A common issue that I encounter in my work as a counselor is communication problems. Most of the time we think of communication problems being exclusive to couples or marital counseling, but the reality is communication problems can be a factor in all manner of concerns. Having difficulty communicating can be a contributing factor of anxiety for some, or depression for others. And it can also have a bearing on all manner of relationships. For example, parents may have trouble communicating with their young children, or children may be afraid of talking to their parents for fear of punishment or of simply being misunderstood. Men are often held up as being particularly guilty of having difficulty communicating, of being trained from birth to keep their feelings to themselves, to just “deal with it”, and to not admit weakness. However, whether you are a man or woman, all manner of adverse circumstances can result in the formation of counterproductive communication habits. Some of those habits can be blaming others, blowing up in anger, or avoiding sensitive topics that make us feel uncomfortable. As a result, we end up not getting the things we want or need.
In therapy, counselors may focus on helping their clients understand some of the differing communication styles. See if you recognize yourself in any of them.
Passive – These communicators don’t believe their needs matter. They tend to be timid when communicating with others and will often doing anything to avoid confrontation. They often go out of their way to please others, sacrificing their own needs and wants. Which can be a breeding ground for resentment.
Aggressive – This is the exact opposite. These people act as though their needs are the only ones that matter. They often use accusation, threats, insults, and yell to dominate others and get their way. Sadly, passive people often find themselves in relationships with this type of person.
Passive-Aggressive – This is a mixture of the two. These people often manipulate others via guilt or subtle games to get what they want. They may feel aggressive, bitter, and angry, but they hide it beneath passive behaviors like giving the “silent treatment”, deliberately forgetting things, refusing to listen, changing plans at the last minute, or being late.
Assertive – This style recognizes that the needs of others are important, and will use honest, but non-accusatory, language. It expresses needs and wants without blame or finger pointing. It uses objective language and only reports on what the speaker observes, feels, needs, or wants. It requires emotional vulnerability and a higher level of maturity to be an assertive communicator. The result is healthier relationships, needs being met, others being heard, and stronger connections.
If you recognize yourself in the first three, and would like to be more like the fourth, here are a few tools to help you on your way:
Takes some deep breaths before beginning your communication with someone
Show compassion. Stay in the present and avoid bringing up the past.
Listen fully and pay attention to the other person. Let the other person finish their thought before responding. If this is difficult takes some more deep breathes.
Talk about what you need and how you feel while avoiding finger pointing, insults, and the always inflammatory “you always!”. Speak only what you know to be true.
Pay attention to your own feelings, tone of voice, facial expression, and body posture. Much of communication is nonverbal.
Can you relate to another person? Can you see their point of view? Are their similarities in your own?
Take a break. If things are getting nowhere, or have become too heated despite your best efforts, take a break. Come back to the discussion when heads are clear and emotions calm.
It takes courage and practice to become a more assertive communicator, but it’s my hope that once you apply these tools to your life you will see an improvement in all your important relationships.