There are times when you want to lash out at someone who makes your life miserable. Perhaps a work colleague or your closest intimate partner is being, for lack of a better word, mean. You feel attacked, outraged, and misunderstood. Worse, you feel that you've hit a brick wall and are not being heard or taken seriously.
Italian psychologist Francesca D’Errico and philosopher Isabella Poggi (2014) use the term “acid communication” to refer to what happens when people who feel angered and mistreated restrain themselves from expressing how they truly feel. As they state, “The person who performs acid communication is feeling angry due to some feeling of injustice and would like to express one’s anger, but cannot do so due to a feeling of impotence, both to recover from the injustice undergone, and to prevent the negative consequences of one’s expression” (p. 663). We might call this passive aggressiveness: You want to say something negative but because you feel you can’t (for whatever reason), you release your anger in indirect ways.
The acid speaker, D’Errico and Poggi point out, uses irony, sarcasm, insinuation, and indirect criticism through their words and tone of voice to “project the image of a smart and brilliant person” (p. 664). People can also use body language to accomplish the same goals through gestures, facial expressions, and movements of the head and body. We’ve all been guilty of this at some time or another: You feel attacked, don’t want to say anything, so instead you purse your lips or fold your arms, perhaps accompanied by an upward eye roll.
In a questionnaire study of 80 Italian young adults, D’Errico and Poggi identified:
- "Proactive” emotions among acid communicators as jealousy, envy, the desire for revenge, hate, and contempt.
- "Passive” emotions that included helplessness, bitterness, and resentment.
Participants stated that they were prompted toward acid communication when they thought the other person in the situation was behaving in the same way, was envious, wanted to make the other person feel guilty, or felt misunderstood. They reported feeling nervous, angry, and afraid to come out with their actual feelings or true response.
The acid person doesn’t seem to be received well by others. Adjectives that participants used to describe such individuals included irritable, grumpy, arrogant, surly, rude, not helpful, and snappy.
Being an acid communicator doesn’t get you anywhere with others. What’s perhaps even worse, it may even put you in a bad mood about yourself. The result of acid communication, the Italian researchers found, include feeling guilty, among other negative emotions regarding your own role in the interaction.
The best way to avoid being an acid communicator is to express yourself directly in an open and receptive way. Ironically, you may fear doing this because you’ll be perceived as overly critical or argumentative. To get out of this bind, you instead need to find a way to engage in fruitful dialogues. Taleb Khairallah, Roger Worthington, and Ali Mattu of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) recently produced guidelines for people involved in “Difficult Dialogues.” With their permission, I’ve adapted 5 of these guidelines here:
1. Don’t dominate the dialogue.
A “dialogue” is not the same as a monologue. If you’re having a conversation, allow for sufficient give and take. As the APAGS authors suggest:
- Be patient and give others a chance to express themselves. Some people are slower than others to join in the commentary. Whether with one other person or with 50, pause between your own sentences to allow others to collect their thoughts and put them into words.
- Do not interrupt. This is one of the surest ways to infuriate conversation partners. Although some people make awkward pauses in their speech, and seem to go on too long, find a way to allow the conversation to flow.
- Don’t make speeches. Just as you shouldn’t interrupt others, don’t make it impossible for people to comment on what you’re saying. Think of a conversation as a written log; if your comments would occupy an entire page at a time, then you need to provide some breaks in between paragraphs.
- Frame your comments to allow opportunities for interaction. Using occasional questions—“What do you think?” “Does this make sense?”—and putting your views in the form of “I” statements will allow your conversation partners to feel invited to speak, and hence less likely to lash out.
2. Respect opinions.
Show that all viewpoints are important.
- Listen to each other with respect and an open mind. Show that you are able to appreciate what others have to say rather than frowning or looking impatient when someone expresses something that you don't agree with. An open face will communicate an open mind.
- Recognize that disagreement is okay. Not everyone has to have the same opinion, and by accepting that there are views divergent from your own, you allow your partner to express what she or he has to say.
- All perspectives are valued. Stating explicitly that you value differing perspectives, and then acting as if you do, will reduce the chances of your appearing “acid” like.
3. Everyone is encouraged to participate.
This includes you.
- Don’t allow your thoughts and opinions to go unheard. Just as you want to encourage others to speak up when they have a perspective to offer, don’t feel that you have to restrain yourself. If you stifle your opinions, they’ll only leak out later in an unproductive way.
- It’s okay to change the subject. In the midst of a debate or dialogue, you may feel that an important topic is being overlooked. Explicitly stating why you want to change the subject will help prevent the perception by others that you’re simply barreling into the conversation.
4. Moderators are facilitators, not participants.
- Keep things going rather than dominating the scene. If chosen to lead a group discussion, don’t take advantage of the situation by running the show. Pay attention to the flow of topics among participants and choose speakers in a fair and agreed-upon manner (such as an order of speakers raising their hands at a meeting).
- Use your expertise when asked. It’s possible that you’re leading a group because you are the person charged with its smooth functioning. When someone requests your opinion or asks you for help, it’s okay to volunteer it, as long as you can do so without making others feel that they don’t know as much as you do.
5. Sometimes our best thinking comes after reflection.
Reflection helps bring psychological closure to a dialogue. Ask yourself the following questions after the conversation is over:
- How has your thinking about an issue changed?
- How has your thinking about other people’s views changed?
Being a good conversationalist is slightly different from being someone who can engage in dialogue. The kind of dialogue in which people feel valued, listened to, and respected is the kind that produces the greatest strides, and fulfilment in yourself and your dialogue partners.