Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Wall of Words

Words are meant to be used to communicate and communication is essential in any relationship. However, quite often words are used as weapons to attack a partner in a relationship, as clubs to bludgeon he or she into submission. One thing I have encountered quite often in my life is what I call the “Wall of Words”, which consists in one person (whom I will call a “waller”) talking in an aggressive way for long periods of time so that the other person is forced into silence and does not have time to form an effective defense.

Here is how it works. The person will start talking and carry on for a long period of time, often giving lots of unnecessary details and repeating himself. If the other person interrupts her, he will complain vigorously about the interruption and then proceed with the speech. However, there is a double standard regarding interruptions, because when the other person finally gets a chance to talk, she will be soon interrupted by another long tirade of the “waller”, who suddenly feels the urgent need to correct something the other person has just said. In the most blatant cases of the Wall of Words that I have experienced, there was an occasional silence but when I opened my mouth to speak the “waller” immediately started talking over me, blocking anything I was trying to say. In fact, the Wall of Words may leads to two persons talking simultaneously, even screaming at each other, one trying desperately to get heard and the other blocking the speech.

The Wall of Words is harder to implement in group situations, although I have seen one person take control over an entire meeting and preventing people with dissenting opinions to speak by using her authority as the Chair to allocate most of the speaking time to herself.

The “waller”, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to block the other person from communicating. She clearly does not want to listen, she just wants to lecture the other person. The goal is to create a power imbalance in which the “waller” adopts the role of a superior lecturing a subordinate, like an adult reprimanding a child or a boss chastising an employee. Indeed, the content of the speech in the Wall of Words is quite often full of accusations and shaming. Other times the “waller” presents herself as a victim and the Wall of Words in put up with the excuse of defending herself against the supposed abuse of the other person. Of course, abuse does happen, but the way to stop it should not be preventing the abuser from communicating. In fact, the Wall of Words is in itself a form of psychological abuse in which the power imbalance created by the fact that one person gets to talk and the other doesn’t may end up undermining the self-esteem of the person silenced. Often, the “waller” will elaborate a long list of accusations and the person silenced feels powerless to even start addressing it. In the worst cases, threats are also included, adding fear to the negative emotions of guilt and shame.

What can be done when faced with a Wall of Words? Solutions are not easy because the Wall of Words itself prevents any solutions based on good communication. Here are some ideas:
  1. Ask a third person to mediate. Ideally, the mediator should be made aware of the problem so that she can arbitrate equal time to talk. However, be aware that the “waller” may try to involve the mediator in the dynamic with protest of unfairness, ultimately also blocking the mediator from communicating. 
  2. Walk away. Quite often a person will put up a Wall of Words only when he is upset or forced into a defensive position. In those cases, simply rescheduling the conversation for a time when everybody is more calm solves the problem. In other cases it may simply not be worthwhile to talk to a person who uses the Wall of Words. On the other hand, trying to continue a conversation when a Wall of Words is being used is not just a waste of time, but an affront at the dignity of the person being subjected to it and may even cause her psychological damage.
  3. Ask yourself if you are part of the problem. Granted, a Wall of Words is abusive, but perhaps the person using it does so as a mechanism of defense against something that you are doing. She obviously doesn’t want to listen to you, but is it out of fear that what you may say will hurt her? Even if you don’t use a Wall of Words, you may also be saying things that are threatening, blaming or shaming. 
  4. Use a safeword to signal to a person prone to use a Wall of Words that she is carrying on for too long and is time for her to listen. Of course, this is predicated on that person recognizing that there is a problem.
  5. Name the problem: “you are using a Wall of Words”. I think that coming up with a shorthand name like the “Wall of Words” can help a lot by raising awareness about a previously unrecognized problem. Other words like “sexist”, “homophobic”, “emotional blackmail” and “slut shaming” have work very effectively as a signposts for other abusive behaviors. 
I just came up with these possible solutions by thinking about this problem, but if you know of any others please feel free to suggest them.

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