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.
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.
To reverse this pattern, we have to start becoming more aware of when our emotions are escalating the moment it starts happening. Working with a therapist is helpful with this as they can point out when this is happening in real time during your sessions. Once you master this skill, you're able to notice when your heart is racing and your face is flushing and say, "I'm starting to feel frustrated and I need to take a breather."
From there, I recommend that people engage in a concept called responsible distance-taking. Developed by the therapist Terry Real, this involves letting the other person know why you need to take a time-out and telling them when you will return to help quell their anxiety. Leaving a conversation without a word will undoubtedly cause the person to feel distressed, but saying, "I'm noticing that I'm starting to feel overwhelmed and am going to go on a 10-minute walk" helps them understand the intention behind your distance and gives them peace of mind about when the conversation will continue.
Now that we've gotten those points out of the way, it's important to note that healthy communication depends on listening just as much as it depends on talking, so here are some quick tips about that:
Give the other person the floor.
When someone is talking to you, let them talk. This is something that's simple in theory but difficult in practice. So many of us listen to respond rather than listening to understand. When we are able to stay quiet, allow the person to fully express themselves, and slow down the conversation, it makes escalation much more difficult. Rest assured that you will get your turn to speak, and it will likely happen a lot quicker than if you're interrupting someone constantly.
2. Be curious rather than judgmental.
It's very tempting to start defending ourselves whenever we hear constructive criticism. Pretend that you're a detective and become curious about the person's sentiments. Ask thoughtful questions like, "What's that like for you when you hear that?" Getting more pieces to the puzzle will help you get to the root of the issue and make effective changes rather than implementing Band-Aid solutions.
3. Change your behaviour accordingly.
I once heard that the best apology is changed behaviour and I couldn't agree more. If someone has had the courage to tell you about something that has been bothering them—and if they've done it constructively—it is now your job to change your behaviours accordingly. This is precisely what allows trust to develop over time: when we consistently respond to the other person in a way that matters to them, they gain reassurance that we are someone who is listens and who is reliable, which are two wonderful ingredients for a successful relationship (whether it's a professional, romantic, or familial one).
The Bottom Line
Communicating effectively isn't as difficult as people might think. In summary, here are the main ingredients:
- Make sure your own emotions are in check rather than allowing them to run the show to avoid saying something you'll regret
- Keep things present and specific and stick to the facts to avoid defensiveness
- Make sure your non-verbal cues are aligned with the message you're trying to communicate
- Give the other person the floor, take time-outs when needed, and do whatever you can to slow down the conversation overall to prevent escalation
- Listen openly, curiously, and thoughtfully and change your behaviours so that the other person feels heard and understood
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