Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Tool: Map Your
 Communication Sequences

Learn How to Get Better Outcomes

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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

Updated  01-16-2015

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availalble Spring 2003      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 your personality in calm and conflictual times.

      The unique Lesson 2 guidebook Satisfactions (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010) integrates the key articles in the series, and includes related resources.     

      This article describes and illustrates a powerful communication problem-solving technique called mapping. Use this tool any time you have chronic or urgent problems communicating effectively among your personality subselves and with other people.

      This brief YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      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

  • common communication blocks

  • an overview of communication sequences and patterns


      Communication between people and/or personality subselves is a semi-conscious process powered by each person's drive to satisfy current needs (reduce discomforts). Every communication exchange (sequence) has a beginning, a middle process, and an ending. Some sequences take seconds, and others take minutes, hours, days, or longer. 

Jack  [feels +  needs + thinks + does (something)] that Jill "decodes" (deduces meaning from); so...

Jill reacts: [feels + needs +  thinks + does (something)] that Jack "decodes," and... 

Jack reacts to her reaction: [feels + needs + thinks + does (something)] that affects Jill; so she (continues or ends the sequence).

This interactive... act arro-rt2.gif (870 bytes) react... sequence continues until one or both partners feel their main needs are met well enough or they need to do something else.

      Our internal and mutual needs conflict all the time. - e.g. "I need to nap, and I also need to meet my friend for lunch;" and "I need to cuddle, and you need to take a shower and call your brother."

      We each evolve a basic style of reacting (thinking + feeling + behaving) with various people. You may react differently to conflict with a female vs. a male, an adult vs. a child, with your boss vs. a co-worker, and friends, vs. strangers. Do you know what your several styles are?

      Our typical reactions are mostly unconscious until we use the skill of awareness to learn "How do you and I usually react together? Who usually gets their current needs met - you, me, us, or nobody?"

      If someone usually doesn't get their current needs met well enough, each react-point in our sequence is a place where you or I can change our reaction and get more of our mutual needs met. Mapping is a simple way to assess your communication sequences and improve them.

  Mapping Communication Sequences

      Any perceived action by person "A" that causes a "significant' reaction in person "B" is "communication.' To map a communication sequence, pick a child or adult with whom you have a relationship with. Then...

  • Choose attitudes of curiosity and neutrality, and expect to learn ways to improve your communication outcomes, rather than blaming or defending. This is not an exercise to find out who's right or wrong!

  • Note your and the other person's usual expectations about your sequence: who will get their needs met, and how? Note your usual initial E(motion)-levels (above or below the ears), and respect-attitudes about each other: mutual respect, 1-up, or 1-down.

  • At the top of a large sheet of paper, draw a symbol for (e.g. a circle, square, diamond), or write the name of the person who "starts" the sequence. Write briefly next to the symbol or name the key thing/s you think s/he feels, needs, thinks, says, and does at that point in the cycle. Also guesstimate who was leading his or her personality parts at that time: true Self (capital "S") or other subselves.

          Non-verbal behavior counts as much as verbal (words and sounds). With actions, be as specific and factual as you can, and avoid judgments ("Gets unreasonable.") Summarize only those actions that could be audio or video taped. Include silences, and note significant patterns of eye contact, hand, face, body, and voice dynamics, and interruptions and repetitions.

       This might look like ...

Feels: ignored, misunderstood, hurt, and frustrated by (stepson) Carl;

Needs: to vent and be heard by wife Marsha;

Thinks: "I'll try it again, but Marsh'll probably get defensive and argue (vs. problem solve);"

Says: "Marsha, I need to tell you what happened between Carl and me."

Does: Avoids eye contact, crosses arms, shakes head slightly, frowns.

Attitude: mutually respectful (=/=);

E(motion)-level: (just) below the ears.

In charge: unknown Guardian subselves and/or Inner Kids

      Using a different symbol, objectively summarize the same factors for person 2 as s/he reacts to person 1's communication:

Feels: Apprehensive, weary, "depressed," and guarded;

Needs: to avoid conflict, and feeling caught between Jack and Carl again;

Thinks: "I know what Jack's going to say: Carl's a jerk, and I'm a bad Mom."

Says: "So what's Carl done now?"

Does: Frowns, voice tone sarcastic, shallow breathing, stares at Jack;

Attitude: "I feel 1-down, and Jack seems 1-up"

E level: below the ears at first, but rising fast.

In charge: unknown Guardian subselves and/or inner Kids

  • Option - also estimate each person's awareness bubble at each reaction point: 1-person, 2-person, or no-person.

  • Alternate diagramming back and forth between the two of you, (action arro-rt2.gif (870 bytes)reaction), until you reach an ending to this communication sequence (e.g. Jack and Marsha stop talking). Note that silence (Says: nothing) is a communication: it causes reactions ("You're ignoring my request."), just like words.

  • Option - Let your overall sequence of act arro-rt2.gif (870 bytes)react steps form a circle - or connect the last step to the first with a dotted arrow, if this sequence is habitual. You may have several basic cycles, depending on the topic and setting.

  • Estimate the usual outcome: whose communication and other needs got met or didn't? If you needed to problem-solve how do each of you feel: is your communication process effective enough?

  • If you mapped this alone, seek your partner's input on the map. Edit it until you both feel it's accurate enough. It's OK to have differing perceptions of your communication sequence - that's a helpful learning by itself. Avoid power struggles ("I'm right!" "No, I am!"). Try "I see (experience) it differently" or similar.

  • Reality-check the possibility that your shared sequence is cyclical (a sequence of sequences, or pattern): Will this beginning > process > outcome sequence probably occur again between you? Will you each act about the same or differently? Again - the point here is growing your awareness and options, not about blame or competition!

      Every circle or square in your interactive sequence is a place where one or both of you can improve the shared outcome (get more current needs met). There are many change points in most sequences. Use awareness and metatalk skills as partners to discover what specific changes would help you each get your respective communication and other needs met well enough, in a mutually-satisfying way. 

      You each have half the responsibility and choice to improve the sequence. Mapping your communication sequences - specially conflicts - will raise your awarenesses of how you communicate together now, so expect some useful shifts!

   For Extra Credit

      Needs are mental or physical discomforts. Most people unconsciously focus on filling surface needs, which are symptoms of what they really need. Option: at each point in the sequence, dig down below the surface needs ("I need to know if you put gas in the car") to estimate the person's primary needs ("I need to reduce my anxiety about running out of gas the next time I use the car.")

      When you've tried mapping your sequences with several people try adding a third person who's directly involved, like a child. draw a unique symbol for them, and note the same factors for them at each stage of your sequence. Your sequence then becomes something like...

"A" ([feels / thinks / needs / says / does / R-message / E-level / in charge]arro-rt2.gif (870 bytes)

"B" reacts [ --- ] arro-rt2.gif (870 bytes)"C" reacts by [ --- ] arro-rt2.gif (870 bytes)"A" reacts by [ --- ] ... 

       More extra credit: most of us fall into communication patterns over periods of time - i.e. repeated sequences. Try mapping your patterns on important topics - specially the outcomes of your sequences: who got their primary needs met well enough? ("The last three times we've talked about money, you seemed to feel satisfied and I didn't.")

      As you map your sequences and patterns, watch for relationship triangles ("Jack supports Susan, and criticizes Ben.") These are specially common in multi-home divorcing families and stepfamilies.

      Besides noting whose needs got met, the most important thing to glean from communication mapping is seeing when someone is ruled by a false self. When that happens, the odds of effective communication drop sharply.

      Three main reasons for ineffective communications are psychological  wounds + communication unawareness + ignorance (lack of knowledge). Lesson 1 here offers an effective way to assess and reduce the first of these, and Lesson 2 can help you reduce the other two.

      As with all new concepts, you need to try mapping several typical sequences (say with five or fewer sequence events) to experience the full value of this useful technique. Notice whether you're motivated to try mapping in the next several days. If not, a well-meaning false self may be controlling you.


      This article outlines a way to diagram the sequence of verbal and nonverbal interactions between people or personality subselves, by estimating up to nine personal variables at each step of the sequence. You can also profitably map communication patterns (sequences of sequences) between two or more people over time.

      The purpose of mapping is to raise your awareness of your communication process, and spot and reduce any blocks that hinder achieving win-win outcomes together. This is not meant to be tool for criticizing someone or proving that one person is right or a "better communicator"! Ideally, all people in any sequence or pattern will make and discuss each map cooperatively, using these seven powerful skills.

      For more perspective, see this illustration of a sequence between two parents and their teen daughter. Then continue studying and applying Lesson 1 and 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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