Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Relationship quality is one of the most powerful predictors of life satisfaction and physical and psychological well-being. Our relationships are built on mutual understanding and respect. Although not the only factor in relationship success, communication problems are typically one of the main root causes of problems. The purpose of communication is to help us understand each other, yet we all commonly do things that block communication.
Why Should I Change?
We want to be understood by others and so does everyone else! However, our defense mechanisms get in the way whenever we feel vulnerable, including feeling afraid, hurt, disrespected, frustrated, helpless, or hopeless. Although useful in protecting our sense of self and our feelings of self-worth, these defenses prevent us from openly and respectfully expressing our feelings and listening deeply to the other person’s feelings. This leads to communication breakdown followed by resentment, break-ups, and divorce.
Communication That Doesn’t Work
So, how do we typically block communication with others and thus prevent mutual understanding and respect? Dr. David Burns (1999) identified a list of harmful things we all do to some degree in trying to communicate to resolve or avoid conflict in a relationship:
Truth: You insist you are completely right and they are completely wrong – in reality, you may be both partially right!
Blaming: You imply the problem is the other person’s fault, but what part of the problem are you?
Martyrdom: You imply you are an innocent victim in the situation and claim to be persecuted by the other person.
Put-downs: You call the other person names or otherwise insult them to cause hurt.
Demanding: You complain when the other person doesn’t act like they “should” or how you expect them to act.
Denial: You insist you are not angry, sad, or hurt when you really are, creating resentment in you and ‘ammunition’ to use on the other person later.
Passive aggression: You pout, slam doors, or refuse to discuss issues (silent treatment) as a way to punish the other person.
Self-blame: Instead of dealing with a problem, you act as if you are a shameful person.
Hopelessness: You insist you’ve tried everything and decide to give up trying to communicate.
Helping: Instead of listening, you give advice or “help,” putting yourself in a position of superiority or implying the other person can’t solve their own problems.
Problem-solving: You try to solve the problem but ignore your feelings and those of the other person.
Sarcasm: Your words or tone of voice is patronizing or otherwise conveys tension or hostility which you are not openly acknowledging.
Scapegoating: You suggest that the other person is defective and the source of all problems in your relationship.
Defensiveness: You refuse to admit wrongdoing or imperfection.
Counterattack: You respond to criticism against you with criticism of the other person instead of reflecting on whether there is some truth in what they say.
Diversion: Instead of dealing with feelings in the “here and now,” you list grievances about past emotional wounds to justify your behavior.
Mind-reading: You say you’re entitled to better treatment and expect the other person to know what you need, but you don’t ask for it in a clear direct way.
Communication That Works
Dr. David Burns (2008) suggested that three characteristics define effective communication: empathy, assertiveness, and respect. With empathy, your goal is to understand what the other person is feeling and thinking; in other words, don’t listen to respond, listen to understand. If you are listening to respond, you are preoccupied with analyzing, judging, and possibly personalizing what the other person is saying. Listening to understand requires you to try to listen as obj