Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Diagram Your
Sequences and Patterns

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


 The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/tools/sequences.htm

Updated 01-15-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-2 articles on learning to use seven skills. for effective thinking, communication, and problem-solving. The most fundamental skill is awareness - noticing what's happening now and over time...

  • inside yourself , and...

  • between you and other people, and...

  • between other people around you.

      My experience as a communication student and teacher for 40 years suggests that less than 5% of average adults (like you) are aware of these three dynamic "zones" - specially in important and stressful situations and relationships. Most adults and all kids aren't aware of their un-awareness and how it hinders filling their family and social needs. They don't know what they don't know, because their ancestors and current society haven't taught them. 

      Professional communicators like therapists, mediators, and clinical hypnotists learn to be "process-aware" of over 30 behavioral variables inside themselves and between them and their clients. They use this awareness to promote effective communication in their clients and their work.

      This article will show you how to use one useful variable - communication sequences and patterns. It provides...

  • a definition of sequences and patterns, and why observing and changing sequences and patterns can benefit important relationships, and...

  • an illustration of an ineffective sequence between two mates, and the same sequence using seven skills to get a more effective communication outcome.

        This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this non-profit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2  - specially the skill of process awareness

  What are Communication Sequences and Patterns?

      A sequence is a series of behavioral interactions inside one person (among their personality subselves), or between two or more people. Every sequence has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sequences can last a few seconds to several days or more, depending on your frame of reference.

      For example, Sue does something (begins the sequence) > Hal reacts > Sue reacts to Hal > Hal reacts to Sue > ... until someone stops reacting (ends the sequence). Sequences can overlap, and may trigger each other - sequence A > sequence B > sequence C... 

      Before people learn to use the seven communication skills, most behavioral sequences are semi-conscious at best - even if they predictably cause personal and relationship "problems" (discomforts). Once aware of inner and social sequences. anyone (like you) can learn to change them to get better outcomes - i.e. to intentionally fill more of each person's needs more often.

       A communication pattern is a sequence of sequences over time - for example...

"Every time we talk about spending and our checkbook balance or credit card debt-interest, you stop looking at me, you start interrupting me, and I feel unheard, disrespected, and frustrated."

      Like sequences, behavioral patterns have outcomes ranging from satisfying to stressful for each person involved. You can't "see" patterns until you're practiced at (a) learning communication concepts and terms, and (b) using them to see sequences that occur over minutes, days, weeks, or months.

Reality Check - see if you're clear on sequences and patterns by (a) explaining and illustrating each of them to an adult or older child. Then (b) pick an important family, social, or work relationship, and see if you can identify several recent sequences or patterns without judgment. 

  Why are Sequences and Patterns Important?

      All living things communicate to fill current needs (reduce discomforts). Typical adults and kids  communicate to...

  • feel respected (a constant)

  • give or get information,

  • avoid some expected discomfort,

  • vent (express thoughts and feelings, and be heard and accepted)

  • cause change and/or action, and/or...

  • create excitement - end boredom

When partners satisfy their mix of these needs, they're communicating effectively. Because of epidemic unawareness, however, many people can't consistently satisfy these needs, and they don't know why or how to fix that.

      There are over 30 common behaviors (blocks) that can degrade communications among busy subselves and people. Once you recognize these blocks you can see how they affect your thinking and important relationships. Often, one block creates another. For example, if you often interrupt me (a block), I feel disrespected and frustrated. Then I focus on myself instead of us (another block). I may also get sarcastic and/or shut down (two more blocks). That frustrates and irritates you, so you (continue the sequence until it ends).       

      When your thinking and/or communications don't satisfy your needs, look for sequences and patterns of blocks. Then work to fix them one at a time, using your Lesson-2 skills.   

      This brief YouTube video illustrates how to document communication sequences. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      To make these abstract concepts more real, let's see (a) harmful and (b) helpful sequences in action. We'll look in on a typical interchange between Paco and Rosa and their 11-year old child Louisa. We'll see whether each of them filled their primary needs well enough at the end of this behavioral sequence.

 Example - an Ineffective Communication Sequence

      The sequence starts when Louisa enters the room and interrupts her parents' conversation with an old request. You could also say the sequence starts when one adult starts a conversation with her/his partner. Defining the beginning of a communication sequence is subjective, like designating the starting point of a circle or spiral.

Louisa enters the room and approaches her parents, who are talking. They both look up, and Rosa says "Hi, Hon - what d'you need?"

Paco feels irritated at the interruption, and curious about his daughter's need.

Louisa expects her parents to refuse her request (again), and says defensively: "Well, I really need a cell phone!  I mean I'm the only one at school that doesn't have one, and if I had one you could always know where I am and what I'm doing and I could..."

Paco raises one hand and interrupts her sales pitch, which both parents have heard before. "Lou, Honey we've already discussed this, and you..." Rosa nods and looks sympathetic.

Louisa frowns, waves her hands, and interrupts her father. "But Dad, just listen! It's not fair that (older brother) Tomas has his own phone and I don't! He gets to..."

Rosa interrupts her daughter's point (which they have heard before). "But Lou, you know that Tomas has a good job, so he can pay for his cell phone bills." Paco nods. "You're not old enough to do that, so..."

Louisa snorts, and tries a new tactic with her mother. "You know that if there were cell phones when you were my age, your mother would have let you have one! And your Dad would have paid..."

Frustrated, Paco interrupts her, frowns, and raises his voice: "Louisa, your grandparents aren't here - we are. And we've told you - when you turn 14, we'll see about you getting your own phone. End of subject."

Louisa  whines: "But you don't know what I..., I mean my friends all..." She starts to tear up in anger and frustration.

Rosa - "Honey, we were both eleven, and we wanted things just as badly as you do. We know what..." 

Louisa snaps sarcastically: "Well, you don't know what it's like for me. I'm not YOU! I have to tell my friends that my parents only care about money, not me!" She glares at her mother, avoids her Dad's eyes, whirls, and stalks out of the room. Both adults shake their heads and exchange glances.

Paco sighs and says "And she isn't even a teen yet."

Rosa nods, and says "I know... Tomas wasn't like this. If only..." she leaves the sentence hang and turns to her husband. "What were we talking about?"

      We'll arbitrarily end the three-person sequence here. It took less than two minutes. We can outline this sequence like this:

Start: 11-year old daughter interrupts parent's conversation with an old request.


  • Parents shift their focus to ask what she wants.

  • Daughter repeats an earlier plea for her own cell phone, and starts to offer reasons.

  • Parents interrupt her, and repeat anti-phone reasons she's heard before.

  • Daughter interrupts parents, repeating several reasons anyway, including an imaginary assumption involving her grandparents.

  • Parents interrupt the daughter with their own reasons for not agreeing, and Dad repeats the adults' former decision - "wait till you're 14 - then "we'll see. End of subject"

  • Daughter sarcastically blames her parents and tries a guilt trip, then leaves the room in a huff.

End of sequence: parents commune in exasperation, and resume their discussion.

      Versions of this sequence have played out among these three before, so it is now a communication pattern with a predictable beginning, middle process, and ending. This is an ineffective communication sequence, because none of these people got their primary needs met in a way they each felt good about.

      Louisa didn't get her parent's agreement, and her parents didn't get her to accept their decision as final. All three probably felt unheard and disrespected - partly because they kept interrupting each other instead of listening.

Replay - an Effective Communication Sequence

      If these parents were practiced with the seven communication skills and were teaching them to their daughter, how might this exchange have gone? Recall - effective communication fills each person's current primary needs well enough, in an acceptable way.

Louisa enters the room and approaches her parents, who are talking. They both look up, and Rosa says "Hi, Hon - what d'you need?"

Louisa says "Can I ask you a question?" She expects to be heard and respected by each of them. Both parents give her comfortable eye contact, and Paco says "Sure, Lou. What's up?" 

Louisa says "I know we've talked about me getting a cell phone before, but I wondered if you'd changed your minds. I've gotten good grades since school started, and I've been doing extra chores around the house without you asking, and I've been real nice to Tomas, even when he's a brat. So I hoped that you would feel I was responsible enough now. And I'm almost 12, so..."

Rosa smiles, and says "I really appreciate you thinking about being helpful and responsible, and we're both very proud of your work at school." Paco nods and smiles. "So you want to know if these things have changed our minds about you having a phone of your own." (affirmation and empathic listening, vs. interrupting).

Louisa nods, and says "Yeah, so can I, please? An early birthday present?" Both parents smile affectionately at her appeal.

Paco says "Well, you know we want you to have a phone, and we have two concerns. Do you remember what they are?"

Louisa nods again. "Yeah. You don't want me talking too much to my friends and losing time studying, and, uh, you're wondering how much it'll cost and how you'll pay for it, right?" Rosa nods.

Paco grins, and says "Good girl - you're right. Let's look at those one at a time, OK? Any new ideas on how you could limit your phone time?" (starts to problem-solve, vs. flatly saying "No.") Rosa watches attentively.

      The three brainstorm options until Rosa observes "You know, our real targets here are to limit the cost, and to keep your grades up. The others agree, and shift their focus.

Paco says "We agreed with your brother that he had to keep his grades above a C in all subjects to keep his phone. Lou, are you willing to shoot for that too?" Their daughter nods enthusiastically. and her father says. "OK, great. Now let's talk about the expense. The first thing we need to know is how much your own cell phone would cost - initially, and then monthly. Have you researched that yet, Lou?"

Louisa looks uncomfortable. "Um, not... really. I mean I don't... How can I do that?"

Rosa suggested "How 'bout asking your friends with cell phones where they got them, how much they cost, and what do they pay every month? You might start by asking your brother, Hon."

Paco added "This is part of learning how to shop and budget your money wisely. We all have to do that." He defocused, and began to describe how his parents negotiated with him to pay for his first car's insurance and gas. 

Louisa listens patiently, and finally interrupts. "So you agree I can have my own phone if I keep getting A's and B's and we can figure out a way to pay for it?" Both parents smiled at the "we," and nodded. Their daughter said "Amanda's parents pay for her cell phone, so why..."

Paco breaks in affectionately. "Lou, You get us some cost estimates, and then we all will work on who's going to pay for what, OK?  But understand - if we agree on a phone, it goes away if your grades drop or you can't pay your part of it." He looked at Rosa, who nodded, and said "Sounds like a plan.".

+ + + 

      This conversation was somewhat different from prior discussions of Louisa's cell phone, so it was a new sequence, not a pattern. It differed in that each person felt (a) heard and (b) respected (vs. interrupted), and (c) all three tried win-win problem-solving together rather than the parents dictating a flat "Not now." This was the sequence:

Start: 11-year-old daughter interrupts her parents discussion to repeat her request for a cell phone;


  • parents listen respectfully, and confirm what they hear, so their daughter feels heard and respected;

  • parents affirm their pride in daughter's helpfulness at home, and her school success;

  • father asks daughter if she remembers two conditions from past versions of this communication sequence, and praises her for remembering;

  • all three brainstorm ways to avoid the cell phone hindering daughter's schoolwork;

  • father asks daughter to research the potential cost of a cell phone, so they all can brainstorm how to meet the costs fairly. Daughter asks for guidance on this, and gets suggestions.

End:  parents avoid committing to a cell phone pending daughter's getting cost information. 

      The parents felt what they asked of their daughter was appropriate, fair, and do-able; and would help her want to be responsible for herself and learn about shopping, earning, and spending money. Louisa felt her parents appreciated her recent school work and household helpfulness, and were making a fair request of her (vs. a demand) to help them all get what they needed. The adults felt good about modeling healthy parenting for their daughter as teammates, and not picking favorites between their two kids.

      The basic question to ponder is - at the end of the sequence did each of these three people get their current primary needs met well enough (in their opinion)?

      This sequence would have a different middle and ending if...

  • the parents disagreed with each other about the cell phone, and/or how their daughter could earn the privilege of having her own phone; and/or...

  • the adults didn't have a mutual-respect attitude or a two-person awareness bubble, or they didn't listen empathically;  and/or...

  • the parents had refused outright; or demanded, rather than brainstorming as teammates; and/or if...

  • Louisa had tried to argue or complain about the parent's not saying "Yes" right away, or used sarcasm or attacks.

      With these examples in mind, pause and reflect. Can you think of important sequences and patterns with people you communicate well with, and those you don't? How about identifying satisfying and vexing sequences and patterns among your busy subselves?

      Try outlining some of these with an open mind, and see what you learn. Before you do, make sure your true Self is guiding you. Option - map one or more sequences, and discuss your map with the other person/s involved as teammates so you all can learn...

When to Analyze Sequences and Patterns

      Use this tool when you become aware of "significant discomfort" (a) with yourself (like chronic frustration, guilt, and irritation, confusion), and/or (b) in any important relationship. Ineffective-communication habits often contribute to chronic inter-subself and inter-personal stress.

      Analyzing and mapping typical communication exchanges between your subselves and with other people can help to pinpoint needs and blocks in yourself, your partner, and the process between you. Then use all seven skills to help resolve the blocks and achieve more satisfying outcomes. For more detail, see this after you finish reading this article.


       This Lesson-2 article explains and illustrates communication sequences and patterns (sequences of sequences). Sequences and patterns occur among your dynamic personality subselves and among people.

      Awareness and cooperative discussion of these dynamics can help to improve communication effectiveness in any social setting - specially with knowledge of R(espect) messages, awareness bubbles, E(motion) levels, sequence mapping, and of common communication blocks, Can you describe each of these concepts out loud now?

      The article sketches ineffective and effective sequences between two parents and their 11-year old  daughter. Effective sequences occur when everyone gets their communication and other needs met well enough in mutually acceptable ways. In important situations, this requires that all participants are aware of...

  • true and false selves,

  • what each person needs, and...

  • communication basics and skills.

How often does this describe you?

      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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