We all do it to some extent—tell stories, make statements or present ourselves in a particular way, in order to create an impression. We don’t come out and directly say what we want other people to think about us—for example, we may not directly say that we’re smart or that we’re not to blame for our problems, but our motive in telling a particular story or anecdote is to make the point that we are either smart or blameless.
Hidden agendas are a part of everyday communication, but, according to Mathew McKay and colleagues in their book Messages always trying to prove something through your anecdotes and having ulterior motives when you make points and tell stories has a serious impact on your ability to be close to the people around you.
Below are a few of the common hidden agendas identified by McKay and colleagues:
- I’m good—telling stories that highlight whatever you most value about yourself. You might highlight anything you perceive as good about yourself, including your honesty, courage, wealth, power or success. Unfortunately, overemphasizing your accomplishments and how wonderful you are can make it hard for people to get to know you.
- I’m good, but you’re not—This is telling stories and anecdotes that prove that you are good and right by showing how bad everyone else is. You’re the one who does it right, while everyone else messes it up.
- You’re good, but I’m not—Putting yourself down in comparison with others. This person finds themselves saying disparaging things about themselves, such as “you’re so clever, I’d never be able to do that so well.” Often the hidden agenda is to have others take pity and reduce demands and expectations.
- I’m helpless, I suffer—These stories focus on misfortune and injustice. The hidden agenda here usually communicates “don’t ask me to do anything about my problems, I’m not responsible.”
- I’m fragile—Telling people about how you’ve been betrayed and wounded in the past, to keep people from telling you about uncomfortable topics.
- I’m tough—This often involves harried listings of all you have to do, overwhelming details of your current demands and expectations, with the underlying message that you work harder, longer, faster than anyone else.
Do you see yourself consistently using any of these hidden agendas? Do they work to get you what you need (for example help, less criticism or reduced demands from others), but at the same time interfere with your ability to connect to others? Hidden agendas are usually adaptive and serve a purpose, but getting stuck in them can isolate you from the important people of your life.
Photo by David Gohering, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.