“Trouble comes from the mouth.”
— Chinese proverb
Do you experience communication challenges in your relationship? Many studies have identified poor communication as one of the top reasons for couples therapy, as well as one of the top reasons for divorce (1)(2).
Below are four major mistakes couples make in interpersonal communication, with references from my my books (click on titles): "How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People" and "How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People".
1. “You” Language and Directives*
Ineffective communication is often characterized by the use of certain types of “you” language, such as “you are. . .,” “you should. . .,” “you need to. . .,” “you have to. . .,” “you’d better. . .,” and “you people. . . .” Directives are statements that either pass negative judgment, or order another person around.
Some examples of “you” language with a directive include:
“You are not good enough...”
“You should pay attention...”
“You need to do this now...”
“You have to understand my position...”
“You better get it right...”
Most of us don’t like to be told what to do, and when we use “you” language plus a directive, it’s easy to arouse in other people feelings of resentment and defensiveness. This type of communication is also problematic in that it tends to invite a “no” response, often resulting in disagreements and conflicts.
There are effective ways of getting your point across clearly and successfully without using “you” language and directives.
2. Universal Statements
Universal statements are statements that generalize a person’s character or behavior in a negative way. The most common types of universal statements involve the use of words such as “always,” “never,” “again,” “so,” “every time,” “such a,” and “everyone.” Universal statements are often used in combination with “you” language.
“You always leave the toilet seat up.”
“You never put the tooth paste cap back on.”
“You’re messing up again!”
“You are so lazy!”
“You forget to do this every time!”
“You’re such a slob!”
“Everyone knows that you’re bad.”
Universal statements are problematic in many ways. First, the inherent message within these statements is that, in the mind of the person who speaks such generalizations, there is no possibility of the other person being anything else. Second, because universal statements tend to point out “what is wrong,” instead of “how to be better,” such statements discourage change. Finally, just as with examples of “you” language earlier, universal statements can easily be disputed. If I say to you, “you never wash the dishes,” all you need to do is to come up with one exception, “that’s not true, I washed the dishes once last year,” and you have successfully contradicted my statement. The general nature of universal statements makes them very vulnerable to specific counterexamples.
3. Tough on the Person, Soft on the Issue
In every communication situation involving another person, there are two elements present: the person you are relating to, and the issue or behavior you are addressing. Effective communicators know how to separate the issue or the behavior from the person, and be soft on the person and tough on the issue. Ineffective communicators will do the opposite. They literally “get personal” by being tough on the person, while minimizing or ignoring the issue or the behavior.
Ineffective communication: “You are so stupid!”
Effective communication: “You’re a smart person, and what you did this morning was not very smart.”
Ineffective communication: “You never clean up. You’re a slob!”
Effective communication: “I noticed that you didn’t wash the dishes this week.”
Being tough on the person and soft on the issue can easily arouse negative reactions from people, who are likely to take what you’re saying more personally, and as a result feel angry, resentful, hurt or resistant. Note that tough on the person and soft on the issue also involves the frequent use of “you” statements and universals.
4. Invalidate Feelings
Invalidation of feelings occurs when we recognize emotions, positive or negative, coming out of a person, and either discount, belittle, minimize, ignore or negatively judge these feelings.
“Your concerns are meaningless to me!”
“Your complaints are totally unfounded.”
“You’re blowing things way out of proportion.”
“Your anger is a big over-reaction.”
“So what if you got a B in math? I used to get A’s all the time.”
“Don’t feel so happy—your improvement really means very little.”
When a person’s positive feeling is invalidated, his or her positive feeling will likely diminish or disappear. As positive feelings decrease, so does the strength of the relationship. When a person’s negative feeling is invalidated, his or her negative feeling will likely intensify and linger. As negative feelings increase, so does the barrier in a relationship.
When we invalidate another person’s feelings, we are likely to cause instant resentment. The person (or group) whose feelings we just invalidated is likely to feel hurt and angry. In some cases, a person whose feelings have been invalidated might shut down from you emotionally, so that her/his feelings will not be hurt again. Invalidation of feelings is one of the most destructive things one can do in close, personal relationships. It is one of the main reasons why “fall outs” occur between friends, family and people in intimate relationships.
Consequences of Ineffective Communication — Fight, Flight and Freeze
As stated earlier, ineffective communication causes conflict, defensiveness, and worsens relationships. Common reactions to ineffective communication include the three “F”s: people are more likely to either fight an ineffective communicator; take flight from an ineffective communicator; or freeze emotionally (emotionally closed off/shut down) when dealing with an ineffective communicator. The three “F”s, of course, are significant barriers to the development and maintenance of any healthy relationships, both at home and at work. They cause suffering, to both the sender and recipient of ineffective communication.
If your relationship suffers from ineffective communication, the good news is that as long as you and your partner are willing, improvements can be learned quickly and put to use immediately. For more resources on this topic, see my books (click on titles): "How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People" and "How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People".
“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It's like riding a bicycle or typing. If you're willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”
– Brian Tracy
© 2015 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Gottman, J. The Relationship Cure. Harmony. (2002)
The Huffington Post. Poor Communication Is The #1 Reason Couples Split Up. (2013)