Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

About R(espect)-messages

They Determine Your
Communication Effectiveness

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/tools/r_msg.htm

Updated  01-15-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 2 - learn communication basics and seven powerful skills to get more daily needs met more often. Progress with this Lesson depends on concurrent progress on Lesson 1 - free your resident true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times.

      This brief YouTube clip summarizes what you'll find in this article. The viideo me2ntions eight lesso0ns in this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      This article describes the most powerful and least noticed of four signals communication partners automatically decode from each other - R(espect) messages. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2 ,

  • this perspective on self and mutual respect, and...

  • this article on the roots of empathy


      Any perceived human behavior that causes an emotional, spiritual, or physical change in another person is communication. Living things communicate to fill needs - i.e. to reduce or avoid discomforts.

      Infants, kids, and adults semi-consciously decode up to four messages at once from each other - what you feel + think + need + and how you feel about you and me now. These messages are interpreted from our face and voice dynamics and body language as we communicate.

      All kids and adults need to feel respected by themselves and each other. When people feel inferior to or disrespected by their communication partners, their E(motion) level may rise "above their ears," and their abilities to hear and communicate effectively can plummet.

      Starting in infancy, we instinctively interpret signals from our eyes, ears, and skin to judge how our communication partners feel about us at the moment. We unconsciously decode others' eyes, faces, bodies, and sounds (including silence) to mean one of...

  Three R(espect)-messages

"I'm 1-up (superior) to you right now. My needs, opinions, worth, and welfare are more important to me than yours are." 1-up messages are implied when another person's awareness bubble seems to exclude us now or over time. The extreme form of a 1-up R-message is decoded as "You're not aware of my feelings and needs - I don't exist."

      Or we silently judge that the other person feels...

"I'm 1-down (inferior) to you now. Your needs, opinions, worth, and welfare are more important to me than mine are." Someone who's behavior implies this R-message can focus mainly on their partner's thoughts, feelings, needs, and actions (a 1-person awareness bubble). If this is chronic, it suggests the condition of codependence (relationship addiction) - a common symptom of psychological wounds.  

      Communication is most apt to be effective if each partner steadily decodes this:

= "I feel we're equals in human dignity and worth now. I rank your needs, opinions, worth, and welfare as being just as important as mine." When partners share this mutual-respect attitude, they can be said to exchange "equal-equal" ("=/=") R-messages.

      Most people (like you?) aren't aware of the R-messages they exchange, and how powerfully they affect communication outcomes and relationships. Shame-based (wounded) adults and kids often unconsciously misinterpret other people's behaviors to mean "I-m 1-up. I don't respect or care about you now." Then their personality subselves react with hurt, resentment, aggression, and/or withdrawal.

      Typical survivors of childhood neglect (GWCs) will earnestly say "I respect and care about you," but their non-verbal behavior says "My needs, opinions, and worth are more important to me than yours are." If chronic or denied, this kind of confusing double message degrades communication and relationships. Personal wound-recovery raises self respect and compassion, and reduces double messages over time.

Respect Zones

      In any relationship, there are different respect "zones" or levels. Depending on our roles, expectations, and values, we can feel (dis)respect for someone...

  • as a whole person ("I don't respect Pat at all."), or...

  • as a female or male, boy or girl, or a man or woman; or...

  • in one or more social roles, like mate, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, boss, neighbor, salesperson, voter, service-provider, customer, client, stranger, foreigner, authority, etc. ("Max is a good person and father, and an irresponsible mechanic.")

      So one person may respect another as, say, a human, man, woman, and/or a Muslim, and disrespect them as a sister, co-worker, citizen, lawyer, and so on. In important cases, using awareness and metatalk skills to discern what respect zone is causing 1-up or 1-down R-messages can help to spot and solve communication problems.


      If you want to improve your communication effectiveness, start paying attention to (a) the R-messages you receive and send, and (b) the results - who gets their communication and other needs met? Are you motivated to do this now? "No" may mean you're dominated by a well-meaning false self. If you are motivated, see Lesson 1.

Response Options

      If you perceive significant 1-up or 1-down R-messages from a communication partner, You can...

  • check to see if your true Self is guiding your other subselves. If s/he's not, focus on freeing your Self before doing anything else. Then you can...

  • do nothing, and accept the communication and relationship effects of this attitude; or you can...

  • wonder if you're doing something unconscious that promotes the other person's disrespect - e.g. you can wonder what R-message s/he is receiving from you.  

      Option - ask the other person ("Are you feeling respected enough by me now and over time?") If appropriate, ask about one or more respect zones. ("Are you feeling respected enough by me as a man and as a piano teacher?") Be alert for a polite double message.

Or you can...

  • assess the awareness-bubbles you're exchanging. Significant 1-up and 1-down R-messages are often promoted by a 1-person or no-person bubble - which is a symptom of a disabled true Self. Option - use awareness, metatalk, and empathic listening to seek spontaneous (vs. dutiful) mutual 2-person bubbles;

  • notice (a) how you feel about the other person, and (b) how receiving these messages affects you. Typically, implied 1-up and 1-down R-messages cause irritation, hurt, frustration, resentment, and perhaps aggression or distancing in the receiver - specially if the sender denies the non-equal respect attitudes. All of these diminish communication effectiveness. Once you notice these two things, you can...

  • decide whether to use an assertive I-message with your partner, factually describing (a) the R-message you're getting and (b) how it affects you. That might sound like...

"(Name), I'm feeling disrespected by you now." or...

"Name, I feel like you're putting my needs / opinions / worth above your own right now - and that makes me uncomfortable."  Or you may ask...

"(Name), whose needs are most important to you now - yours or mine?" The best answer is "I feel your needs and mine are equally important."

Doing this can lead to win-win problem-solving if you're both motivated, guided by your Selves, and know the seven Lesson-2 skills.

      If these 1-up or 1-down R-messages are frequent, your partner is probably ruled by a well-meaning, myopic false self. See this article after you finish here for response options.

What if You Don't Respect Someone?

      No matter how you try to disguise disrespect in some zone, your behaviors will "leak" your attitude, and the other person will sense it. In deciding how to handle disrespect, you have several choices:

  • stay aware that once it's lost, respect must be earned. It cannot be demanded, assumed, or expected. Can you name the criteria you use to award respect to other people (or yourself)?

  • decide whether your true Self is guiding you, or if other subselves are causing the disrespect. Your Self will usually feel empathy and compassion rather than disapproval, and will respectfully assert opinions or boundaries to reduce any discomfort you feel.

  • identify what zones your disrespect applies to, and decide whether to be honest about your attitude, rather than pretend and send a double message.

  • If you choose honesty, recall the principles of offering effective feedback to another person - including the idea that respectful feedback with no hidden agendas is a gift, not an attack or ploy;

      Or you can choose to...

  • thoughtfully compose an assertive ''I''-message and/or a factual meta-comment. Expect "resistance," and respond with respectful empathic listening. Then restate your message until you feel heard or decide to do something else.  

    • typical "I"-message: "(Name), your voice-tone, facial expressions, and eye contact suggest to me that you don't feel we're of equal dignity and worth as persons. This distracts me from hearing you very well, and I wonder if you'll talk with me about it.


  • "(Name), I'm getting a lot of 1-up (or 1-down) Respect messages from you now, and it's distracting me from hearing you very well. Will you talk with me about this?

  • typical meta-comment: "(Name), I'm experiencing you as having a 1-person awareness bubble as we talk (and I'm feeling excluded by you).

See this article on respect for more perspective after you finish this one.

  Status Check

      Do you agree that all adults and kids steadily need to feel enough self-respect and social respect? If not, this concept and article will be of little use. If so, does the idea of automatically decoding non/verbal R(espect)-messages in all important social situations make sense to you? To see if it does, try describing and illustrating the concept to another person. Then describe why the concept is useful in assessing communication effectiveness.

      Also decide if you're willing to start practicing R-message awareness with key adults and kids in your life. If so, stay aware that doing so is not about fault-finding, it's about learning to notice a dynamic that can potentially block effective communication. This applies equally to communication among your dedicated subselves! If you're not willing to practice this awareness, suspect that your wise true Self is disabled.

      Option - widen your perspective by learning about the powerful technique of mapping communication sequences and patterns. R-messages are one of seven or eight key dynamics that affect most internal and social communication outcomes.

      Is there anyone else whom you think would benefit from knowing this R-message concept?

      Growing self respect (Lesson 1) and fluency in the Lesson 2 communication skills of awareness, empathic listening, and metatalk can increase the =/= R-messages you exchange with key communication partners, including with the dynamic subselves that comprise your personality.


      All adults and kids need to feel respected. This article describes one of four messages we all automatically decode from each other's behavior - R(espect) messages. Three possibilities are:

  • you seem to feel 1-up: your needs, feelings, and opinions are more important than mine;

  • you seem to feel 1-down - your needs, feelings, and opinions are less important than mine; or...

  • you seem to feel that our needs, feelings, and opinions are equally valid and important.

When adults or kids get either of the first two R-messages, effective communication is unlikely.

      The unique guidebook Satisfactions (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010) integrates the key Lesson-2 Web articles and resources in this nonprofit Web site, and provides many practical resources.

Keep studying and applying Lessons 1 and 2 !

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self (capital "S") or ''someone else''?

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