Although communication plays the most crucial part in our relationships with the people in our lives, the average person does not communicate well. Problems with communication can lead to difficulties at work and to loneliness and distance from family and friends. Much of the work therapists do with the people we work with in therapy will involve improving their communication skills, whether directly or indirectly. I will share with you what I have learned from my practice as well as from experts that may be helpful in this task.
“One of the key elements in learning communication skills is to discover how to protect oneself adequately while reducing unnecessary defensiveness,” writes communication expert Robert Bolton, PhD. This is a very important concept to understand when assessing our clients’ communication patterns. Why do we feel the need to protect ourselves when communicating? Psychologists and communication experts point out that we are riddled with fears, most of which are learned. We often fear:
- being judged negatively,
- failing to measure up to some imaginary standards,
- being laughed at,
- appearing stupid when we misunderstand someone,
- expressing emotion and losing control, and
- letting someone gain power over us and use it against us.
When we feel fear, communication is impaired. To avoid being misunderstood, we say nothing; to keep from losing control of our emotions, we suppress them and don’t communicate them; and in order to be liked, we say what we think others want to hear.
Several road blocks to communication are designed for self-protection, though they serve as unnecessary barriers.
In order to cope with fears we often make assumptions about what is going on with the other person. Though sometimes our assumptions are correct, communication can break down further when they are not. It is important to test the accuracy of our assumptions. While a speaker intends to convey one message, the receiver may perceive another. The stressful interaction that results from this misunderstanding can feed and justify original fears. As therapists, we can try to identify these assumptions in a transference relationship and test them out in the sessions in an effort to minimize them.
Insensitivity, or lack of empathy, is the failure to accurately perceive the feelings of others. Insensitivity is often caused by an unwillingness to risk caring about someone else, or it may come as the result of being preoccupied with something else and not being present in the moment. Lack of awareness, poor listening skills, and the need to draw attention to oneself may lead an insensitive listener to divert the concerns of others by switching the conversation’s focus back on the listener or on someone other than the person talking. At other times this disregard for the speaker’s concerns can happen because the listener is uncomfortable with emotions that are being stimulated by a conversation. As a method for dealing with uncomfortable feelings, someone may use logical arguments and reassurances. While these may be coming from a caring place, they inevitably make the other person angry and frustrated. There are many topics and conversations that create tension and anxiety; as therapists, we need to identify these for our clients and help them stay with their feelings so that they might learn to tolerate them better. Awareness of what is difficult to tolerate is the first step.
Labeling and Judging
Labeling and judging are methods for creating mental order and gaining control over emotions. Labeling can be disabling, as is the case when communication is marked by putdowns and name calling. Judging another person can include name calling, diagnosing, and praising. Carl Rogers once said that “one of the major blocks to interpersonal communication lies in our very natural tendency to judge–to approve or disapprove of the statements of the other person.”
The final road block involves providing solutions. This can be a major road block within a highly emotional conversation. In this case, giving advice can imply that it’s not OK to express emotion and that it is necessary to enter a more rational stance. This can make the other person feel more and more angry. Offering solutions can also come across as moralizing, prying, and giving direct advice. A healthier and more effective approach is to just let the person be in whatever emotional state they are in and to move through the necessary emotions until the situation feels calmer.
Effective listening is a skill that few possess. Much of our education and training as therapists is spent on learning how to listen, and we refine this skill as we continue in our practice. It is important to start with monitoring our own listening styles before becoming attuned to our clients. Then, by by pointing out what we observe in the sessions, we can help people be present for the important people in their lives.
© Copyright 2010 by Irina Firstein, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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