Of all the problems presented by clients when they first attend therapy as a couple, communication difficulties are often to be found as the most pressing. However, our difficulties with communication is not just an issue within a relationship: it touches every aspect of our lives – which makes the effort of finding out how we communicate well worth the effort.
Our style of communication is based on how we learned to communicate in our families, culture, society, and with our peers. It is important to understand that communication is a learned skill: when we are born, we will be neither good nor bad communicators. However, since it is a learned skill, it means we can unlearn things that make communication a problem, and we can learn new ways to be more effective in the way we relate our ideas, opinions, thoughts and feelings.
What is your style of communication?
Read through a brief description of the four main types of communication and think through which style would be a best fit for you.
- Passive Communication
Passive communicators fail to communicate to others what they think, want or need. Sometimes they don’t even admit it to themselves. Passive communicators might believe that they are protecting others from their feelings, but in fact more often they are protecting themselves from potential conflict and/or rejection.
Your partner or friend asks you to do something you do not really want to do. You may feel you are under time pressure, already have too much to do, or already had something else planned for that time.
Agree to do what the partner/ friend asks (what feelings are involved here?)
Pretend not to hear request
Passive communication includes:
- Avoiding situations which might be uncomfortable
- Avoiding conflict
- Avoiding situations that feel emotionally risky
- Not expressing feelings, thoughts or needs
- Ignoring our own rights in a situation
- Lying or making excuses in uncomfortable situations
- Being apologetic or putting down self
- Letting others make decisions for us
Feelings might include:
- Relief (avoided conflict)
- Resentment (of others for making decisions, having power)
- Annoyed with self (didn’t say what felt/needed)
2. Aggressive Communication
Aggressive communicators say what they think without taking into account the other person’s feelings, thoughts or needs. Aggressive communication includes shouting, intimidating body language, sarcasm and violence. This form of communication aims to hurt, and is often a projection of the hurt and anger the person is feeling.
Your partner or friend asks you to do something you would rather not do.
Laughs at person and storms out of room. (note the ‘acting out’)
“Of course I can’t/ won’t do it! What an idiotic suggestion. Why would I want to do that now? It’s stupid.”
“You always do this. Don’t you ever do things yourself? Why me? You never do things yourself: it is always left to someone else.”
“Why the xxxx did you ever become my partner/ friend?”
Aggressive communication includes:
- Expression of feelings, needs and ideas at expense of others
- Violating others’ feelings or rights
- Dominating and belittling behaviour
- Having a sense of power or control in the situation
- Saying what you think without thinking about the outcome
- Sarcastic remarks
Feelings might include:
- Sense of power
- Justified in what you have said
- Pleased to get your way in the situation
- May feel isolated (aggressive communication can distance people)
3. Passive Aggressive Communication
People who use a passive aggressive communication style, indirectly say what they think or mean. It often leaves the person receiving the remark feeling confused, as they have not been clear about what they really think or feel. Although the person speaking might believe they are being polite in communicating this way, both they and the recipient can often be left with unresolved feelings that linger.
Your partner/friend asks you to do something that is inconvenient for you.
“Sure, no problem”…Then seeks out confidante and says, “I just talked to X, who asked me to do this. Can you believe it? He never does things himself, he’s so lazy… How did I get into a relationship with him.”
“I guess I can do that. I am a bit busy, but I’ll probably be able to do it. I missed something important the last time, but obviously you need me to do this so I will.”
“I suppose that is one way to organise your life – getting others to do the work for you. Sure, I’ll do it.
Passive aggressive communication includes:
- Being indirectly aggressive
- Trying to control the situation while being ‘nice’
- Manipulative behaviour
- Being unclear about how you are truly feeling
- Denying your feelings about a situation, when you are clearly aware of them
- Making others feel guilty
- Avoiding rejection and hurt
- Getting what you want without facing conflict
Feelings might include:
- Low self-esteem
- Isolated because of distancing and confusing communication
- Angry at self
- Relief because person has made their point whilst avoiding conflict.
4. Assertive Communication
People who communicate assertively, are clear and say what they mean. They accept their feelings, thoughts and ideas without judgement and express these in such a way that they don’t put the other person down. When being assertive, they take into consideration timing, situation, feelings and thoughts.
A partner/ friend asks you to do something at short notice, when you have deadlines of your own.
“I am unable to do this as I need to finish x by y.”
“I am unable to do this now, but I could do it by x.’
“I cannot do this now, but I would like to help. How about we meet at x and we can do it together?”
Assertive communication includes:
- Expressing your feelings, needs and ideas, while maintaining respect for the other person
- Knowing what you feel so that you can express it clearly
- Standing up for your rights: saying “yes” or “no” when you mean it
- Being honest with yourself and others
- Saying what you mean (with persistence—sometimes you have to repeat yourself when being assertive)
- Making own choices
- Taking risks in communication
- Facing potential conflict
Feelings might include:
- Feeling good about self
- Increased confidence
- Increased self-esteem
Communicating assertively can make us feel anxious, but it often leaves us feeling empowered. It takes practice, but it can become habit. Think about your needs and feelings – and then consider the best way of articulating them.
It is also odd to think that to make ourselves assertive, we need to make ourselves vulnerable (by being honest and open about how we feel). If we fail to do this, and continue to communicate without the connection with feeling, we are likely to continue to ‘act out’ various defensive communication styles learned in our early family units.
How can Therapy Help?
Therapy will help you to understand your feelings better, which in turn will lead to a better understanding of your needs and the needs of those around you. You can then begin to make choices about how you wish to communicate those feelings and needs with clarity.
Kevin Collins is a UKCP registered Psychotherapeutic Counsellor with an academic background in the field of literature and linguistics. He worked for many years in education – in schools and university. Kevin is available at our Lewes Practice.