Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 People Who Are

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/intellect.htm

Updated  01-25-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as "always in their head. People who don't show or express their emotions socially can cause anxiety and confusion in others. The article assumes you're familiar with...

      This brief YouTube video offers perspective on people who are "emotionally unavailable" and "in their head":


      Premise: animals, including humans, communicate in order to reduce current needs - dynamic mixes of emotional, physical, and spiritual discomforts. As social animals, we form a range of "relationships" with others - to fill various needs for companionship, acceptance, validation, stimulation, love, and support. Most social (vs. business) relationships feel best when we exchange information about how we're feeling about current life. Does this match your experience?

      Some people are more aware of, and expressive about, their physical and emotional feelings than others. That can happen for a range of reasons:

  • typical "female brains" seem more able to feel, empathize, and express feelings than male brains;

  • some people value being quiet and self-aware more than other people;

  • typical survivors of childhood neglect (Grown Wounded Children) learn to numb or block some or all uncomfortable feelings - and without skilled intervention, bring that into adulthood. They may repress and avoid selected strong feelings, like shame, guilt, love, anger, joy, sadness, lust, and fear. Some GWCs experience an inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia).

  • some kids raised by stoic or emotionally-numb parents learn to devalue and ignore emotions and may lack a vocabulary to describe them; and...

  • some people mute or repress their feelings when others discount, criticize, and/or over-react to them.

      Can you think of an adult or child who is "unemotional," "stoic," "analytic," or "very guarded"? How do you feel around such people? This can be specially trouble-some in average marriages and with some "non-communicative" (insecure) kids. Such people are socially described as being "very private" and "always in her/his head." 

      Discomfort with "closed" such people may have to do with being unable to intuit how they are - in general, or with us. It can also come from feeling such people may understand our emotions but not empathize with (validate) them. Such discomfort hinders trust, empathy, and intimacy, and keeps relationships shallow and superficial. Have you experienced this?

      If you have, how would an objective observer say you react? Pretense? Annoyance? Frustration? Caution (mistrust)? Impatience? Confrontation? Resignation? Avoidance? Scorn? Pity? Compassion? Staying superficial? Indifference? Do you try to "fix" or "help" them to access and express their feelings? Are you able to be yourself (e.g. express your own emotions  and needs honestly) with them, or do you violate your integrity to avoid conflict? 

      Is there an effective way to respond to people who need to deny or repress their current feelings? Consider these adult...

Response Options

      See if you can define "an effective response" out loud now. If you can think of an adult or child who is "always in their head," imagine using responses like these with them...

  • Mentally review these basic response and feedback options until they become automatic.

  • Identify how you feel with an "intellectual" or "guarded" person, situationally and in general. Your feelings will help you...

  • Recall that needs are normal urges to reduce current discomforts. Use your feelings as pointers to identify what you need with an "over-intellectual" person - e.g. to vent, learn, or inform; cause change; suggest; confront; persuade; empathize; set or enforce a boundary; or something else.

  • Depending on what you need, tailor responses like these to fit your situation...

"(Name), are you open to some personal feedback now?" (If not, you have a different problem to respond to.)

To Vent or Inform 

"(Name), I notice that you seldom describe your feelings." (Option - ..."and that makes me uneasy with you.")

"When I ask you how you feel (about _______), you often say 'I don't know / nothing / not much / etc.' Are you aware of that pattern?"

"How do you feel about people who don't disclose their feelings?"

"I feel like your need to minimize expressing your feelings is limiting our relation-ship."

"I don't need an analysis or explanation. I need to know how _______ is affecting you."

"Your mouth is smiling, but your eyes aren't."

"I rarely hear you express anger / sorrow / anxiety / guilt / shame / confusion."

"I like it when you say how you feel (...about ________ )."

"I can't tell if I upset or bore you at times (and I'd like you to tell me directly if I do, OK?)"

"Are you open to me asking you about your feelings (and/or needs) now?"

"How do you feel about the way I express my emotions?"

"Can I do anything that would raise your comfort about disclosing your feelings to me?"

To Confront, or to Change Your Relationship

"(Name), I'm going to start telling you of my frustration when you aren't able or willing to tell me how you feel and what you need (from me)."

"(Name", I'm not willing to have another) intellectual / superficial discussion with you."

"When I ask you how you feel, you usually tell me what you think."

"I feel you're saying what you think I want to hear, rather than what's real for you. When you do that, I don't trust you."

"What do you think might happen if you risked describing your feelings (to me)?"

"When you say 'I can't help (being intellectual),' I lose hope for our relationship."

"I'm getting tired of asking how you feel, (Name)."

      Notice the theme of these response-options, and adapt it to your communication style and personality. Your response will work best if you say it calmly, respectfully, and with steady eye contact.

      Common reactions to responses like these are denying, arguing, explaining, excusing, changing the subject, silence, leaving, no eye contact, criticizing, complaining, whining, etc. When you assert a need, thought, or boundary, expect such reactions, and use empathic listening to acknowledge (vs. agree with) them. Then restate your response calmly and briefly, and be quiet. Repeat this sequence until you satisfy your needs or develop new needs.

Responses to Avoid

       Even if said in humor, these may feel like c/overt put-downs to wounded people...

"Why are you so intellectual / in your head / analytical / philosophical?" (Implication - You're bad / weird / not OK / defective).

"You're about as exciting as a tax form."

"You only give me the mental half a relationship."

"Why can't you be more like ______? S/He's able to describe feelings and needs."

"You ought to be a poker player - your  face never shows a thing!"

I know just how you feel." (Only if you've lived the other person's life)

"Hey - lighten UP, will you?"


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond effectively to an overly-intellectual, guarded, stoic, or "unemotional" person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge of your personality,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your mutual personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening. (Lesson 2)

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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