Toxic Communication Patterns: Put-downs and Shut-downs

Toxic Communication Patterns: Put-downs and Shut-downs

Put-downs are terms of disrespect, of ridicule and humiliation. I use the term shut-down for a form of communication that, instead of opening up a topic and encouraging debate and healthy conflict, shuts it off. Shut-downs may be overt: one of the drawbacks to yelling is that it often shuts down a conversation. But shut-downs can also be very subtle.

Marshall Rosenberg talks about the difference between a request and a demand. A request is something you can say no to without paying a heavy emotional cost. A demand wrests a huge price for saying no. If I say to my partner, "Please, would you bring me a cup of coffee," he can say yes or no. If I say, "If you really loved me, you'd bring me a cup of coffee," he can't say no without admitting that he doesn't really love me.

Shut-Down: Blaming and Shaming

Blaming and shaming serve as shut-downs. Blaming may hold people accountable for things far beyond the scope of their actions and not under their control: "You bought paper plates, and now old-growth forests are being clearcut!" Blaming imputes bad motives and generalizes from the action to attack the person: "You brought paper plates because you hate the Tree People and wanted to drive us out of the cooperative!"

Shaming also generalizes from the action to the person but goes far beyond true accountability or constructive feedback. If I say to an intern, "Relax your wrist and let the hammer swing," that's helpful feedback. If I say, "Good grief, did you never in your life pick up a hammer before? Your arm is as stiff as that block of wood! What — you're too good to do manual labor?" that's shaming.

Shut-Down: Name-Calling

Along with blaming and shaming goes name-calling. Racial and gender-based epithets, terms that disparage someone's sexual identity or ethnic group are clearly out of bounds in progressive circles. Nonetheless, even conscious people resort to name-calling, although the labels may be political or spiritual.

"You're a scared liberal, that's why you object to my throwing a rock through the window of McDonalds." "You're a mindless thug, that's why you won't agree to a non-violence code." Or, in spiritual circles, we may hear, "You're functioning on a lower, material plane." "You're unevolved." "You're still trapped in the lower chakras."

Shut-Down: Threats

Threats are another form of shut-down that we often employ when we attempt to assert control. We do need to hold one another accountable, and actions have consequences. But if I constantly invoke those consequences in interactions, I may shut down dissent and communication.

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"If you keep complaining, you'll undermine the group and you'll be responsible for destroying our work." "If I hear one more complaint, I'm calling a meeting to denounce you!"

Shutting Others Down with Public Correction & Humiliation

Toxic Communication Patterns: Put-downs and Shut-downsWe also shut one another down when, in the name of political correctness, we become language police, when we are constantly calling one another out for using the wrong terminology or forgetting the latest correct phrasing for an issue. Language is important, and a shift in language can represent a vitally important shift in consequence.

There are some terms that should never be used in conscious circles of people committed to justice. But a public correction, no matter how well meant, humiliates the one who receives it. We should be careful and judicious in how many corrections we dish out.

Shutting Down Dialogue: Framing An Issue Unfavorably

Finally, another way to shut down dialogue is in how we frame an issue. "Frames are among the cognitive structures we think with," says linguist George Lakoff, who has written extensively on the frames we use in political discourse.Frames are metaphors that tell us what to expect in a situation, what roles will be played and what values are being employed.

A frame can be more emotionally powerful than the content of what is framed. Lakoff stresses that whoever controls the frame controls the argument. Consider what happens when a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy is framed as "murder." Or when cuts in government workers' earned retirement plans are framed as "pension reform." If progressives fall into the trap of disputing how much or little we need to "reform" the pensions people have worked for and counted on, we've already lost the argument.

Framing A Disagreement As A Moral Test

When an issue is framed as a life-or-death dilemma, as a test of commitment or integrity, it's hard to have an open discussion. If we're arguing about whether to cut the weeds with a scythe or a weed-whacker, we could argue the pros and cons of each. But if your frame is "Every small decision is a test of our moral commitment to the environment," there's not much room for me to argue the merits of the weed-whacker without being branded as an anti-environmental lout.

If my partner and I are arguing about which movie to go to, and my frame is "A compatible relationship means perfect agreement — if we can't agree then we shouldn't be together," there's not much room for my partner to prefer a Russian drama with subtitles over my choice of a light, romantic comedy.

Establishing Open and Vibrant Communication

Progressives tend to be morally driven people so integrity and consistency are important to us, and we have strong feelings and strict standards for how people should behave. Yet we live in a world that is not set up to further many of our goals and aims. We are constantly forced into compromises. We often do drive a car to get to the meeting about reducing our carbon footprint.

If we want to establish open and vibrant communication, we should take care not to frame every disagreement as a moral test. Instead, we should look for ways to frame our issues that encourage and support diversity and a wide variety of — if we go see each others' preferred movies, we'll each stretch and grow." We might look at the weed-whacker debate as an opportunity to evaluate the trade-offs of time and energy vs. fossil fuels. Then we can hear all sides of the story.

©2011 by Starhawk. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers.

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The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups
by Starhawk.

The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups by Starhawk.Drawing on four decades of experience, Starhawk shows how collaborative groups can generate the cooperation, efficacy, and commitment critical to success.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book.

About the Author

Starhawk, author of "The Empowerment Manual" (Starhawk photo by Bert Meijer)Starhawk, a highly influential voice for global justice and the environment, is deeply committed to bringing the creative power of spirituality to political activism. She is the author or co-author of twelve books and also teaches Earth Activist Trainings (, intensive seminars that combine permaculture design, political organizing, and earth-based spirituality. Her website is and she blogs at


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