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It’s Not What You Said, It’s How You Said It: Basic Communication Skills

It’s happened to everybody. You’re going about your day, having a regular conversation, and the person with whom you’re talking makes a flippant or offhand remark. Now your feelings are hurt, and it’s all too easy to reply with something just as thoughtless or inconsiderate. Before you know it, what started out as a good conversation quickly turns sour, and both parties are left feeling hurt and unheard. Being stressed out or over-reactive don’t help the situation, either. What I’ve learned from my work with family therapy clients is that we all too easily fall back into the same maladaptive (i.e. unhelpful) cycles and patterns of communication.

So, how do we break such a cycle and communicate in a more healthy way? What does it even look like to have “healthy” communication skills? Effective communication is more than just the exchange of information. It involves such things as nonverbal body language, tone of voice, being direct and intentional, and reflective listening. Here are some tips to remember when conversing in general or when you find yourself headed down the path towards an argument.

  1. Be an engaged listener. Instead of trying to formulate your response while the other person is talking, try to actually understand where the other person is coming from, even if you disagree. Rephrase and repeat back what you’ve heard to make sure you’re understanding their point of view correctly. Try using phrases such as “What I’m hearing is that…” or ask clarifying questions like “What do you mean when you say…?” Being an engaged listener also means waiting your turn and avoiding interrupting the person with whom you’re speaking.

  2. If you’re getting upset, ask yourself why. Are you truly angry because your significant other forgot to close the cabinets? Is it worth getting upset over and into an argument? If it is, pause, and think about how to best communicate your message rather than rushing heatedly into a dispute.

  3. Avoid using demeaning language. Focus on the issue at hand, rather than blaming or criticizing the person. One sure-fire way to escalate a conversation is by swearing or name-calling, so be sure to avoid using such negative language.

  4. Use “I” statements to express your emotions. “I feel scared when you yell at me.” “I feel hurt when you criticize me.” Structure your statements into “I feel emotion when event occurs” to directly express how you are being impacted by a situation.

  5. No “stonewalling.” Sometimes when we’re upset, it’s easier to shut down and use the “silent treatment” rather than engage someone in conversation. However, the original issue remains even if you feel better temporarily. If you need a break, agree to take a time-out to cool down and schedule a time to continue the conversation.

  6. Watch your tone of voice and volume. Sometimes, it actually comes down to how you said something. If your words say one thing, but your tone means another, you can come across as being dishonest or disingenuous. This also means that yelling is a no-no; it only serves to escalate a conversation and potentially intimidate the other individual.

  7. Be open-minded and willing to compromise. If both participants are unwilling to bend or give and take, then you’ll get no closer to solving the original issue at hand. We can often get stuck in black-and-white thinking and feel like there is no middle ground. But if we’re open-minded enough and willing enough to preserve a relationship, compromise can often be reached. And even other times, you might have to agree to disagree. This is okay; part of what makes us human is the ability to coexist despite our differences.

Communicating isn’t easy and most people don’t take formal “classes” on how to communicate effectively. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons why people present to individual, couples, and family therapy. If you’ve tried incorporating these principles into your own relationships and can’t seem to make headway, consider speaking with a mental health professional. Sometimes getting an objective and non-judgmental take on a relationship or situation is all that is needed to uncover and break unhealthy patterns of communication or behavior.


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