Communication problems are an issue for almost every human being. Few people are master communicators. People often fail to say what we mean, whether by design or because we just do not know how. We often misunderstand others, and, to make matters worse, may think we understand them when we do not. We respond to what is not being said, and miss what is. Others “do” the same to us, and an innumerable number of arguments and even chronic relationship problems are the result. We fail to be heard, and we fail to listen. We yell when we have promised not to, or we find ourselves unable to speak at all, paralyzed with anger, sadness, fear, guilt, anxiety, confusion and other emotions. Discussions become fights. Disagreements become insults. Small pet peeves turn into intense emotional battles. In our close relationships, love can be poisoned, and patterns seem unsolvable. In the larger world, wars start.
Why does this happen? Is it really so hard to speak to one another? How can we manage our emotions so they don’t prevent us from having a real conversation with another person? What are the steps to being a better communicator?
Communication troubles can stem from childhood experiences, in which we may learn to “stuff” our feelings, blame others, blow-up in anger, “beat around the bush” instead of saying what we need, want, or feel, or otherwise experience--and imitate--counterproductive communication habits. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know for ourselves what we want to say; the act of saying it aloud can also be terrifying to some people sometimes.
Therapists often teach communication techniques. Assertiveness training focuses on communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive.
- Passive communicators seem to believe their needs don’t matter. They act almost like mice--very small and timid--and do just about anything to avoid confrontation. They like to please others, often at their own expense. Sometimes, this builds resentment.
- Aggressive communicators act as if only their needs matter. They accuse, threaten, yell, insult, and dominate. They often get into relationships with passive people.
- Passive-aggressive people express anger and use manipulation, guilt, and subtle games to get what they want. They feel aggressive and often act out of anger, but hide their aggression under passive behaviors, such as remaining silent, “forgetting” things, refusing to listen, changing plans at the last minute, and otherwise expressing bitterness or anger without directly verbalizing it or admitting to it.
- Assertive communication recognizes that everyone’s needs are important, and involves honest, neutral language. Assertiveness requires some level of emotional vulnerability, and rewards that level of maturity with healthier relationships, in which needs get met, feelings are expressed, and everyone feels heard and connected most of the time.
Nonviolent communication focuses on our words. It teaches people to use language that is as objective as possible, while reporting what they observe, feel, and need and then making a request. Reflective statement are often used by therapists to let clients know they are being understood and to help clients clarify their own thoughts and words. A reflective statement is simply the act of telling someone what I hear or think I heard them say, and asking them to confirm or correct this. With practice, using such statements helps avoid major misunderstandings.
Other important communication tools to practice are:
- More communication, rather than less, once you are in a calm state of mind
- Staying present, physically and emotionally. Avoiding distractions during a serious talk
- Listening fully
- Leaving space between each person’s time to speak
- Taking about feelings and needs and avoiding insults or sweeping generalities
- Saying only what you know to be true
- Paying attention to the other person, and to your own feelings, tone of voice, facial expression, etc.
- Seeing others as mirrors. Can you relate to their experience and notice similarities in needs and feelings?
Communications are a common source of relationship troubles. The inability to communicate well with others is often unrecognized, because it has become habit and because a primary communication problem is the failure to consider communication as an option in the first place. Emotional and psychological issues are often most apparent in relationships, and are often rooted in our early experiences with relationships. Since communication is necessary for any relationship to function well, and since communication problems often characterize the families of origin for people seeking help with their emotions, communication problems are present in almost every relationship and every family.
Melissa, 29, enters therapy due to feeling overwhelmed and anxious in her new relationship. She likes her new boyfriend very much but finds herself giving in to his wishes more often than she really wants to. She has no idea how to express her own needs. The therapist takes two approaches: First, he teaches some basic communication skills and practices with Melissa in session. As she begins to master these tools, he also helps her uncover the root of her difficulties--a dominating father and a passive mother gave her the somewhat unconscious belief that women are to submit to their husbands, and to men generally. She was also bullied by her older brother. Melissa is able to reject this belief and begin working on assertiveness with help from her male therapist.
Last updated: 07-23-2015