The way you communicate has a big impact on how you get on with people and get the things you want. Good communication skills can help you avoid conflict and solve problems – they’re also important for making friends and having healthy relationships.
There are three main styles of communicating – aggressive, passive and assertive.
- Aggressive communication is expressed in a forceful and hostile manner, and usually involves alienating messages such as ‘you-statements’ (blaming the other person and accusing them of being wrong or at fault) and labelling. In addition, the person’s tone of voice and facial expressions are unfriendly. The assumption behind aggressive communication is ‘your needs don’t matter’ (I win/you lose).
- Passive communication involves putting your needs last. You don’t express your thoughts or feelings, or ask for what you want. When you use passive communication it feels like others are walking all over you because you don’t assert your own needs. So you bottle things up and might feel resentful. The assumption behind passive communication is ‘my needs don’t matter’ (you win/I lose – and I resent you for that).
- Assertive communication involves clearly expressing what you think, how you feel and what you want, without demanding that you must have things your way. The basic underlying assumption is ‘we both matter – let’s try to work this out’. Assertive communication increases your likelihood of getting what you want, avoiding conflict and maintaining good relationships (I win/you win). When you are assertive you can: express your own thoughts, feelings and needs make reasonable requests of other people stand up for your own rights say ‘no’ to requests from others at times, without feeling guilty.
Poor communication often creates tension and bad feelings within relationships.
Tom is feeling angry. He is due to go for his driving test next week, and for the past month his dad has been promising to take him out driving, but it never seemed to happen. Tom feels frustrated because he needs the practice before he goes for the test. On Thursday Tom came home from school and asked his dad if they could go for a drive. His dad said he couldn’t because he had some work to do. Well, Tom just saw red and exploded: ‘You don’t give a damn about me. You are such a liar! You never do what you say you’re going to do…’
In return his dad got all fired up, called him a ‘spoilt brat’ and said that he can’t think about anything but himself. This situation is a good example of how poor communication can lead to conflict and bad feelings. Let’s have a look at some of the errors that led to this angry outburst. What went wrong?
Error 1: mind-reading
Tom expected his dad to know what he was thinking and feeling, without clearly telling him. Until the time of the argument his dad had no idea how important it was to Tom to get the extra driving practice. He thought that Tom felt confident and assumed he just wanted to go for a drive for fun, which they could do anytime.
Tom on the other hand, had assumed that his father knew how important it was for him to get some more practice (even though he never told him) and therefore interpreted his attitude as not caring. Mind-reading goes on in most relationships and people get upset because of misunderstandings. Often we expect people to know what we think – we believe that they should be able to understand where we are coming from, even though we haven’t expressed it clearly.
So, an important aspect of good communication is to tell others what we think and want – don’t assume that they already know. In Tom’s case, the situation may have turned out better if he had communicated more clearly in the first place: ‘Dad, I have my driving test on Tuesday and I’m feeling nervous about it. Can we organise to go for a few drives this week? Are you going to have some time to take me? When would it suit you?’
By clearly communicating that going for a drive is very important to him, Tom gives his dad a better understanding of where he’s coming from. Then, scheduling a specific time strengthens the commitment and makes it easier for both of them to plan ahead.
Error 2: avoiding communication
Tom left it until he was very angry before he said anything. Each time his dad cancelled the planned drive Tom said nothing. Over time he stewed about it more and more, and finally he exploded. This type of situation is a bit like a pot boiling on the stove – if you don’t let off a bit of steam as you go along, eventually the pressure builds up and it boils over. Whenever we’re feeling upset, it is better to talk about it as soon as possible, rather than letting things build up. If we say nothing we don’t get what we want and our frustration grows.
Communication problems often arise because we don’t say how we feel, what we think or what we want. People often avoid communicating because they are embarrassed or concerned about upsetting the other person. Sometimes we just assume that others should know what we think. The problem is that when you don’t say what you need to say, it increases the likelihood of feeling angry, resentful and frustrated. This leads to tension in relationships and, sometimes, to angry outbursts.
Error 3: labelling
Another problem with the communication between Tom and his dad is that they both used labels to criticise each other (eg ‘you are a liar’, ‘you are a spoilt brat’). When we label another person they feel under attack, and usually their first reaction is to attack back (just like Tom’s dad did). This leads to heated arguments and conflict.
Labels are an example of alienating messages (see error 4, below), because they criticise the person rather than their behaviour. It is ok to criticise someone’s behaviour (eg ‘I think what you did was unfair’), but labelling the whole person (eg ‘you’re pathetic’) is unreasonable and creates bad feelings between people.
Error 4: alienating messages
When we use criticism, put-downs or aggressive communication, nobody wins – everybody feels bad in the end. Alienating messages make the other person feel threatened or under attack, and usually they respond by attacking back. This type of communication very often leads to angry confrontations or a lack of any communication.
Some examples of alienating messages
- You-statements – we blame the other person and accuse them of being wrong or at fault (eg ‘you don’t give a damn about me!). Sarcasm – eg ‘well, we can’t all be perfect like you!’; ‘you must have gotten an A if you think you don’t have to study’.
- Negative comparisons – eg ”Dave’s dad takes him driving every weekend’ (i.e. unlike you!); ‘Why can’t you get A’s on your report, like your sister?’. Threats – eg ‘If you don’t do (what I want) then I’m going to …eg leave home…never talk to you again…be rude to your boyfriend…’.
- Labelling – see error 3 above. The communication problems between Tom and his father are really common ones. You can probably think of some examples in your own experience, where you or someone you know has used unhelpful communication (such as mind-reading, avoidance and alienating messages).
It’s always useful to be aware of your communication styles to avoid making these types of errors.
For more information on how to communicate effectively, check out more tips for communicating effectively.
Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions. By: Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Remond, Foundation for Life Sciences (2005).