Communicating live with a person is the original multimedia experience.  It’s not only about the vocalizations, it’s about body language, facial expressions, hand gestures, reference points in space, the environment…it’s a full body process.  To make it even richer we encode huge amounts of meaning into packets which we can then include by inference so we put our energies into moving things along.  For example, if someone, instead of waving hello holds up their hand in the Vulcan salute a huge amount of information is inferred: Their familiarity with Star Trek specifically and geek culture in general, their assumption of your status with both, the social connection this does or doesn’t make between the two of you, the underlying meaning of the gesture beyond the current social cue and much more.  Inferring things is a great short hand that allows conversations to move at a rapid pace.  Or if you look at it the other way, it keeps us from having to explain the joke. 🙂

But inferences can be problematic especially if they are used for manipulation.  We think of it as sleight of hand or double speak. Things are said in a way to suggest one thing, to lead us into thinking that something has been said or agreed to when that isn’t the case.  Also, things can be inferred that aren’t ever say and suddenly we seem to have agreed to something that was never discussed and we are left holding the bag.  This happens quite often in dysfunctional relationships.  One side wants the other to do something, but instead of stating so plainly or directly asking, instead they start talking as if the other has already agreed to do the thing.  If they are really good at inference they start talking about the thing or the event as if it’s something that is good for the other, that their part in receiving it is actually a sacrifice they are making for others.  Their partner, not recognizing that the inference has happened, fills in the missing pieces with their own notion of what is going on, making up a story for themselves which matches their world view and the one side then gets what they want the way they want it without ever having to lift a finger or take responsibility.

Inference is used a lot in dysfunctional families to set roles such as inferring through actions as well as indirect statements that one child is this while another is that, one is smart, the other funny, one is an athlete the other an academic.  These things may or may not be true, but in the family there can be only one.  These inferences, because they go unspoken and unchallenged, become part of the fabric of a child’s life and carry through adulthood unless they are specifically called out through some healing process or emotional event.

So what do we do about manipulation through inference?  Look for the gaps.  Separate the statement from the event.  Separate it from the emotions of the moment.  Take it to the desk or the kitchen table and unfold/unpack it to see what has been said outright and what hasn’t been said.  Start with what hasn’t been said like if there is a discussion of what they will do, did they say anything about what you could do or what that leaves for you to do?  Did the statement actually refer to you at all when it should have?  Don’t assume, don’t add meaning in, that’s filling in the gap. Leave the gap there.  Once you’ve seen the gaps, look at the words.  Are they specific or are they generic?  Words like home and responsible and proud and heart are emotional triggers but vague if they aren’t qualified.  Home is different from our home. Responsible is different from stating what specifically the person is being responsible for.  If someone says “I feel responsible” and then doesn’t specify for what or in what way, there’s a gap.  Hollow emotion laden words are waiting for you to make inferences.  They are an invitation for you to fill in the details.  Don’t.  When you can see the gaps, hear the hollowness of the words, then you can start having real conversations that lead to the truth.