Do you ever find yourself listening to someone, but focusing more on what you want to say next? Maybe they're telling you about their weekend, when you think: "Wow, I can't wait to tell them about what happened to me last Saturday. What a story!"
Or maybe you have the opposite problem: You keep it all in. You wouldn't want to bother someone else, or hurt their feelings. Maybe it's easier for you to avoid conflict by hiding your feelings when you're upset.
Most of us are guilty of these mistakes. In fact, these communication errors are such a normal part of life, that most of us don't even notice when we're guilty of them. Usually they aren't such a big deal. We move on with the conversation and that's that. However, the consequences of poor communication take a toll. Feeling unheard can lead to resentment, frustration, and pain.
With practice, you'll learn to communicate more effectively by spotting common errors, and learning techniques to both hear and be heard. Even if you aren't having relational issues, learning to communicate effectively can improve almost every facet of life. It can help you land a better job, improve relationships, and feel more understood.
I don't want to mislead. Communication isn't a relational panacea. Sometimes, the best communication will end with the acknowledgement: "We disagree." But that's OK‐it's far better than the alternative: "I'm right, and you're wrong."
With that disclaimer, let's get started. This guide will will be organized into several techniques that will help you hear and be heard. Try to think of these techniques as training wheels. They'll help you work toward the ultimate goal of communicating in an open, honest, and fair manner. You will probably start by using these skills in a more formal manner, but with enough practice, they'll become a natural part of how you communicate.
Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication
Passive, aggressive, and assertive communication refers to three styles of interaction. Everyone has the capability to use all three styles, and everyone uses them all at least occasionally. For example, someone might act passively with their boss, and assertively with their partner.
You can probably picture examples of each communication style just based off of their names. During passive communication, you put the needs and desires of others first while neglecting yourself. Aggressive communication is just the opposite: You concern yourself only with your own needs at the detriment of others. Both of these styles can occasionally be appropriate, but are typically ineffective.
Assertiveness refers to healthy balance between passive and aggressive communication. You clearly state your own needs, and you advocate to have them met. However, you listen to, acknowledge, and respect the needs of others. This means finding compromise.
The following chart depicts some of the differences between each style.
|Basic Thought||"I am not worthy."||"You are not worthy."||"We are both worthy."|
|Language Style||Apologetic, submissive, vague, self-deprecating.||Insulting, sarcastic, patronising, disrespectful.||Confident, relaxed, firm, polite, respectful.|
Beginning to use an assertive communication style will be a challenge if you haven't used it often in the past. Try using therapy sessions to practice. Your therapist can help by providing a safe place to practice a communication style you aren't entirely comfortable with.
If it's difficult to start, or you feel uncomfortable roleplaying, just practice coming up with what an appropriate response to a situation might be. Think about a time you should have acted more assertively, and come up with as many alternative responses as you can.
Once you feel more comfortable acting assertively, choose a type of situation to practice with. Simply saying "I'm going to start being assertive" might be too much, but it'll be more manageable if you decide on a specific situation, such as conversations about what to get for dinner.
- Use the word "I". Try saying "I would like..." or "I feel...".
- Make an effort to use good eye contact. Don't stare, but don't look at your feet either
- Use good posture. Keep your back straight and imagine your head reaching toward the sky.
- Avoid ambiguity. If you aren't comfortable with something, don't say: "Hmm, I don't know about that... maybe?" Instead, say: "Sorry, I'm not comfortable doing that."
- No swearing, no criticism (unless it's legitimately constructive), and no mocking. Be careful, you can come across as mocking or critical based solely upon the tone of your voice.
- Control the tone of your voice. Talking too loudly or too quietly are both a problem. Yelling feels aggressive, and whispering is like a big sign that says "I'm unsure about what I'm saying."
Tips for Assertive Communication
During sensitive conversations it can be easy to unintentionally place blame, or to feel blamed. The goal of these conversations isn't to make the other person feel bad, but to resolve a problem. Feelings of blame quickly derail a conversation away from its original intention, and turn it into an unproductive argument.
Using "I" statements will reduce the likelihood that you come across as blaming during sensitive conversations. Additionally, "I" statements are a good way to practice speaking assertively because you will be forced to take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.
An "I" statement should usually be formatted like this:
For example, you might say:
Alternatively, if you weren't using an "I" statement, it might come out more like:
Using an "I" statement serves several purposes in this example. First of all, the "I" statement will be interpreted by most people as less accusatory. The "I" statement feels softer, like you are saying "I'm having a problem you can help with", as compared to the alternative statement that feels like you are saying: "You did something wrong".
Next, the "I" statement emphasizes why the issue is important. If an "I" statement isn't used, the feeling word (in this example, worry) often gets left out altogether. This can cause you to come across as controlling or demanding. Sharing your feeling allows the other person to better understand your perspective, and to empathize with how their behavior affects you.
Finally, the "I" statement forces you to speak clearly and assertively. You explain how you feel, and why you feel that way. There's no beating around the bush, mocking, put-downs, or anything that distracts from the message. It's clear and concise.
Don't make the mistake of using the "I" statement as a license to say anything that's on your mind. Of course, you still have to be tactful, polite, and reasonable. Saying "I feel upset when you act so stupid" still isn't going to go over well.
The ability to express your own ideas effectively is only half of what it takes to be a good communicator. Listening is the second half. This doesn't mean simply hearing words. It means hearing, thinking, interpreting, and striving to understand. If you're thinking about the next thing you want to say, you aren't really listening. You're just hearing.
Using a technique called reflection can quickly help you become a better listener. When reflecting, you will repeat back what someone has just said to you in your own words. Take this exchange for example:
Speaker: "I've been feeling really stressed about work, and then when I get home I'm still in a bad mood."
Listener: "Work has been so stressful that it causes you to feel frustrated all the time."
The benefits of reflections aren't obvious on the surface, but reflections are one of the most powerful communication tools available. Those who haven't used reflections fear that it'll seem like they're just parroting the other person without contributing to the conversation. However, reflections typically result in a positive response.
So, what do reflections actually do? They act as confirmation that you heard, and understand, what the other person has said. Reflections validate the person's feelings by showing that you get it. It might seem like a reflection would kill a conversation‐there's no new question to answer. Surprisingly, the opposite is usually true. Reflections encourage more sharing, because the person can trust that you are listening. See this example conversation:
Speaker: "I get so angry when you spend so much money without telling me. We're trying to save for a house!"
Listener: "We're working hard to save for a house, so it's really frustrating when it seems like I don't care."
Speaker: "Yeah, pretty much... It makes me feel like you don't care about the house or our future."
Listener: "It worries you because it makes you think I don't care about our relationship as much as you do."
Speaker: "Well, I know that you do care, but I still get worried sometimes."
You may have noticed that in this example the listener makes small interpretations about what the speaker really means. In the last reflection, the interpretation wasn't entirely correct. That's OK! The speaker sees that the listener is trying to understand, and corrects the small misunderstanding. This is exactly why reflections are so valuable.
Reflections aren't just some exercise to practice in a therapy session—they're a great technique to use at any time. As you first begin to practice it's typical for reflections to feel a bit forced. But if you implement reflections well, they'll quickly start to feel natural once you see how positive the responses are.
- Try using a tone of voice somewhere in between a question and a statement. Think of it as if you are restating what the other person said, but you're seeking confirmation.
- Don't just reflect the words! If you pick up on emotion in the person's voice or body language, include that in your reflection.
- You will come across as parroting if you haven't adequately reworded the reflection. Rewording shows that you understand what the other person meant, and you aren't just repeating their words.
- If you're reflecting after the other person was speaking for a long time, don't feel like you have to restate everything. Just reflect the main point.
- Focus on emotions as much as possible.
- Switch up your language, or you'll sound like a broken record. Here are some examples:
- "I hear you saying that..."
- "You feel..."
- "You're telling me that that..."
- "It sounds like you feel..."
Tips for Reflections
Learning to use reflections does take practice. In couples counseling, it can be useful to allow one partner to speak for about 30 seconds, and then ask the other to reflect. After the couple comes to an understanding, switch roles. Do this for several minutes. Oh, and start with less serious topics, at least in the beginning!
When working with an individual, try using our Practice Reflections worksheet:
Other Communication Tips
- Ask open-ended questions to encourage more sharing. Here are some example question formats:
- "Tell me more about that..."
- "What do you mean by that?"
- "Can you tell me an example of that?"
- "What do you think about...?"
- Show that you're listening with body language. Make eye contact, face whomever you are listening to, and nod to show understanding. Put down the phone and turn off the TV while you're at it. Even if you're able to text and listen, it can be frustrating if others think you're ignoring them.
- Never expect the other person to read your mind. It might be obvious to you how you would feel in a particular situation, but it probably isn't obvious to anyone else. Remember that everyone has had different life experiences, and their own ways of interpreting the world.
- Communication goes two ways. You have to listen and share.
- If you or the person you are trying to talk to are frequently distracted, set aside a short period of time to talk. Don't make it too long all at once (5-10 minutes is usually good). Set a timer, and end the conversation when the timer rings.