weekend. “But honey, I’ll be right there to move into our little house right after the weekend, and then we’ll be together forever.” I felt so warm and cozy to hear those words.
I’d gotten quite close to her family. Over the weekend, her sister called me about something or other, and I casually remarked how sorry I was to hear about their father’s illness. “What do you mean?” asked the sister. “I had lunch with my father today. He’s fine.” When I hung up the phone, I was confused, to say the least.
My girlfriend had been temporarily staying in a little town where there was a tennis club, and I knew she was friends with the tennis pro. (Oh my god, this sounds so cliché, doesn’t it?) Now fueled by a mixture of jealousy and paranoia, I called the club to casually inquire if tennis lessons were available. Sure enough, the tennis pro was also away for a long weekend.
When the weekend was over, she called me. “Honey, are you excited? I’m coming up tomorrow.” Tentatively at first, I confronted her with what I now knew of the situation. She exploded into a fit of wild fury. “Oh my goodness, I can’t live my life like this, you’re so controlling and jealous. I told you I’ve been with my father for the weekend, and how dare you question me behind my back to my sister.”
When I hung up the phone I was trembling with shame, how could I have been so insane? She was right. My jealousy had made me blind. It was not until couple of decades that I learned the meaning of the word “gaslighting.” It would have come in very handy back then.
Finally of course, as always happens in life, the truth bubbled to the surface. I tried to explain to her that taking a trip for the weekend with the tennis pro could have maybe, possibly, been okay with me… -ish. We could have talked it through. But as for the lying, that was a completely non-negotiable element. I would rather be hung upside down by my toenails and slowly lowered into boiling oil than live in a close relationship in which I’m being lied to.
I still remember to this day the words she said when I explained this to her. They have been etched deeply into my heart. “I don’t get this big thing people have about honesty,” she said. “It seems highly overrated. It just gets you in trouble. It’s much more effective to tell people what they want to hear.” I loved that woman a lot, I might even be married to her today were it not for that incident. But after that, I felt very uncomfortable to even be in the same room with her.
Because of our toxic mainstream societal norms, it takes tremendous commitment, and consciously made agreements and practices, to even have a shot at honest communication. Our default is strategic communication, and it will dominate until we execute the discipline to reintroduce honesty into our lives.
Honest communication is the opposite of strategic. It does not guarantee you to make more money, have more power, to quickly get more love and approval, or to have more sex. It simply returns you and the other to a state of innocence.
Honest communication is always a risk. You can easily be rejected if you are honest, you can be laughed at if you do not support someone else’s narrative and agenda. You also risk not getting what you think you want, and sacrificing your own agenda at the altar of innocence.
What is innocence? It’s ineffable. It’s a lightness in the chest. It’s laughter for no reason. It’s a feeling of unconditional safety, not because of external circumstances, but because the weight is lifted from your heart. Innocence is an innate knowing of your own essential goodness and that of the other.
In order to recalibrate our lives to the frequency of honesty, I’ve discovered it requires water-tight agreements. The best place to practice is with the people closest to you.
Here are a few agreements you might consider making with your partner, with your family, and with the people you work closely with.
1. We will not lie to each other.
2. We will not withhold relevant information from each other.
3. We will not request confidential conversations about mutual friends.
4. If I feel uneasy that you are not being one hundred percent transparent with me, I will tell you.
5. If you tell me that you feel uneasy, I will not gaslight you.
Instead of sitting in the driver’s seat of control, knuckles white from gripping so hard, driving at 120 miles an hour into the future of MY DESIRE, beating a hasty retreat from the shanty town created by MY FEAR, now you can relax into the back seat of the car with your best friend. You can laugh and giggle together, while the ride is being guided by a **Greater Intelligence** that cares about your well-being far more than any of your mind’s strategic moves.