In my career so far I have worked with a wide cross-section of clients. I have worked with individuals, couples, families, groups, children, teens, adults, and older adults. I have seen folks experiencing challenges from situational anxiety and depression to severe phobias and addictions. One thing all of these people (and myself at times) have in common? A struggle to communicate thoughts, feelings, needs, etc. Unfortunately, this can create huge problems as most of us crave relationships and connections with others. If I’m not able to communicate openly and effectively, I will likely struggle to build and maintain meaningful and authentic relationships.
I’ll start with an important caveat. No blog post is going to be able to encapsulate all the important aspects of effective communication. My hope is to outline in a general way some tips for folks who may feel partially or entirely blocked from purpose-driven communication. There will always be more to learn! Here’s a basic rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t like hearing it, the other person likely won’t either. Yes, this goes for the “I’m just giving them some tough love” too. I, of course, challenge my clients when it's warranted, but I always do so with compassion and tact in a way that is intentional and meant to encourage reflection rather than shame. A simple way to take this approach is with the 'compliment sandwich'. Start with a positive observation, insert the ‘area for growth’, feeling, or need, then end with another positive statement. Pointing out the things we are proud of and grateful for in the other person goes a long way to making them feel safe enough to hear what I need to share.
There’s a format I often offer my clients when working towards improved communication that I initially learned years ago in my own journey to communicate better with my partner. At any given time in a conversation there is one speaker and one listener, the speaker’s main goal is to share their feelings and needs in a compassionate way, and the listener’s main goal is to listen to understand rather than respond. The speaker shares only their experience and feelings focusing on using ‘I’ statements rather than accusations. It's important to note that “I feel like you never listen” is actually a thought, not a feeling. “I feel ignored” might be a more accurate way to express that feeling in the context of healthy communication. The listener focuses on the speaker’s experience. I am a big believer in actions rather than intentions, if I didn’t mean to run over your foot with my car does that make the damage any less salient? The listener responds only after the speaker has indicated they are done sharing and first reflects back the message of the speaker. In the above example that might sound like, “you’re not feeling heard by me, is that right?” If the speaker indicates that this is correct the listener then validates those feelings. Validation does not mean agreement. Perhaps the listener feels like they do hear the speaker rather than ignore them, what is important is not complete agreement, but a willingness to see where the speaker is coming from. Perhaps the listener might state, “I can understand how you would feel that way” going a bit further they might offer an example of how the speaker would get this impression, “I can understand how it might feel that way when I’m on my phone while you talk to me”. After validating the speaker and listener can come up with a solution to prevent those feelings moving forward (in general, being on the phone when someone is talking to you would not be classified as effective communication). At this point, the speaker and the listener switch roles so both parties have a chance to feel heard and validated.
Obviously, this format is going to work best when everyone involved is on board with using it, but I think there are good tips in there for all communication.
1) Focus on feelings rather than opinions, critiques, or accusations. People are much more open to hearing how we feel than feeling attacked.
2) Be willing to forgive and look for solutions. If the other person is willing to validate me and hear me, I need to be willing to move forward rather than hang on to hurt feelings.
3) Listen to understand and put yourself in the other’s shoes. Everyone has different perspectives on life influenced by their unique lived experience. If I can remain open to the differences between me and others and find ways to relate to it I will have an easier time communicating.
In every meaningful relationship, there will be times of disagreement and challenging communication. What is important is not that every conversation in our lives is easy, but rather that we do our best to be fair, compassionate, and open-minded. This does not mean that we should seek to rectify situations where communication is unhealthy or abusive, but that we do our best to bring our best selves to conversations. As previously stated, there is a lot more to effective communication than the above tips, but they may help to make a solid start toward healthier communication. As with anything growth takes time and sometimes discomfort. If you are finding yourself in need of more help with communicating, please feel free to reach out!