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The Best Communication Techniques, According to a Therapist

One of the most common requests I hear from couples coming to therapy for the first time is that they'd like to improve their communication. And yet, strong communication skills are relevant in many areas of life, including the workplace and other inter-personal relationships.

And so, today's post is dedicated to my favourite tried-and-true communication techniques that can be used in multiple domains.

  1. Keep the current issue specific and present.

It is very tempting to bring up things from the past during difficult conversations. However, this usually causes two things to happen: (a) the other person will not feel as though you have heard or understood them and will feel frustrated as a result (b) you will get off-topic and nothing will end up being addressed at all.

What I've also noticed is that if this pattern continues, conversations will be associated with escalation instead of productivity, and one party might simply stop bringing up the topic altogether to avoid conflict. This can then breed resentment over time.

The point to drive home is to stay on topic. If someone brings up a conversation about needing more help with the housework, this isn't the time to discuss how you felt like they they "didn't have your back" at a family function six months ago; we are talking about the housework, period. If something comes to mind that you wasn't addressed previously, shelve it in your mind and bring it up at another time.

2. Refrain from entering into an empathy battle.

An empathy battle occurs when we start competing with another person to receive more empathy or compassion. For example, if John starts talking about how stressed out he is at work and Mary responds by sharing all the reasons why she is even more stressed out, they've entered an empathy battle.

There is no place for competitiveness when it comes to healthy communication. It's not about whose issue is better or worse, more or less stressful, or more or less significant; it's about supporting each other through hardships and recognizing that everyone's concerns are valid. John can be stressed and Mary can be stressed without one person's struggles having to be "more than" the other's.

3. Stick to the facts to deter defensiveness.

Defensiveness usually shows up in response to judgment. A great way to avoid this is to be as objective as possible when describing your concerns.

What not to do: "You never show up for work on time and it makes me think you don't care about this job." This sounds very judgmental and harsh and would likely trigger defensiveness in anyone.

What to do instead: "I've noticed that over the past three weeks, you have shown up at 10:00am rather than 9:00am on 10 of the 15 work days." You're simply stating the facts rather than making judgments.

4. Use "I feel" statements properly.

I get a real kick out of how people manipulate the whole concept of "I feel" statements. They'll say things like, "I feel like you're a huge prick" and think that they're communicating properly!

"I feel" statements only work when they are followed by an emotion. Otherwise, you are sneakily communicating a judgment. Saying "I feel hurt" is an example of this concept being used properly as you are taking ownership for your own emotions. Saying "I feel like you're super insensitive" is a judgment. Notice how you haven't communicated your emotions at all.

While we're on this topic: saying, "I feel like hurt because you're a real asshole" is also incorrect as it contains a judgment that will trigger defensiveness (see point #3). Saying, "I feel hurt and my mind goes to a place of wondering if you don't care about me" is better. You're taking ownership of your own feelings and using softer language like "I wonder" that is much less accusatory. (Pro tip: "I wonder" is a phenomenal phrase to have in your back pocket when it comes to dissuading defensiveness in others.)

5. Use the acronym TEARS.

This acronym is handy for when you need to make a request. It involves the following steps:

Thoughts - communicating your thoughts/observations about a particular issue

Emotions - voicing your feelings about said issue

Ask - making a request

Recognize - acknowledging what the other person honouring the request will mean to you

Self-care - stating what you will do to take care of yourself should they deny your request

Here's an example of the above script put into practice:

Thoughts - "I've had quite a busy work week"

Emotions - "and am feeling quite overwhelmed and exhausted."

Ask - "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind making dinner tonight."

Recognize - "It would take a lot off of my plate and I'd appreciate your ability to pivot as a way of supporting me tonight."

Self-care - "If that doesn't work, I'll just order pizza instead and go to bed early."

6. Pay attention to your non-verbal cues.

So little of communication actually comes from what we say. Our tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language actually pack way more of a punch than the words that come out of our mouths. Think about it: you can say, "This is a great workplace" in 29509238093285 different ways and each will convey a different message. Saying it with a sarcastic tone may cause someone to think you dislike your job, while saying it enthusiastically may cause them to see you as a motivated team player.

I find that working with a therapist is really helpful for this as it allows an objective, third party to help you gain awareness about what non-verbal cues you are sending out, perhaps outside of consciousness. From there, you can practice acting in ways that are more aligned with how you'd like to be interpreted in a safe, supportive setting.

7. Stop the conversation when you're feeling overwhelmed.

People often say that couples should "never go to bed angry" but I completely disagree.

No good comes from having a conversation when we are overly anxious, angry, or overwhelmed. The neuroscience behind this is clear: when we are feeling very intense emotions, the more rational part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) goes "offline" and our emotional brain starts running the show. Losing the ability to consider long-term consequences, we say things we don't mean, act impulsively, and turn into a different version of ourselves.