Do you have a hard time telling those who are closest to you what you want or asking somebody to stop behavior you don’t like? Do you often feel like people misunderstand you? Do your conversations tend to turn into arguments that alienate your friends? Are you convinced that people have stopped listening to you?
Communicating effectively can be really difficult, especially when you struggle with challenging interpersonal experiences and emotions at home or school. But knowing how to communicate your needs – honestly and clearly in respectful ways that don’t hurt others – is essential to forming healthy and happy relationships throughout life.
We all have different communication styles. When you are aware of your style, you can better work on the natural tendencies that typically take your conversations in the wrong direction or push people away.
- Passive – Your style is passive when you’re afraid to make others angry by expressing your opinion or you suppress your feelings because you want to avoid conflict. Do you often hear yourself saying, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter to me,” when you do care, and it actually does matter?
- Aggressive – You tend to say what’s on your mind without pausing to consider other people’s feelings. When talking to others, your needs usually come first. Do you often yell, swear or use other aggressive means to get your point across? Would people describe you as outspoken or intimidating?
- Passive Aggressive – Someone with a passive-aggressive style uses tools like sarcasm or the silent treatment to express their feelings instead of simply saying what’s on their mind or that their feelings are hurt.
- Assertive – This is the style we all aspire to. If you are assertive, you are not afraid of communicating honestly and asking for what you need. But you also listen and respect other people’s opinions and feelings.
Tips for Good Communication
Take a breath, pause and think about your natural tendencies before speaking. The University of North Carolina’s Healthy Relationships Initiative has developed some communication strategies that can help you be assertive, but not aggressive:
- Aim to understand. You don’t have to agree with someone, but you should do your best to understand where they are coming from. Try to respect their opinion without judging them.
- Practice active listening. When you are in a conversation, don’t focus on how to respond and get your point across. Instead, listen and try to understand the other person’s perspective. Show them you are listening by validating their feelings: “I can tell that really hurt your feelings.” Just listening in silence can be effective.
- Learn to compromise. This does not mean you have to give in or suppress your opinion and values. Try to discuss solutions that can work for both of you. Meeting in the middle can allow everyone to move forward and feel good about it.
- Respect the other person, their thoughts and emotions. When you are respectful in your conversations with others, it shows them that you value your relationship with them and can make even difficult discussions easier.
- Be open and honest. This builds trust and connection and fosters genuine relationships.
In difficult conversations with others, you can avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings by:
- Being clear and specific about what you want.
- Speaking in “I statements” (“I felt upset when I saw that you borrowed my favorite shirt without asking.” instead of “You always take my stuff!”)
- Staying focused on the problem rather than blaming or attacking. (“Can you make sure my shirt gets washed” instead of “You ruined my shirt!”)
- Be willing to admit when you are wrong.
- Don’t over-apologize. Taking responsibility is good. But if you’re not to blame, then don’t apologize. Over time, over-apologizing can be damaging to your self-respect.
Don’t worry if you don’t always get it right. Communication is one of the most difficult parts of any relationship. Mutual respect, good listening and empathetic understanding are skills we can all work on building.