Magazine article USA TODAY

Report and Command

Magazine article USA TODAY

Report and Command

Article excerpt

THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS in the graduate-level course on Abnormal Psychology, our instructor held up the then-current version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and said, "Always remember two things: one, you can find everyone you know in here, and two, you never know what flick is playing in someone else's head." Much goes awry because we forget those simple truths.

Honestly, don't you ever wonder if some people are going out of their way to misinterpret--on purpose--what is said? Have you never sat in slack-jawed wonder at the psychological gymnastics required to wrest a particular interpretation from something that meant nothing of the kind, as you witnessed someone gallop away, flush with a gross (and possibly deliberate) misunderstanding? Sometimes, particularly with professional commentators and some others, there may be bad intentions, or at least the intention, all along, to make some point, whether or not it makes any sense in context. Among the well-intentioned, the problem sometimes may be a lack of clarity. More often, I think, it is a lack of clarification.

In family therapy and family systems theory, we have a concept called "report and command." The "report" is what someone actually says. The "command" is the meaning of that statement to them. It is the hidden expectation. In a final exam question for a family therapy course, I give the following example: Matthew states, "Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore." From a meta-communication perspective, "Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore" is the report. The command portion might be: (a) "I feel hurt because she doesn't care to do this for me anymore." (b)" ... and she should make my favorite meal." (c) "... because she knows I'm supposed to watch my cholesterol." (d) There is no command in this communication.

Students are expected to pick an answer and defend it briefly. There are multiple "right" answers. It is telling that, given the statement, "Susan never makes my favorite meal anymore," more than half of the students regularly assume that the command--the hidden meaning--is (b) " ... and she should..." rather than the plaintive option (a), or even the matter-of-fact and somewhat complimentary (c). The choice of (b), of going negative, tells them, and me, a lot about how they make assumptions about what people might mean, and points out the risk of assuming-rather than clarifying--the deeper meaning of even seemingly mundane remarks. Here, then, if Matthew is passive-aggressively expressing hurt at his wife's apparent disinterest in nurturing him, and Susan instead "hears" a chauvinistic, boorish demand that she slave over a hot stove, well, I have an appointment open, a week from Tuesday, at 6 p.m.

Another recent example: a friend observed a parent telling a child engrossed in a video game that the child's sporting event was to begin in 10 minutes. To only the parent's surprise, this barely nudged a response from the child. The parent actually said, "Hey, your race starts in 10 minutes." The parent believes he communicated, "Hey, dude, we gotta get going now so you can be in position for the race in less than 10 minutes." Dad made a vague observation about time that meant nothing to a child and the child took it literally: Dad is updating me on the pas sage of time. …

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