Effective communication is essential to maintaining a healthy relationship with your family, friends, and colleagues. Yet, many people struggle and approach challenging conversations with cloudy communication.
Everyone grows up in a different type of family system, household, and culture. This is where we learn some of our initial skills for interaction. We consciously and unconsciously absorb what we see and experience in childhood. Whether your family practiced healthy communication, silent treatments, fought, or were absent, these early experiences cause imprints that you carry into adulthood. This can influence how you think, feel, speak, perceive and respond to life.
On top of that, we also communicate non-verbally, at every moment. We speak to each other through slight body movements, facial gestures, and even through the electrical currents in our brains and hearts. Our thoughts and feelings are communicated through these currents, even in silence. That's one way you pick up on a person's "vibe" when they walk into a room--you might be reading their body language or sensing their thought forms and emotions.
When people have vastly different or similar but dysfunctional styles of communication, this increases their chances of having misunderstandings and conflict. Communication-related relationship issues happen when people don't cultivate healthy communication skills to counteract non-constructive, automatic patterns formed in the past.
The milder versions of dysfunction manifest as snide comments, passive-aggressiveness, indirectness, withholding, and blame. When things escalate, this can turn into name-calling, shouting, berating, and shaming.
The good news is that there are ways to avoid these pitfalls. We can strengthen our abilities to speak and listen with compassion and honesty. Most people want to feel heard and understood because it's tied to our sense of belonging and connection with others. With some practice, you can learn how to communicate effectively and experience more harmony in your life.
Non-violent communication was founded by Marshall Rosenberg. This communication practice is an integration of:
Empathy, care, courage, and authenticity.
Understanding how words contribute to connection or distance.
Knowing how to ask for what we want and how to listen to others.
Working toward solutions that work for all.
Collaborating instead of trying to control or have power over others.
Below, you'll find a common scenario with two different outcomes, based on the communication style.
Steve is upset because his partner, Sherry, is pushing him to make a decision about purchasing a new car for their family. Sherry keeps bringing this up in an angry and controlling manner and Steve grows distant and shuts down. He wants Sherry to trust that he's taking his time in order to make a well-thought-out decision.
Here’s something Steve could say:
“I feel frustrated and upset when you ask me about buying the car multiple times a day. I feel like you don’t trust me or believe in me. I need you to give me more time to make the correct decision. Would you be willing to trust that I will buy the right car without bringing it up for the next two weeks?”
Compare that to this statement:
“You piss me off because you’re making me feel pressured. You should know how this makes me feel and I shouldn't have to tell you. You better stop it, or else…”
In the first example, Steve took responsibility for his feelings, expressed his needs, and made a specific request. In the second example, he took no responsibility, had an expectation for Sherry to read his mind, and used blame, control, and an ultimatum to get what he wants. His feelings are justified, but his communication is not effective in the second example.
Compassionate, Non-Violent Communication Template
“I feel ____________ when _____________. I need ________________.”
"When ___________, I feel _____________."
"When I observe/experience _____________, I need_____________.
Would you be willing to_________?"
"I wonder how we can think of a way to make this work for both of us."
Remember to breathe
If you notice that you're feeling emotionally triggered or engaging in negative or black-and-white thinking, take a moment to pause and regroup. This not only indicates that your nervous system is dysregulated, but also that you don't have access to the part of the brain that controls logic and rational thinking, the prefrontal cortex. This region practically shuts down in moments like this and you become susceptible to shutting down or acting out, verbally and non-verbally.
Something you can do to enhance your non-violent communication practice is to connect with your breath before and during the conversation. This will help you become present and grounded in your body. Breathing helps to reset your cortisol levels, and also regulates (soothes) the nervous system. When you're in a calm state, you're way more likely to think and speak with clarity and precision.
You’ll know that you're in the zone of effective communication when you don't allow yourself to be drawn into unproductive arguments, blame, name-calling, and victim/perpetrator dynamics.
TIP: Take a few deep belly breaths before a potentially challenging interaction. Thirty to sixty deep breaths into the diaphragm can shift your entire physiological, emotional, and mental state. When you calm your body and mind, you bring that calmness and positive energy into every interaction.
While these practices may seem awkward or curated at first, I recommend that you commit to practicing them consistently. Over time, you will begin to feel more confident and relaxed in any conversation.
TIP: Write down what you want to say to someone if you're in a situation where you can plan ahead. Read through it and practice saying it until it starts to feel natural. It might take time to get used to speaking in this way, but with practice, you’ll notice improvements in your communication style and in your relationships.