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Fact Sheet

Effective communication: getting the message across


ReachOut fact sheets are written by young people for young people and edited by a mental health professional. Want to discuss the topic in more depth? Visit the ReachOut Forums.

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The way you communicate has a big impact on your ability to get along with people and get the things that you want. Good communication skills can help you avoid conflict and to solve problems. Open and honest communication is also important for making friends and having healthy relationships.

Styles of communication

Communication can be expressed in many ways and with different results.  Communication can be aggressive, passive or assertive. Poor communication often creates tension and bad feelings within relationships.

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 labeling (calling a person a name).

A person’s tone of voice and facial expressions can also project unfriendliness. Aggressive communication can send the message “your needs don’t matter,” or “I win, and you lose.”

Passive communication involves putting your needs last. When you communicate passively, 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. As a result, you might bottle things up and might feel resentful. Passive communication can send the message ”my needs don’t matter,” or “you win, and I lose.”

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, so let’s try to work this out.”

Assertive communication increases your likelihood of getting what you want, avoiding conflict and maintaining good relationships. Everyone can win in these situations.

When you are assertive you can:

  • Express your own thoughts, feelings and needs
  • Make reasonable requests of other people, while accepting his or her right to say ”no”
  • Stand up for your own rights
  • Say “no” to requests from others when you want to, without feeling guilty

Take this example…

Tom is feeling angry. He’s supposed to get his driver’s license 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.

Finally at his breaking point, Tom just 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,” he yelled.

In return his dad got all fired up, called Tom a spoiled brat who doesn’t think about anyone but himself.  Both Tom and his dad were angry at each other after this argument.

This is a good example of how poor communication can lead to conflict and bad and/or hurt feelings. Let’s have a look at some of the errors that led to this angry outburst.

Error 1: Making assumptions

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 about the test 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 dad’s attitude as not caring.

Assumptions occur in most relationships and people get upset because of these misunderstandings. Often we expect people to know what we are thinking—we believe that they should be able to understand where we are coming from, even though we haven’t expressed it clearly.

An important aspect of good communication is to tell others what we’re thinking and want and also to not assume that they already know.

In Tom’s case, the situation could have turned out better if he had communicated more clearly in the first place, by saying something like “Dad, I’ve got my driver’s license test on Tuesday, and I’m feeling nervous about it. Do you have some time this week to take me out on a few drives?  What days would work for 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 and how he is feeling. By scheduling specific time(s) strengthens the commitment and makes it easier for both of them to plan ahead.

Error 2: Avoiding communication

Tom didn’t say anything until he was very angry. Each time his dad cancelled the planned drive, Tom said nothing. Over time, Tom stewed about it more and more, and finally he exploded. This type of situation is like a pot boiling on the stove—if you don’t let off a little steam as time passes, eventually the pressure builds up and it boils over. Whenever we’re feeling upset, it’s better to talk about it as soon as possible, rather than letting things build up. If we say nothing, we won’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 may lead to tension or even to angry outbursts.

Error 3: Labeling

Tom and his dad also used labels to criticize each other. Labels such as “liar” or “spoiled brat,” can be offensive. When we label another person, it can feel like we are attacking them, and that person’s first reaction is usually to attack back.

Attacks lead to heated arguments and conflict. Labels are an example of alienating messages (see Error 4 below), because they criticize the person rather than the behavior. It is OK to criticize someone’s behavior (for example,“I think what you did was unfair”), but labeling the whole person (”You are unfair”) is unreasonable and creates bad feelings between people.

Error 4: Alienating messages

When we use criticism, put-downs or aggressive communication, no one wins, and everyone feels bad in the end. Alienating messages make the other person feel threatened or under attack, and usually this person will respond by attacking back. This type of communication very often leads to angry confrontations or a “cold war,” where we stop speaking to the other person, or use minimal communication.

Some examples of alienating messages include:

  • You-statements: We blame the other person and accuse him or her of being wrong or at fault. In Tom’s case, the you-statement was: “You don’t give a damn about me!”
  • Sarcasm: Sarcastic statements are negative or hurtful phrases that you don’t really mean, and are used to put another person down in a more passive way. An example of a sarcastic statements include “Well, we can’t all be perfect like you.”
  • Negative comparisons: Negative comparisons are statements that you use when you compare a person to someone else and in the process, you put down him or her down for not be ‘as good’ as the person you are using in the comparison.  For example, “Why can’t you get A’s like your sister?” is a negative comparison.
  • Threats: These statements can include giving another person an ultimatum, for example, “If you don’t do what I want, then I’m going to…”

The communication problems between Tom and his father are very common ones. Perhaps you can think of some examples in your own experience, where you or someone you know has used poor communication, such as assumptions, avoiding and alienating messages. It’s always useful to be aware of your communication so that you can avoid making these types of errors.

Getting your message across isn’t always easy. Good communication skills can help you avoid conflict and solve problems.

Whole messages

One of the most effective ways of communicating is to use whole messages. This is especially useful when you need to raise an issue that’s difficult to talk about or makes you feel uncomfortable. A whole message involves expressing how you think and feel, while at the same time stating what you want. Whole messages consist of four parts:

1. Observations

Describe what happened.
For example, when Mike came over the other day, you didn’t stop and talk to him.

2. Thoughts

State your beliefs, opinions or interpretation of what happened in your observation.
For example, I thought it seemed rude, like you don’t like him.

3. Feelings

Say how you feel about the situation.
For example, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable.

4. Wants

Talk about what you would like to happen in the situation.
For example, the next time he comes over, I’d like you to say “hi” and to make an effort to talk to him.

Learning to communicate effectively takes a bit of practice. Can you think of a situation that you’ve experienced where you needed to communicate with someone about a concern? Perhaps you even have an issue that you need to resolve at the moment. Think about it. Then take these steps:

1. Describe the situation, and who you need to communicate with.

2. Write the whole message, including observations, thoughts, feelings and wants.

TIP: If you find it difficult to say it directly to the person, write it down your whole message paper first. This can help you to clarify what you want to say and how you can say it. Just remember that even if you stumble upon your words, don’t stop mid-way. Don’t be afraid to talk things out. Let your voice be heard.

This fact sheet comes from:

Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions
by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)

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