Communication stress styles
most likely to
change and most
likely to learn
People freeze, will
not change and
Helping people into their ‘discomfort zone’
We have all experienced change situations where we have gone from a feeling of
comfortable stability into a feeling of panic. It is useful for anyone involved with change
and improvement to remember when it happened to you and understand those feelings.
The comfort zone is where some people are quite happy to stay. It may be a way of
thinking or working, or a job that someone has been doing for a long time. In a comfort
there is a sense of belonging
things feel familiar and certain
the work is controllable and predictable
people feel comfortable and competent
there is no threat to self esteem or identity
However, in the comfort zone people generally don‟t need to learn new things and therefore
As a Leader, the best strategy is to help people out of their comfort zone but not into a
panic zone by encouraging them into the discomfort zone. It is in the discomfort zone that
people are most likely to change and learn how to do things differently.
To encourage people to leave the comfort zone you need to help them feel „safe‟.
You can help people to feel safe by creating the right environment and culture. This will
include ensuring there is no blame, and developing a culture of mutual support and respect.
Then ask them to question the current situation and see it from another point of view such
as customers and other members of staff.
Other methods to help people feel safe include:
• create a compelling and positive vision of how things could be
• provide access to appropriate training and positive role models
• provide coaches, feedback and support groups
• ensure systems and structures are consistent
For more information read Senge, P. (2000) The Dance of Change: sustaining momentum
in a learning organisation, Nicholas Brealey
Communication Stress Styles
In her book „New Peoplemaking’ Virginia Satir observes that people tend to react to stress,
being out of their comfort zones and threats to their self esteem with one of the four
different defensive communication styles:
They sometimes become so accustomed to using these communication styles that they
don‟t even realise they are protecting themselves and warding off their partners/colleagues
as if they are their potential enemy.
They may become so used to using the style automatically, that the style itself becomes the
problem. It pays to be able to recognise these patterns in ourselves, our colleagues and in
our partners, and to recognise the insecurities underlying them.
To get rid of defensive communication styles, people must face the very thing
they are afraid of and be open to acknowledging their fear and other threatening
Placating (doesn’t show their anger and power)
Characteristics Eager to please, apologetic, can act syrupy “yes” person, when I
am Placating I can act like a martyr.
Verbal “Whatever you want.”
messages “Without you, I‟m nothing.”
“Don‟t make waves. Don‟t rock the boat.”
“Never mind about me.”
In extreme they “I feel like a nothing; without him/her I am dead. I am worthless.”
might feel When Placating I am scared and hurt.
Guiding I‟ll demolish myself before you do (or to preserve the
Symbol Runs like a rabbit
Adjectives to Ingratiating, apologetic, long-suffering, weak, clutching,
describe this dependent, victimised. At the extreme, depressed, prone to
To move out of
their defensive The Placator needs to speak on his or her own behalf.
Blaming (doesn’t show their pain)
Characteristics Fault-finding, when blaming I can be controlling, nit-picking,
criticising relentlessly and speaking in sweeping generalisations.
Verbal “You never do anything right.”
messages “If it weren‟t for you, everything would be all right.”
“You‟re so stupid (sick, bad, crazy, evil etc.).”
“You‟re just like your mother (father etc.)”
In extreme they “I feel lonely and probably unloved.” The blamer is angry because
might feel he/she anticipates not getting what he/she wants, including
Guiding Given a problem or a threatening situation, the best defence is a
principle good offence, or, demolish the enemy before he/she can demolish
Symbol Strikes like a rattlesnake
Adjectives to Controlling, violent, disagreeable, hostile, tyrannical, nagging, nit-
describe this picking, fault finding and at the extreme, paranoid.
To move out of The Blamer needs to acknowledge their pain, or their anticipation of
their defensive pain or disappointment about not getting what they want, to arrive at
communication what is possible – what can work for both.
Computing (Is afraid of their emotions)
Characteristics Calm, cool, collected, super-reasonable and rational, when
computing I carefully choose the right (often abstract) words,
expects people to perform and to conform (to “shoulds”), avoid
admitting mistakes, deny feelings, tend to cite facts, statistics,
authorities and tradition.
Verbal “Upset? I‟m not upset. Why do you say I‟m, upset?” “I‟m fine.”
messages “Everybody know …” “Obviously …”
In extreme they “I will not be vulnerable.” The computer is afraid of all emotion.
Guiding Given a problem or any stress, the only thing to do is deal with role
principle expectations, facts and statistics. (You can‟t get me if I don‟t show
Symbol Acts like a computer, or a turtle in a shell
Adjectives to Militaristic, legalistic, compulsive, obsessive, rigid, principled,
describe their insensitive, unfeeling, lacking in sympathy or compassion – at the
behaviour extreme, a robot.
To move out of The Computer needs to stop being afraid of emotions, to get in
their defensive touch with the whole range of their own emotions. They are
communication probably closest to being aware of their own anger, which goes with
style disapproval of people who do not perform/conform. Only by getting
in touch with his own emotions can s/he empathise with someone
Distracting (is afraid of reality)
Characteristics Talkative, irrelevant, frantically active and unfocused, when
distracting I may be avoiding direct eye contact and direct answers,
and am quick to change the subject or ignore the point being
Verbal “Problem? What problem? Let‟s go to the movies.”
In extreme they The Distractor can be frightened and distrustful, believes “Nobody
might feel really cares. There is no place for me. I don‟t know what to do.”
Guiding If I ignore the problem, maybe it will go away, or improve by itself –
principle or God will take care of it.
Symbol Hides head in sand like an ostrich
Adjectives to Distracting, erratic, inappropriate, talkative, frantic, hyperactive,
describe their purposeless, and – at the extreme – out of touch with reality.
To move out of The Distractor needs to get in touch with her own strength and learn
their defensive whatever skills and information she needs in order to grapple with
communication reality as it exists, instead of his/her illusions, or the way s/he would
style like it to be.
The Placator in effect, says, “I don‟t have any power myself; I have to please you to
survive.” Both the Placator and the Blamer assume that the survival of the self depends on
the other person. The super-rational person assumes that the basis for survival of people –
on things. The Distractor assumes that the self has no predictable basis for survival.
Levelling (the Congruent Style)
The leveller assumes that they will survive using their own resources and
combines the qualities of the other four styles in a positive or humanised
The placator humanised is your capacity to be sensitive, loving, caring and to have
empathy for others – not out of fear but because you want him or her to be happy.
The blamer humanised is your own capacity to be assertive on your own behalf without
demolishing your colleague/partner.
The super-rational humanised is your ability to analyse, problem-solve and plan while
taking into consideration both your own and others feelings and desires.
The distractor humanised is your capacity to have fun, your ability to balance pleasure
and purposefulness, to say, “I‟m not going to deal with that tonight because I want to
enjoy myself. I can deal with it tomorrow – and I will.”
The leveller says:
“I can say how things are for me without blaming.”
“I can be sensitive and caring without placating.”
“I can use my intelligence as well as my feelings, and I can look to keep pleasure in our
relationship. I will tell you what I think and feel, without blaming or placating you, without
denying my feelings or yours, and without ignoring the problem. And I will invite you to
do the same”
“My behaviour and responses reveal what I am thinking and feeling; I won‟t wear a mask
or hide behind a smile, a glazed look, a blank or icy stare, or total impassiveness.”
Mature, alive, creative, integrated, healthy, and competent.
The descriptions used in these four styles reflect a generalisation that men often don‟t
acknowledge their pain and women tend to be afraid of their anger. Men tend to be super
reasonable blamers, more in touch with performance and conformity (“shoulds”), because
our society emphasises male career effectiveness. Women tend to be irrelevant Placators
because they are afraid to show their power or their anger. Generally, women have been
conditioned to believe that their success in life depends on being loved, protected, cared for
and approved by a man. We‟re talking about typical patterns; they don‟t hold for everyone.
Also, some people show one style and feel another – are placating on the outside, for
example, and blaming on the inside.
The fact is, many of us mix and match these defensive styles, either in sequence or at the
same time. It‟s very easy to be a Blamer, for example, and it‟s easy to alternate styles.
Moreover, most of us, at one time or another, have tried all of them. However, here‟s a
situation where practice does not make perfect – except with levelling congruent style, the
only one that gets the blue ribbon.
What is good about it:
Loving, Empathic, Caring, Sensitive
What is good about it:
Speak on one‟s own behalf, which we all need to be able to do, without blaming
What is good about it:
Use of own logic and reason, as long as it includes feelings as well as thoughts
What is good about it:
Ability to play, to have fun, without avoiding reality as a lifestyle
Self Task Placating
Dropping needs of self
Self Task Blaming
Dropping needs of others
Self Task Computing
Dropping needs of self & others
Self Task Distracting
Dropping self, other & task