Personal and impersonal styles in a relationship
These two different communication styles are often polarised to the point where one is totally exiled or discredited (disowned). They are involved in many of our most puzzling problems in relationships. Appreciating the difference between them opens the door to a whole new understanding of what makes a successful relationship and of course what can goes wrong as well. But how do you identify these two styles?
One way to distinguish the two is to remember that:
Impersonal is "more protected but less connected"
Personal is "more connected but less protected "
Case study 1 -
Harry’s impersonal style
Let’s start with an example of impersonal style. This afternoon Harry’s rational analytical mind self is in charge as he talks with a group of friends about the advantages of having private superannuation rather than investing with a major fund. He feels secure about expressing his knowledge and understanding so there is no need for him to be pushy or over confident or get into his ‘knower’ inner self. Harry and his rational mind self express such a convincing set of reasons in favour of private super that all his friends happily agree with him.
It may be more accurate to say that they appear to accept his point of view. Agreement is often a high priority for this group, a sense of ‘unanimity’ protects the group’s feelings of common friendship, mutual support and stability which reduces underlying vulnerability in its members.
What will be missing, if this is the case, is a sense of a close warm personal connection between people in the group. Harry and his friends are all protecting themselves by using impersonal style, that is they are connected through their minds rather than through each other’s feelings.
All this illustrates the idea that impersonal style places more importance on being protected than being connected.
Helen and Harry alone
Later the same day Harry is alone with Helen, his closest and most intimate friend and his current partner. Helen was present during the afternoon’s discussion and Harry now notices she is a little more distant and impersonal than usual and he asks her about this.
She explains that she hadn’t wanted to rock the boat while the others were present but because she does not have any of the accounting or management skills needed to handle self-managed super, she prefers to invest with a major super fund. She had been hoping Harry might be interested in helping her pick the best super fund. Now she wonders whether he would be willing to help her.
Harry’s first reaction is to argue forcefully that she is wasting her money, instead he says that he will have his solicitor draw up plans for a private super find for Helen. He is still in his impersonal style (still more protected than connected to Helen.) His rational mind remains active and in charge.
Helen’s personal style
Helen, however is aware of this. She knows that to join in and argue with Harry would be unproductive at this point, because she has been working with her inner selves for several years and can see that there are risks, if she were to start using her own impersonal style at this point. For a start, it might trigger Harry into even stronger impersonal style.
She would be especially vulnerable should Harry try to pressure her to follow his preferred strategy and that would force her further and further into her own impersonal style as it became necessary to disconnect more to protect herself and her feelings from Harry’s impersonal and argumentive style. And that in turn could lead to a negative bonding pattern or a fight.
Instead Helen decides to use more of her personal style. She laughs and suggests to Harry that they both look into super options individually and talk about it later. She hugs him and suggests that they go out and spend the evening dancing, something they both enjoy. Helen’s style is warm, very personal and is aimed at rebuilding a closer connection with Harry.
In this way she is helping Harry to move further into his own personal style. Both now become much more inter-connected emotionally. Either Helen or Harry would of course then be more vulnerable, should any kind of disagreement arise, since by becoming more connected (personal) they are less protected. This doesn’t happen however, and they have a wonderful romantic evening.
What are the characteristics of these two so very different energies?
High impersonal style
This is often used by people in place of adult boundaries. The stronger inner selves keep limits on connection, that is getting too close to other people. In particular that means keeping feelings (except anger) hidden. The weaker the connection the stronger the protection from vulnerability.
Describing emotional events - Jay and Jen have just been through a traumatic experience. A close friend asks Jay how he felt at the time. "Well," replies Jay, "you think to yourself that you are going to die and you wonder why you have this sense of your whole life flashing before you." Notice the avoidance of the word "I" as well as the masking of feelings. That’s impersonal style. Jay’s analytical mind was there too, even at a time of mortal danger it was wondering and analysing ‘why’ things were happening.
Jen, on the other hand replies. "I was terrified, I was afraid I was going to die. It was awful!" She is using a much more personal style. She identifies herself with the experience and exposes her emotions. So, she will connect much more with the people listening to her that if she was spending time analysing ‘why’.
Problem solving - The lease has expired on Jay’s unit and he and Jen need to find a new place to live and love. Jay looks at the problem, analyses their needs in a practical way. His mood is a little detached but he is still looking for win-win solutions and positive outcomes.
Jen, however, is apprehensive about the move but at the same time excited about the possibilities of getting a new unit which will be ‘theirs’ rather than ‘his.’ She hopes that Jay will feel the same way and involve her in selecting the units they will inspect.
Jay is rather distant, very analytical, using a high level of impersonal style, rather than his adult boundaries, so he fails to notice Jen’s desire to be more involved, and he does not begin to connect with her feelings. On the other hand, he will also be less likely to feel vulnerable should Jen disagree with his choices as he looks through the vacant units advertised.
The higher the level of personal style connecting two people the stronger the interaction of feelings and the more empathy is present in their conversation. There is often a lightness as well, a sense of joy in the experience of relating which contrasts with the heaviness of impersonal interactions.
What about the inner selves?
Most inner selves know lots about these two styles, but that does not mean they are able to keep them in balance or use them both in the right place and at the right time.
Some, like the problem solving inner selves and the analytical mind operate very much in impersonal style. Others like the responsible caretaker can be one or the other, or a bit of both. Of course you can expect the peacekeeper and pleaser to use much more personal style, since they usually see being close and connected as far more important than distant and protected.
You may have noticed in the cases above, that Jay and Jen managed to keep well out of any really strong arguments (as people in case studies are able to do). In real life that’s normally not what happens and this is where it starts to get a bit more complicated.
Keep in mind that most inner selves are much more concerned with protecting the person they belong to, far less with improving connections or relationships. That means they will try to keep you out of personal (more connected than protected) style. To these inner selves (inner selves) , getting more connected with another person just means more work and more vulnerability to look after. Whatever their special tasks in the village, they will prefer impersonal connections where they can stay in control. The greater their control, the stronger the protection but the weaker the connection.
The inner selves that use personal style have a more difficult task. They seek protection too, but it is mainly protection from being alone or feeling abandoned, or powerless. Their solution to such problems is to get more closely connected with other people and that is what they set out to do. The price they pay, unfortunately is that the more they get you connected (less alone) the greater your vulnerability in regard to issues such as being controlled by your emotions.
Individuals need to use and balance both styles
You can appreciate how much a individual needs to be able to move comfortably (through high to low) within both personal and impersonal styles and to be equally comfortable moving from one style over to the other to suit a particular time, situation or relationship.
The alternative (an un-balanced style -too much of one toO little of the other) can result in people either getting stuck on one side or swinging too violently (flipping) from one extreme to the other. Both cause problems for individuals.
So, what are some of the signs that tell you that you are operating more or less in your impersonal or impersonal style? What are similar pointers that might warn you if you could be out of balance or flipping too much from personal to impersonal?
• fewer close friends, more general or open friendships.
• you notice people seem more interested in connecting with you when they are talking about problems or seeking help with their own issues, but less likely to connect when things are going well for them.
• cool tone, low empathy
• communication with other people often contains either an openly stated or a background non-verbal signal of that you are in a hurry or under pressure. Example e-mails are abbreviated and leave unnecessary words out of sentences.
• communication with other people contains either an openly stated (or a background non-verbal signal) that you are comfortable or even enjoy time spent communicating with them
• you project warmth in tone, empathy and positive understanding
• communication contains either an openly stated (or a background non-verbal signal) that helps assure the other person that you are in no hurry, that you are happy to spend as much time as it takes to communicate, speak or listen and above all to share understanding with them.
• you may find yourself a bit too easily controlled by other people, especially those who rely on manipulation or emotional pressure.
• sudden reactions when being over-controlled by others finally become intolerable resulting in an over-reaction. Examples: Flipping from easily controlled peace keeper to rebel or freedom fighter. Dynamiting the bridge.
For more about the effect of all this on friendships and relationships click Choosing Between Personal and Impersonal Channels
The Many Languages of Love
The gifts of Friendships and relationships
The fable of the two codependents
Feedback - please e-mail me John Bligh Nutting - at firstname.lastname@example.org
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