The Interpersonal Matrix

09/09/13: Earlier models of interpersonal communication focused on general communication styles, and power dynamics between people. I found them to be relatively difficult to use for helping people understand and improve their communication with others, so I developed the Interpersonal Matrix. The model is done in the spirit of these other works (mostly the Interpersonal Circle), but I have focused more on specific types of behaviors and interpersonal moves that we all make in communicating with others. I hope that it can be a usable guide to understanding patterns of interactions as well as finding new moves to improve relationships.

The Interpersonal MatrixInterpersonal Matrix

Like previous communication models, the Interpersonal Matrix operates on the principle of “complementarity”. This means that there are instinctual patterns of matching the communication moves of the other person. For example, when a teacher starts teaching, students automatically go into a listening mode, usually without having to think about it. One could also say that if the students sat passively, ready for information and looking at the teacher, that the teacher would start teaching. This is complementarity.

The most important thing here is that people usually match the general tone of the other person; basically being friendly if the other is friendly, and hostile if the other person is being hostile. This is represented in the two columns in the Interpersonal Matrix. To put in the easiest terms, if you are a jerk to someone, he will instinctively be a jerk back. Be nice and there is an instinct to be nice back.

Approach / Engage / Distance

The rows of the Matrix represent different positions while we are communicating. Approaching is making a move that directly reveals thoughts and feelings; Engaging is being an active participant in the communication, usually in response; and Distancing is moving away from the other person or ending communication.

Friendly-Receptive Moves

Friendly Approach: When we decide to share thoughts, feelings, and information; advise or teach; express views; tell a story; or pursue contact, and do so with a friendly tone, we are in “friendly approach.” Even if we are feeling angry, we can share that information with a serious but collaborative tone that is seeking to ultimately repair something.

Friendly Engagement: We when are looking to connect and join with another person by being interested, validating, understanding, accepting, supportive, empathic, attentive, and caring, we are in “friendly engagement.” This the move to use when you want to make sure the other person feels heard and understood.

Friendly Distancing: This is when we disengage from an interaction in a respectful way; withdraw in emotional distress (feeling hurt, afraid, guilty, etc), or avoid an interaction to prevent or diffuse a conflict, or to take or provide emotional space.

Aggressive-Rejecting Moves

Aggressive Approach: Anytime we are being confrontational; or attacking, threatening, accusing, criticizing, judging, insulting, controlling, or coercive, we are in “aggressive approach.” Sometimes we may not be intending to do these things and believe we are in “friendly approach”, but it is perceived by the other person as an attack. To avoid that, it can be key to make sure the person clearly can sense a friendly and caring tone so they can respond accordingly.

Aggressive Engagement: This includes defensiveness (being offended, lawyering, denying, making pressured explanations, etc); being oppositional, resistant, or indignant; provoking or baiting someone into a conflict; being passive-aggressive; and being dismissive, inattentive, cold, sarcastic, or aloof.

Aggressive Distancing: When we choose to emotionally withdraw or end communication abruptly, with hostility, or to cause emotional distress in the other person; ignore the other person, stonewall (not responding), avoidant, or closed-off from contact, we are doing “aggressive distancing.” This can also be seen as a way of being passive-aggressive, like described above, but this style is all about being unwilling to participate in the communication.

Using this Interpersonal Matrix

There are a number of ways to use this model. First, it can be used to track a general pattern of communicating with someone. You can retrace what happened in a specific discussion based on the Matrix, and then examine what could have been done differently to improve for next time.

Next, it is a good way to see how conflict is happening. I have seen most conflicts develop when Person A believes he is being friendly, but Person B perceives it as hostile. Person B then responds defensively and then Person A is confused and also gets defensive, and on and on.

Second, it can help us figure out what type of move we may want to make in advance. Specifically, if there is a pattern where someone becomes critical of you, and you become defensive, looking at the Matrix can show you other ways to interact if that happens.

You can also use it to consider what someone else may be wanting from you. For example, usually when people share information (friendly approach), they are hoping for someone to listen and validate (friendly engagement), not necessarily give advice back (friendly approach), critique what happened (aggressive approach), or only pretend to care (aggressive engagement).

Additionally, you can learn these 6 moves and become a master communicator by having a map of how to alter the way a conversation is going. Ultimately, the single most useful thing that people have taken from this is realizing that when you are in a conflict and want to be out, moving to friendly engagement (i.e. listening and validating), and staying there for at least 3 or 4 exchanges, can do wonders to diffuse a conflict. When that doesn’t work, moving into friendly distancing (i.e. taking time to cool off), then returning with friendly engagement is a great plan B.

Why does this work? Complimentarity; the other person’s instincts (unless they are very dysfunctional in communication) will ultimately match your new, softened, warmed, and friendly tone. If it doesn’t work right away, you have to stay there like an immovable object, remaining friendly and open, and refusing to be sucked back into a hostile conflict.

Finally, the reasons people choose certain moves are very complicated. Influences on the move someone makes at any given time include their own perceptions of your moves (which can be inaccurate), culture, power dynamics, emotion, personality, social role, personal history, relationship history, communication skills, and situational factors.

This is the third version of the Interpersonal Matrix, the original was published here on 07/01/11.