Communication issues may potentially develop in any circumstance or social relationship. It can be easy for individuals to misunderstand or misinterpret others, and these misunderstandings may lead to arguments or tension in personal, platonic, or professional relationships. In some instances, conflicts may arise, and these conflicts can make communication even more challenging.
It may be helpful to have the support of a therapist or other mental health professional when exploring the reasons why communication issues occur or while working through any distress or difficulty that occurs as a result of frequent communication issues.
A number of factors may contribute to communication challenges between two or more parties. Differences of opinion may lead to disagreements between friends or coworkers, and this can contribute to communication difficulties. Those who seek counseling for relationship concerns may frequently cite communication issues as a reason for seeking treatment.
In some cases, difficulties may develop as a result of different cultural background or personal experiences. Because communication styles often differ vastly between cultures, a person may be able to say the same thing to two individuals who belong to different cultures and be interpreted in two completely different ways. Individuals communicating in their native language to non-native speakers and individuals communicating in a language other than their native language may also find it difficult to understand or interpret certain subtleties or nuances that native speakers of the language may readily pick up on. This type of issue may lead to confusion or conflict or in some cases be interpreted as rudeness, when none was intended.
Further, because of cultural differences, an issue that is considered to be a communication problem by an individual from one culture may not be found problematic in the least by an individual from another culture.
Poor physical or mental health may also lead to a breakdown in communication between a person seeking treatment and the person providing care. A person experiencing illness or distress may grow tired of communicating issues to one health care professional after another or find it difficult to describe a particular issue, and this can become a barrier to treatment. Situations that might contribute to communication issues include:
- Childhood stress
- Physical and mental health issues
- Misinterpretation of another person's statements or motivation
- Failure to understand another person’s point of view
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- Cultural barriers
- Linguistic differences
- Inaccurate assumptions and stereotypes
- Secrecy and deception
- Inflammatory remarks or behaviors
- Poor listening skills
Communication challenges are often a factor in relationship troubles. A couple may recognize when areas of concern are present in the relationship, but they may not attribute these difficulties to poor communication. Some couples talk frequently about day-to-day issues and activities and consider themselves to be good communicators, when they may in fact be neglecting discussion of issues that have a significant impact on the relationship. Couples who take communication issues into consideration and work to improve or increase communication may find that this to be helpful in the resolution of conflict.
Emotional and psychological issues that stem from early childhood relationships, previous romantic relationships, or other areas of life may also affect romantic relationships, as these issues may cause emotional distress that is difficult to communicate or discuss with a partner. When one partner in a relationship experiences difficulty but does not communicate this to the other partner, that individual may feel hurt or shut out, which can have a negative impact on the relationship. Effective communication between partners is typically considered a necessary aspect of a healthy relationship, and when communication problems occur in relationships and between family members, therapy can help address the issues and explore any underlying causes.
An individual who wishes to improve day-to-day communication skills might find it helpful to:
- Form an emotional connection before attempting to communicate.
- Be relaxed before attempting to communicate about a difficult topic.
- State thoughts and feelings concisely.
- Express feelings with “I” statements.
- Avoid speaking for another person.
- Avoid insults or condescending language.
- Listen to others carefully.
- Join a debate club or public speaking class (when the act of conversing is what causes difficulty).
Even if two parties share the same language, differences in culture may hinder effective communication. One's culture may often have an impact on the way one thinks and feels about the world, and two individuals who speak the same language but have different cultural backgrounds may come away from a conversation with entirely different views of the exchange. When an individual is not a native speaker of the language an exchange takes place in, misunderstandings or errors in translation may further impede good communication.
Culture can impact meaningful communication in three primary ways:
- Cognitive constraints can be seen in communicating parties who do not share similar world views and have dissimilar frames of reference.
- Behavioral constraints are differences in verbal and nonverbal actions. For example, while it is acceptable to look into the eyes of an authority figure while communicating in some cultures, individuals from other cultures may find this behavior to be unacceptable.
- Emotional constraints describe differences in the expression of feelings and emotions. Those from a particular cultural background may display their feelings quite openly, while individuals from another culture may rigid control over their emotions.
When those involved in cross-cultural communications are not aware of these potential constraints and the effects they may have, misunderstandings can easily occur, and conflict may be the result.
The four major communication styles—assertive, aggressive, passive, and passive-aggressive—are each characterized by specific language, behaviors, and effects. Being able to identify the major communication styles is likely be helpful in the process of recognizing the styles used in one's personal relationships, which can help an individual become better able to make the adjustments needed to faciliate the growth and development of all relationships.
- A person who communicates assertively is likely to be clear, direct, and honest about thoughts and emotions, ensuring that feelings are expressed in appropriate ways. Assertive communicators can be said to value and stand up for their personal rights while being careful not to violate the rights of other individuals. A person who communicates assertively may believe or make statements to the effect of, “We are both equally entitled to our opinion.” Assertive communication is a recommended communication style that is considered to be both healthy and effective.
- Though aggressive communication styles may also be characterized by the clear and direct expression of feelings, this expression can occur in an inappropriate manner that may violate the rights of others. Because people might often pay attention to the way the message was delivered rather than what was said, this communication style may lose some of its effectiveness. Aggressive communication may be characterized by statements or beliefs to the effect of, “I will get my way regardless of the consequences.”
- In passive communication, one's thoughts and feelings are generally not expressed openly or honestly. When opinions are stated, they may be expressed in such a way that they are disregarded by others. A person who communicates in a passive way may experience difficulty realizing or expressing personal opinions and desires, and in some cases this can lead others to take advantage or violate an individual's rights. A person who tends to communicate in a passive way may be more likely to be used by others and may think or say, "Everyone walks all over me."
- Those who use a passive-aggressive communication style tend to express their thoughts and feelings in an unclear or confusing way. These individuals may at first appear to be passive but later act out of anger in an indirect manner. Individuals who communicate in a passive-aggressive way may feel powerless, stuck, or resentful of their current circumstances, but they may be unable to address their circumstances directly. Instead, they may seek to undermine the source of their resentment with subtle expressions of anger. Passive-aggressive behavior may be generally characterized by outward cooperation and internal frustration and resentment.
Communication can take place via verbal (written or spoken words) or nonverbal (facial expressions, gestures, body language, posture, eye movements, and so on) means. Though the differences between verbal and nonverbal communication have been known for many years, rigorous research on both forms of communication only began in the 1960s. Initially, researchers viewed verbal and nonverbal behaviors as separate channels that are independently coded and capable of transmitting different types of messages with different meanings and functions. But while it is true that verbal and nonverbal messages may be different or even conflicting, researchers today posit that these messages are related and,when studied together, provide a more holistic understanding of social interaction.
One major contributor to the modern-day comprehension of verbal and nonverbal communication is Albert Mehrabian. In his research, Mehrabian discovered that a listener may adjust the relative importance assigned to verbal and nonverbal behaviors depending on a given situation. One's date might say, "I really like you" but avoid eye contact, seem distracted, or frown often, which may lead one to question the truthfulness of the statement.
Mehrabian’s studies show:
- A significant portion of communication can take place without words.
- Without nonverbal cues, verbal communication is more easily misunderstood.
- When a message is unclear, people tend to pay more attention to nonverbal cues.
Nonviolent communication assumes that all people are inherently compassionate, and that violent tendencies (whether verbal or physical) are learned behaviors. The approach also posits that all humans share the same basic needs and that while these needs are not conflicting, conflicts arise when strategies to meet basic needs clash. This type of communication aims to teach people to use language that is objective and report what they observe, feel, and need before making a request.
Reflective statements are often used by therapists to let people in therapy know that they are being understood and to help them clarify their own thoughts and words. A reflective statement tells the person in therapy what the therapist believes that person has said and asks the person to confirm or correct that understanding. Using such statements may help to prevent major misunderstandings in therapy or in other areas of life.
There are many therapeutic options available for individuals experiencing communication issues. Depending on one's specific situation, those in need of professional support may find benefit from family therapy, couples counseling, or individual therapy. For example, people who experience communication difficulties as a result of repressed childhood trauma may be able to uncover and resolve unconscious thoughts and emotions in therapy and develop their communication skills as a result. Intimate partners who wish to communicate more effectively in their relationship may choose to explore Imago Relationship Therapy.
A trained therapist can help individuals examine communication strategies to determine whether one's communication style adequately conveys one's thoughts, needs, and goals. In therapy, individuals who find themselves often engaged in misunderstandings can explore what causes them to misinterpret the viewpoints of others or inaccurately convey their own ideas. Therapy can facilitate the improvement of interpersonal and intergroup skills by helping individuals to improve the quality, nature, and frequency of their communications.
Some treatment strategies that may be used to address communication issues include:
- Opening lines of communication
- Active listening
- Dialogic listening
- Questioning stereotypes
- Mediated communication
- Respectful communication
- Learning communication skills in therapy: Malita, 32, enters therapy because she feels overwhelmed and anxious in her new relationship. She likes her new boyfriend very much, but she finds herself giving in to his wishes more often than she really wants to. She tells the therapist that he does not pressure or coerce her but is firm about what he wants to eat, where to go for entertainment, and when they should go out or stay in. Malita says that she generally does not mind, but that sometimes, when she really wants something that is different from what her boyfriend wants, she finds herself being talked out of it. Although her boyfriend has never been abusive with words or actions or mistreated her in any way, Malita still finds it difficult to express what she wants without feeling as if doing so will spark a conflict with her boyfriend. The therapist first works with Malita to develop her communication skills and outline what it is she wants to change about the communication patterns in her relationship. They practice communication during her sessions, and as she begins to feel more able to communicate her thoughts and feelings, the therapist also works with her to explore the root of her communication issues: A childhood with a domineering father and a passive mother gave her the unconscious belief that women should completely submit to their husbands and to men in general. Through her work with the therapist, Malita is eventually able to reject this belief and finds herself able to assert her wishes to herself, her boyfriend, and in other areas of life.
- Burgess, G., & Burgess, H. (2005). Conflict Management and Constructive Confrontation: A Guide to the Theory and Practice. Retrieved September 17, 2015, from http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/index.html
- Jones, S. E. & LeBaron, C. D. (2002). Research on the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication: Emerging integrations. Journal of Communication, 499-521. DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2002.tb02559.x. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Curtis_Lebaron/publication/227626335_Research_on_the_Relationship_Between_Verbal_and_Nonverbal_Communication_Emerging_Integrations/links/02bfe50d8750f0403e000000.pdf
- Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S.R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3) 48-258.
- Mehrabian, A. & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109-114.
- The Center for Nonviolent Communication. (2014). What is nvc? Retrieved from https://www.cnvc.org/about/what-is-nvc.html
- UK Violence Intervention and Preventer Center. (n.d.). The four basic styles of communication. Retrieved from http://www.uky.edu/hr/sites/www.uky.edu.hr/files/wellness/images/Conf14_FourCommStyles.pdf