The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.
— Edward R. Murrow —
How to say it. Ah. That is the question. That is the difference between a fight and a conversation; between kids or animals running for cover and a quiet evening at home; between divorce and a happy marriage.
The importance of healthy communication cannot be underestimated. In this sometimes emotionally stunted society of ours, we have downplayed the importance of interpersonal communication to the point where it affects not only our own health, but the health of others. (In some cases, it affects your health because others are unwilling to communicate with you. — I will write on psychic vampires [those who suck your emotions dry] at a later time.)
Think about how many of the world’s problems could be solved with healthy communication. Think about how many of your own problems could be solved by healthy communication. Yes, but there’s the key word there — healthy communication.
We all communicate, it’s how we communicate which is the issue. How many people do you know who refuse to speak to someone because of their pride, or because they don’t want to get into a “confrontation.”
But not all communication to work out problems wind up in ‘aggressive confrontation.’ Some people just — talk. Who in your circle would you have a better relationship with if you were able to more effectively communicate with them if ego would allow? Your parent, child, friend, spouse, co-worker? How much better would you feel? How much would airing things out help your own health and well-being? How much more would it allow you to effectively meet the challenges of everyday life if you didn’t have emotions inside you simmering like a pressure cooker, or if you weren’t in a constant state of battle?
Certainly not everyone is experienced at win-win communication, and chances are if you are, you will eventually run into someone close to you who is not. Everybody has different communication styles. What is yours?
Nonassertion: The “inability or unwillingness to express thoughts or feelings.” (Adler & Towne, 2004) This style stems from low self-esteem or lack of knowledge of other communication styles (ie: it was not modeled for them).
One form of nonassertion is avoidance. This can be either physically removing yourself from someone’s presence, or by simply refusing to talk about the issue by changing the subject, joking, etc.
Accommodating is also a form or non-assertion. Some people will simply ‘give in’ to avoid conflict. This is often a co-dependent’s solution, putting other’s needs above their own.
Non-assertion is not always a bad thing. There are times which you have to ‘pick your battles” — in a job, for instance — where speaking out may cost you your job, or where the relationship either doesn’t mean enough to you, or means so much that it’s too small of an issue. More often than not, however, people who are non-assertive either have too little confidence or don’t know how to ask for what they want.
Direct Aggression: Lashing out with attacks, whether it be verbal (character attacks, ridicule, etc.) or physical. This can be not only ineffective, but damaging to the target and the relationship.
Anybody who has suffered the effects of direct aggression can attest to the damaging effects it has on them as the target. Often it is committed by those who have such low self-esteem that they need to ‘feel bigger’ than the person opposite them. They do this by any type of attack that allows them to feel strong, when in reality, it weakens everything about the relationship they are communicating in.
The worst part of direct aggression is the ‘domino effect’ it produces. Words are powerful things. One aggressive comment can lead to defensive aggressive reactions. The idea is to allow your communicating partner to respond, not to push them into a corner by having to react.
Passive Aggression: The act of ‘pushing someone’s buttons,’ so to speak, with subtle verbal or non-verbal messages without confronting the person directly. Sometimes called “crazymaking” (Adler & Towne, 2003), this is one of the most difficult forms of communication to deal with if you are on the opposite end of it.
Passive aggression stems from a great amount of hostility and a severe need to control one’s own life without risking criticism. It may result in extraordinary resentment on the part of person at which the behavior is targeted, which can lead to a complete breakdown of the relationship, over a period of time.
Passive aggressiveness can come in many forms: people who avoid conflict altogether; those who say they understand your feelings but continue to act with the same intent; those who lay guilt trips on you; those who ‘hit below the belt’ with intimate knowledge they know will upset you; those who give you the ‘silent treatment’; those who make a joke about everything and those who tell you they will help you, but sabotage you in some way. If confronted, the passive-aggressive person often just denies intent.
An example of passive aggressive behavior might be a person who tells you they will help you get a job interview because they know someone, who then subtly sabotages the meeting in some way.
Passive aggression is never a good option for long-term results and can severely damage individuals and relationships.
Indirect Communication: Sending indirect messages through hinting, or a third party. This can be a way to avoid conflict by taking initiative, but without hostility, and might be a preferable option when one person wants to help the other “save face.” (Adler & Towne, 2004) Indirect communication is one of the most common ways people try to convey messages.
How many times have you ‘hinted’ to someone that you are ready to leave their party early by saying you have to work the next day, without having to tell them you aren’t having a good time? It saves face for them.
In the vein of avoiding confrontation, some people may send messages through other people. By making a comment about the target person to a third party, the target may or may not get the message but, if they do, they may feel that they have been ‘backstabbed,’ which starts a cycle of hostility which makes communication more difficult in the future.
While at times useful, the problem with indirect communication is that there is the risk that the intended target may not get the message. If the message is that important, a more direct, assertive, approach is necessary.
Assertion: The ability of the communicator to express their thoughts and feelings in a clear manner which does not undermine or attack the other person. Delivering your message, expressing what you want and feel, in a non-judgmental manner can be one of the most effective ways to resolve a conflict. If done appropriately, it minimizes defensiveness in the other person, allows them to clearly understand what you are saying or asking for, and is usually your best chance of resolving conflict with minimal damage.
Everybody may be capable (or culpable) of all of these behaviors at some point in time. The question is, do you recognize it and change it when appropriate, and how do you handle the behavior when it is targeted at you? How best do you present yourself in an assertive, non-confrontational style? There are some things you can do:
Respect Boundaries: If you know that something is a ‘hot-button issue’ don’t throw it in their face. Disrespecting boundaries is one of the quickest ways to escalate a conflict.
Stay Focused on the Issue at Hand: Don’t bring up things from the past that have nothing to do with the current issue. This is very close to crossing boundaries. By staying focused you honor both you and your partner without mucking up the water. When you feel an issue veering off course, bring attention back around to the topic at hand.
Actively Listen: Listening is one of the most important, and sometimes one of the hardest things you can do. Some of the problems people have with listening are: thinking about what they will say next instead of listening and responding; getting defensive; interrupting. When people feel they aren’t being heard, they may feel that their feelings are being discounted and/or invalidated, which leads to more anger, and an escalation of the situation.
De-escalate: If you see the situation heating up, speak in a calm tone of voice. Repeat back to them what they have said so they know you listened to them and so both of you have a clear understanding of the intent of their message. If things are getting too hot and you feel you cannot calm it down, then take a break. Don’t storm out of the room, but calmly explain that you feel that things are too escalated and you are going to go into the other room so both of you can calm down. When you do leave, breathe.
Empathize: Try to see things from their point of view. It doesn’t mean you will agree with them, but if you at least can understand where they’re coming from, you have a better chance to acknowledge & validate their feelings so that both of you can come to a solution.
Use “I” messages: When speaking, use “I” messages rather than “you” messages. Don’t say “You always make me feel so unimportant”, say “When you forget to call when you won’t be home for dinner, I feel unimportant.” This way you are taking the responsibility for the feeling, but you are associating it with a behavior, rather than risking it sounding like an attack on them personally.
Admit your mistakes: When you recognize that you’ve made a mistake — admit it. There is nothing more maddening than someone who refuses to take responsibility for their own actions. Admitting a mistake and apologizing for it is a sign of strength, not one of weakness. It will clear the air and allow both of you to focus on a solution.
Change your response: One of the first rules of psychology is “if you want to change somebody else’s behavior, change your own.” In other words, if you respond differently, they will in turn change their behavior because they are not getting the response they expected. Many times, behavior is meant to do just that, elicit a certain response.
In rare cases you may run up against a person who is completely unwilling to communicate or is such a master manipulator that no matter what you do, they will find a way to start an argument with you, or make your life miserable. They may be so passive-aggressive that it just turns into ‘crazy-making,’ or they may simply flat-out refuse to acknowledge there’s a problem and refuse to listen or discuss the possibility of it at all. In these cases what are you to do?
The broad answer is, “Take care of yourself.” If you are being hurt by the situation, you need to take care of yourself, first and foremost. The method by which you do that, however, can only be found by your own introspection and assessment of how important that specific relationship is to you. If you are being hurt, and you have sincerely tried every option to stop the incoming behavior, you need to make some decisions about how important the relationship is to you.
But introspection is the start. To make the types of decisions you need to make in situations like these, you need to know yourself. Getting in touch with your own higher-self & spirituality has a healthy and calming effect on your life. Resolve to meditate, play, relax. Giving to yourself in a loyal, loving and devoted way can open up a communication process within yourself that may well protect you from psychic vampires as well as preventing you from becoming one.
Communication. It’s fundamental. It’s how we operate. By learning a few basic techniques, and by communicating with our own higher being, we can become more content, better equip ourselves to rise to the challenges of our everyday lives, and better communicate with others &/or understand how to deal with it, even when they won’t.
Adler, Ronald, B., & Towne, Neil (2003). Looking Out Looking In. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.
Adler, Ronald, B., Towne, Neil, & Proctor II, Russell F. (2003). Interplay. 9th ed. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
Creating Strategies. (2008). Retrieved February 9, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://www.creatingstrategies.com/articles/communication_tips/deescalate_a_conflict
Stress Management: about.com. (2008). Retrieved February 9, 2008, from the World Wide Web: http://stress.about.com/od/relationships/ht/healthycomm.htm
Caat is an intuitive advisor and has a master’s degree in human behavior.
For intuitive coaching for communication and relationship problems, see her Spiritcaat Page