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 objectively as possible. The old saying of “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is a good way to think about this deeper form of listening. When you are assertive, you are honestly, clearly, and respectfully expressing your feelings and thoughts, while also showing consideration for the other person’s feelings and thoughts.
Respectful Assertiveness with ‘I Feel’ statements
One way to be respectfully assertive and empathetic is to calmly use ‘I feel’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements. Instead of blaming the other person for your emotions, you take responsibility for your feelings. ‘You’ statements tend to sound like blaming, which makes the other person defensive and less willing to listen to you. ‘I feel’ statements should express your feeling and what it is related to, such as the other person’s behavior or words. The following example illustrates the difference in tone between ‘I feel’ statements and ‘you’ statements:
“You make me so angry when you promise to call me back and then don’t!”
“I feel angry when you promise to call me back and then don’t because I start to worry that something bad has
happened or that you don’t care.”
The ‘I feel’ statement is more likely to let the other person be more willing to listen and try to understand than the ‘you’ statement because you aren’t blaming them for your feeling or interpretation of their actions. You are, however, informing them of how their behavior affects you and why. An additional option could be to tell them would they could do different that would be better for you. Using the previous example, you might add to the ‘I feel’ statement by making a reasonable request:
“I would prefer if you call me back before the end of the day to let me know you are okay, even if you aren’t able to have a conversation when you call.”
According to Dr. Burns (2008), you can ask yourself the following questions to see if you are communicating effectively regarding:
Did I acknowledge how the other person was thinking and feeling, or did I ignore his or her feelings? Did I find some validity in what the other person was saying, or did I respond defensively?
Did I share my feelings openly, clearly, and tactfully using “I Feel” statements, or did I argue and attack the other person, insisting that he or she was “wrong” or to blame for blame for our problem? Did I hide or deny my feelings and avoid expressing how I really felt inside?
Did I convey warmth, caring, or respect, even if I felt angry, annoyed or irritated?
The Golden Rule
The rule that we should “treat others how we want to be treated” is critical for effective communication. We all want to be understood, and if we want others to listen to us, we need to be respectful, empathetic, and assertive. The common defensive belief that “people need to respect me before I show them respect” is misguided and will not make others more likely to respect you. If everyone thought that way, no one would ever be respectful to another person! Even if you don’t feel respect for another, show them respect because it’s what you value and all human beings deserve respect. Perhaps, they may be more respectful to others in the future simply because you were one person that showed them respect.
We can change our world one person at a time by being a role model for others (especially our children) and showing them respect and compassion, while also being assertive so that we don’t devalue ourselves. Click here for a free consultation session with one of our mental health counselors at Mindful Ways to Wellness in St. Petersburg, Florida.
John Whitaker, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
References and Further Reading
Burns, D.D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Co., Revised and Updated, 1999.
Burns, D.D. (2008). Feeling Good Together. New York: Broadway Books.