So much has been written and spoken about relationships, but the last word has not yet
been spoken. Sometimes it is a positive experience, easy, uncomplicated and heaven on
earth to be together. At other times things turn negative and we become entangled in
conflicts that remain unresolved and then we become one another’s hell on earth.
The Systems Approach in Communication is a practical and easy way to assist us in
creating a little bit of order in the confusion that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with
The Systems Approach in Communication
The system comprises inputs, delivered by persons A and B, into the invisible
communication field that exists between them, namely system C. In diagram format, this
may be represented as follows:
In accordance with this approach, there are three conditions for communication of high
quality in system C.
Honesty. This entails saying exactly what you mean and meaning exactly what you say
because, in a relationship, only honesty can result in mutual trust and respect. I believe
that these 3 elements form the foundation of a relationship that facilitates openness and
However, honesty could be cold and cruel and could cause major damage to a
relationship – therefore, warmth is of crucial importance.
Warmth. That is reflected in the way in which we talk to each other, in the words that
we use – i.e. verbal communication, but also in our body language or our non-verbal
communication. Honesty and warmth are essential in a relationship, but then we still need
an even deeper level of communication, namely understanding of feelings or empathy.
Empathy or understanding of feelings
This implies trying to understand my own, as well as the other person’s feelings and
verbalising this understanding. It assists us to be in contact with our own as well as each
other’s feelings on a deeper level, namely emotionally. Emotional contact is a satisfying
experience because we feel understood and accepted by our partner.
The three concepts mentioned above seem to be very easy to accomplish. However, it is
not all that easy, because:
* If A is honest and B uses this honesty at a later stage during an argument in
order to cause hurt, then A learns that it is dangerous to be honest and
discontinues this practice. When I observe the above in therapy I see red lights
flickering and I know the relationship is in trouble.
* If we feel that it is going to cause too much damage. For example: A younger
sister is sexually abused by her prospective brother-in-law. She could decide
to protect the family system against the truth, only to carry this burden all
alone in the years to follow. Many people often feel obliged to protect each
other against the truth – usually at high cost to themselves.
* Should a third person be brought into the relationship, usually, at some stage
or another, the truth will surface and the results are usually disastrous! It is
extremely difficult to regain trust and respect that have been lost.
* Should A and B become entangled in a situation of conflict, warmth usually
flies out the window. The trick is to handle the conflict and to try and find a
solution so that the warmth in a relationship could be rekindled.
* In my consulting room, I often see people who have no contact with their own
feelings, with the result that they are totally incapable of talking about their
emotions or “reading” their partner’s feelings. The implication is that
emotional needs go unsatisfied, that one or both partners feel that they are not
being UNDERSTOOD, with the result that they find themselves in a
relationship lacking in emotion.
* We filter that which we say by means of our own perceptions, prejudices,
values, culture, self-image and a whole lot more. The other person does
exactly the same. In one way or another we have to penetrate each other’s
filters in order to decipher the true message. An even worse scenario: We
build walls in system C by withdrawing, ignoring the other person or refusing
to discuss an issue. Research has shown that the person behind the wall feels
safe and experiences greater control. However, the one standing in front of the
wall gets frustrated and hesitant, because he/she does not know where he/she
stands with the other person. And, in the majority of situations, to withdraw
results in losing your partner somewhere along the way.
And yet, honesty, trust and respect remain the foundation of a healthy
relationship. Should these elements be lacking, the chances are excellent
that the relationship will be broken off, or that it would end up being a
most unhappy relationship. Warmth in a relationship is akin to the sun
shining on flowers in the garden. Without the warm rays of the sun,
When empathy is absent, then an important, deeper dimension is absent
in the relationship.
PLEASE NOTE: The communication process is not finalised before it has
not become clear to both A and B what the sender of the message actually
MEANT. Therefore, when the message is not fully comprehended,
without fail, the secret lies in asking for clarity or for an explanation with
regard to the meaning of the message.
Underpinning everything that has been said so far, is the skill to really
LISTEN to each other. Nobody can be accused of perfect listening – there
is always room for improvement.
Many people say: “I have to WORK at my relationships, but few people have the tools to
enable them to know HOW to do this. The systems approach lays the foundation and
gives one an idea of the basic components of a good relationship.
In Sections B, C, D and E, additional tools are discussed .
I refer to relationships as magic, because we constantly have to use our analytical and
social judgement while we are busy communicating. For example: Should a vehicle
suddenly swerve in front of me, I have to analyse the situation and decide how to react. It
is of great value to, at the very least, keep control of our emotions and react in a socially
acceptable manner. We experience the process of analytical and social judgement
hundreds of times, if not a thousand times per day. It is therefore small wonder that we
sometimes stumble and say and do the wrong things. However, the magic is present –
and, after all is said and done, relationships do actually work!
Assertiveness is a key concept in relationships, and yet few people understand what it
constitutes and how it works. Assertiveness is one of the most important tools in
relationships of high quality.
In terms of the systems approach, as discussed in Section A, an easy definition of
assertiveness is to give input in system C and to Say on two levels:
* what I am really (that is where honesty comes into play) THINKING, i.e.
what is going on in my head; and
* how I really (once again honestly) FEEL, i.e. what goes on in my heart.
If I do the above-mentioned in an honest fashion, with warmth towards, and an
understanding of the other person’s feelings, it can do no harm. On the contrary, it helps
me to say NO if that is what I want to do, and to establish healthy boundaries in the
Assertiveness works very similarly to a radio. A radio that plays too softly cannot be
heard and makes no difference. A person who cannot be assertive will withdraw by rather
keeping quiet at all times, be too modest and too gentle. Being a pleaser is yet another
characteristic, with the resultant bottling up of emotions. The consequence? Frustration
with the self builds up and an outburst could follow, or physical symptoms could occur,
such as a headache, a tummy ache, an aching back or numerous other symptoms. The
bottling up of emotions could eventually be a cause of depression.
On the other hand, being too assertive is like a radio that is playing too loudly and is
therefore painful to the ears. Behaviour characterising this, is displayed by people whose
noise levels are very high. Such a person could easily be sarcastic, dominating or a
control freak. The actual word that depicts too much assertiveness is AGGRESSION.
Aggression may be observed at three levels at least:
* Physical – as in physical violence – hitting, kicking, stabbing with a knife,
* Emotional – using verbal aggressiveness or playing on the other person’s
feelings by using manipulation (i.e. causing someone to feel guilty should
he/she not do what I want him/her to do). The simple test to find out whether I
am being manipulated, is to decide:
have I done anything wrong? If the answer is NO, I know I am being
* Sexual – abuse, rape.
Is there a difference between assertiveness and aggression?
Very definitely. If I could control my anger, I can act assertively. If my anger gets the
better of me, I am no long in control and I could act inappropriately – and sometimes
cause irreparable damage to a relationship.
The balance is to be found between too little and too much: rather say what you think and
how you feel as soon as possible, in a mature way, with control over your emotions, and
avoid unnecessary damage to the relationship.
By now it is crystal clear that assertiveness has everything to do with the handing of
conflict. A person who cannot act assertively will find it very difficult to handle conflict
Dealing with conflict
We normally inherit our style of dealing with conflict from our parents. If you never saw
how your parents handled their differences, because it took place behind closed doors
“for the sake of the children”, then your style will be to avoid conflict. Or, if conflict was
dealt with by using aggression, you might think that this is the natural way of dealing
I think life entails moving from one situation of conflict to the next. It is impossible to
lead a life free of conflict. The clever thing to do is to master the art of the effective
handling of conflict and to apply it with ease – as quickly as possible after the conflict
has taken place.
The principles of healthy communication, which are discussed here, also constitute the
foundation in terms of which conflict could be handled that much easier, even though it is
not exactly a pleasant task.
Tips for dealing with conflict in a constructive fashion
1. Stick to the point. Don’t use the opportunity to rip up old wounds. These
“funerals” are probably old conflicts that were not properly worked through. Place
them on another conflict agenda and first deal with the one at hand so that the
process is not unnecessarily prolonged.
2. Teach yourself the art of non-defensive listening and speaking. A style of
attack/defence is a style severely lacking in effective communication and often
deteriorates into naming, blaming and shaming. It does not assist us in any way to
defuse the conflict. (Section D further explains these styles.)
3. Practise detoxifying self-talk – i.e. first try to understand. Let us look at an
example. Your partner is late and has forgotten to let you know why. If you
immediately think: “I do not deserve this kind of treatment. I am no longer going
to put up with it”, you immediately assume the role of the innocent victim or that
of the justified, indignant sufferer! Oh, woe is me!
Rather ask yourself: “Am I perhaps overreacting? Is it the end of the world? What
does my partner regularly do that actually makes my life easier? Maybe I should
perhaps first try and establish why my partner is late?”
4. Take a few deep breaths and relax a little.
5. Always criticise the person’s BEHAVIOUR, not his/her character, otherwise you
once again elicit a defensive reaction and/or cause unnecessary hurt.
6. Do not generalise – i.e. do not use words such as “always” or “never”. It is simply
not true and would result in a reaction of: “But what about the time when …” –
i.e. once again defensive.
7. Shift to your adult voice and remain there. (Section D).
8. Empathy is an excellent way of relieving tension – i.e. acknowledge your
partner’s feelings. For example.: “I can understand that you are very angry”.
9. Do not avoid conflict. Air your grievances and negotiate towards change before
an explosion takes place – if this is possible.
10. When you are peacefully together, find the time to ask: “Did something happen
during the past couple of days which made you upset”. It is far more productive to
discuss an issue when both parties are relaxed, and it assists towards preventing
the escalation of conflict.
11. Be patient. It takes time to change established negative patterns of behaviour.
Transactional Analysis (TA)
This model of communication was developed by Eric Berne, MD. It gained world-wide
acceptance to the extent that it is still being used today in all four corners of the globe.
Should you wish to know more about the topic than merely the basic core information
that I have included in this discussion, simply Google Transactional Analysis and have a
look at what the Internet has to offer.
In order to explain the concept of TA, I am using the following example: Should you
walk into a shop, put a few items into your basket, walk to the cashier, pay, receive your
change/till slip and pick up your parcel and walk out of the shop, a financial transaction
has taken place. During the communication process, communication transactions take
place. TA focuses on these transactions with the objective of improving your
understanding of communication, and to facilitate changing our way of communication,
if that is what we would like to do.
In terms of TA, there are three ego states inside every person: a parent, an adult and a
child. The parent could speak with one of two voices, and so could the child. That means
that each one of us could speak with one of five voices. However, the same is true of the
person to whom you talk. If you are aware of which voice you are using and with which
voice, coming from the other person, you are connecting, then you understand the
transaction that is taking place. Should you then find it necessary to change the level of
the transaction, you could easily do so – provided you now how to.
Here follows a brief description of the five voices, as well as a diagram:
1. The Critical Parent (CP)
This is the part of the personality that finds fault and delivers negative comment.
Criticism is often expressed. Should you become sensitised to identifying this
voice, you can hear how often it is used and abused during communication.
2. The Caring Parent (CP)
This parts tries to understand and support, and constitutes the gentle side of the
3. The Adult
This is the voice of REASON. It is that part of the personality that likes to think,
gather facts, take good decisions and carry out these decisions. It also keeps the
other two parts, namely the parent and the child, out of trouble (if possible), by
thinking and planning in advance. This is the voice which assists us most in
The Child constitutes a VERY POWERFUL side of you and me, and likes to
react emotionally. It could be either positive or negative emotions.
4. The Free Child (FC)
The free child likes fun and to give expression to all the other emotions.
5. The Adapted Child (AC)
This is the part that reacts in response to the other person’s communication. In
other words, I do not start the communication process, I merely react to what the
other person is saying. The AC could give a rebellious, sulky, moody response –
or a number of other responses.
Application. For example, I come home tired and frustrated, and my partner immediately
says to me, in a voice that I experience as the Critical Parent: “Where have you put my
cheque-book?”. I can now choose any one of five voices to respond with. Should I
become annoyed and give a Free Child, i.e. an emotional response, I might angrily say:
“How in heavens name should I know where your cheque-book is? Are you incapable of
taking care of your own possessions?” More than likely, my partner would also get
annoyed and also resort to an emotional response. Then the transaction has shifted to the
FC level, which is one of the levels where conflict takes place. Conflict is not resolved at
this level and neither on the Critical Parent level, where I could respond without emotion,
but for example, with sarcasm. Two CP voices do not resolve the conflict either. It is only
when one or both move to the adult voice that a solution, which is acceptable to both
parties, could be found. For example: “I do not know. When last did you have it with
It would also be possible to respond in the CP voice and perhaps say: “I will immediately
see if I can find it for you!” This, of course, places the last speaker in the position of
parent and the other speaker in the position of the child. This could work, but it defines
the situation to work similarly in future: Snap your fingers and I will jump! This does not
sound either assertive or in the adult voice.
The last voice that could be used is the AC, and that could, for example be: “If only the
house was not in such a mess, things would not have disappeared like this. I will really
have to do something about it.” This is a typical victim response, which will not resolve
If you want to deal with conflict in an effective and constructive manner, remain in your
adult voice and behave in an assertive way – not aggressively..
Eric Berne wrote quite a bit about “ The Games People Play”. We often (mostly
unconsciously) get trapped in negative communication transactions. Read more about this
on the Internet, or consult a psychologist if you are not successful in your efforts.
This is a concept I learnt from David Schnartz in his book, “Passionate Marriage”. It is
of utmost importance and I regard it as the cherry on top of everything that we have done
up to now. He describes it as follows:
“Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces, the drive towards
individuality and the drive towards togetherness.”
Note the strong words, “two basic life forces”. He explains as follows:
We are all born as babies – rather selfish little creatures who want all their needs satisfied
immediately: hunger, thirst, a wet nappy, pain, etc., by crying if there is an unfulfilled
need. The parents are on duty and must establish what the need is and fulfil this need as
soon as possible.
As time goes by, the baby becomes bigger and starts developing – an own identity,
interests, self-image, personality, etc.. Schnartz calls it a “sense of self”. This entails
everything that turned me into the person I am today and that turned you into the person
you are today.
Should the development process of the “sense of self” NOT be successful, the typical
result is a person with feelings of inferiority and a poor self-image.
Should the process be successful, then the result is an assertive person who, in his or her
own right, could be himself or herself.
Should the process develop too far, then the person becomes like a baby once again –
selfish and egocentric, who expects others to fulfil his/her needs as soon as possible.
If the “sense of self” develops out of context, we find a personality disorder, which is
referred to as narcissism. These are people who believe: “The entire world revolves
As development continues, we realise that we are not alone on this earth – there are also
other people with whom we can establish emotional connections. If the “sense of self”
has developed well, we are capable of initiating positive relationships and maintaining
If the process develops less satisfactorily, the person builds a wall around him/her and
keeps people at a distance. It is difficult to know where you stand with such a person and
then the relationship becomes complicated.
A third possible position is what Schnartz calls “emotional Siamese twins”. These are
people who become overly dependent and easily say: “If you break off the relationship, I
will commit suicide, because I cannot live without you”. People like this become a
burden because they expect to be carried in a relationship.
Ask yourself the following questions:
* Do I have a positive ”sense of self”?
* Do I keep people at a distance unnecessarily?
* Am I like a creeper, suffocating my partner?
It is not always easy to find a balance between being too independent or too dependent
but rather inter-dependant. It is possible.
If I take a broad look at A, B, C, D and E, my conclusion is that relationships require
continuous hard work, but if we have the necessary tools – and use them – can be very
rewarding. It helps so much if ;
* I am honest and communicate with warmth and an understanding of my
partners feelings, as well as of my own feelings.
* I can be assertive.
* I can handle conflict in an effective manner.
* I can be aware of the TA voices and successfully handle the ‘games people
* I can ensure that my “sense of self” is positive and that I am able to establish
healthy emotional connections.
Relationships that work well result in a life that is meaningful and worthwhile. An open,
growing relationship remains filled with surprises and magic.