I think the most influential factor in relationship quality is communication. However, sometimes we humans really suck at communicating! There are certain communication errors we make that lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and relationship turmoil. Here are some of these communication killers that turn good conversation into conflict.
(1) Not saying what you mean
We often say one thing but mean something else, like the classic “I’m ok” when we really just don’t want to talk about what’s bothering us. When we do this, we’re letting the other person try to figure out what we mean. Not only are we leaving room for misinterpretation, but it’s frustrating to talk to someone who we assume isn’t saying what’s on their mind.
Perhaps you do this because you’re afraid that the other person will react negatively to hearing how you actually feel. For example, you might not tell someone that they were being mean, even if you thought they were, because saying so might start an argument.
Not saying what you mean comes out in its worst form as passive aggressiveness. You might think you’re getting away with not being rude by being indirect but you’re also just not being real with the person. Say what you mean! You don’t have to be a jerk about it, say it with compassion, but get your point across clearly and straight forward. You can tell someone that you felt as though they were being rude but that you also know they probably did so because they’ve been having a rough week. Anyone you are communicating with deserves that, and so do you.
(2) Not taking things at face value
Because we humans are emotional beings, we can’t help but interpret meaning from words, body language, and tone. If we don’t say what we mean we tend to believe that others aren’t saying what they mean either. This happens in text messages often. I’ve been asked a few times if I’m alright because I write “ok”. I literally just mean ok! It’s merely an affirming statement but people take this short response, with its lack of emojis, to mean I’m angry or upset. They assume meaning from something that is meaningless. It leads to wasted time explaining and someone feeling hurt or worried unnecessarily.
Now, if someone is eluding to something negative in their text or words, then they are being passive aggressive. Your choice to not acknowledge their hidden meaning might be what they need to finally come out and say it. The downfall of this is that they might just keep doing it, accuse you of apathy, or think you’re being passive aggressive. This is where communication is key! Assuming face value of what people say doesn’t mean ignoring their cue (the passive aggressive comment), it means asking them about it rather assuming they’re angry. “I’m hearing you say X but your tone is making me think that you mean Y, can we talk about it?”
(3) Taking things personally
Another part of taking things at face value means not taking them personally. I think we’re all pretty aware of how much we worry about what other people think of us. Taking things personally in conversation stops you from having real connection because you’re too busy being upset or offended.
The biggest factors in taking things personally are jealousy and self-consciousness. Jealousy may be experienced as someone telling you they feel sad because they miss a friend and rather than using this as an opportunity to listen and show empathy you think to yourself, “do they ever miss me? Do they like this friend more than they like me”? You’ve gone and missed a positive interaction with that person! On the other hand, self-consciousness could be feeling the need to justify yourself when someone tells you they are proud of themselves for eating healthier. You don’t need to justify why you don’t eat healthy or take their statement as a stab at you for not doing so. It’s not always about you, in fact, it usually isn’t. Don’t let being self-oriented get in the way of meaningful connection with others.
Exaggerating means inferring a higher intensity of meaning than is present. Don’t get into an argument with someone because they said they feel like you don’t listen. Take that comment seriously. Don’t blow it up to mean that that person dislikes you altogether. If you do, that comment will sit in your mind all day, causing you to worry and wonder. This goes for how you speak as well. When you always verbally exaggerate how you feel, you may appear untrustworthy because whoever you are communicating with might get a sense that you aren’t being real with them.
Be logical! It’s not logical to think that when someone says you’re not a good listener that they loath you and everything you stand for! Remember this when responding to their concern.
Stop venting about people behind their back and communicate with them. Gossip hurts but up-front communication has the ability to solve problems. You don’t have to like the person but when you gossip you do two things: (1) you cut off any hope of having a positive or even neutral (conflict free) relationship with them if your gossip reaches them and (2) you become untrustworthy to the people you are sharing the gossip with. If someone is constantly speaking ill of other people to me, I can bet that they are also gossiping about me with other people when I’m not around. This doesn’t make me trust them, like them, or feel that they are genuine.
If someone I am talking to is looking at their phone, I stop talking. I can’t say I’m not guilty of doing this myself, we’re all distracted by our phones way too much. I know that when I am on my phone and someone is talking to me, I’m not actually processing what they are saying. So, when other people do it I know that I am wasting my breath.
If someone says they can process what I’m saying while on their phone I usually don’t believe them. I don’t think the mind is capable of multi-tasking like this. Even if they actually can do both, it’s just doesn’t feel good to not make eye contact with someone or have them give you their full attention while you’re speaking. Not looking at your phone forces you into the moment and lets the other person know they have your full attention.
(7) Letting unresolved conflict come up
Don’t let old issues come up in conflict when the conflict at hand is unrelated. I can recall times when I have been angry with someone and my mind goes straight to all the things they have done wrong in the past. “You didn’t do X, and by the way, last week you didn’t do Y either!” This doesn’t help the problem at hand nor does it lead to a positive interaction.
The best way to stop these issues from coming up is simply to… resolve them! If you’re bringing up old conflict it should be to work through it and assess how you both can change your behaviours and communication going forward.
(8) Lack of empathy
Empathy allows the person you’re communicating with to feel supported and understood. Being empathetic in conversation means actively listening, not judging, and understanding the range and intensity of their emotions. It also means keeping in mind that different people have different conversational triggers that might upset them and you should be considerate of this (and don’t take it personally!).
It’s also highly beneficial to be able to simulate how people feel when you are in conflict with them. If you can’t be empathetic in conflict, you’ll both be arguing your points, unable to see the other person’s side, and you’ll never get anywhere. Begin realizing that they too are just fighting for what they believe is right based on their emotions about the situation. Doing so will allow you to more clearly see a solution that benefits both parties.
(9) Listening with what you’re going to say next in mind
In conversation, you might miss what someone is saying if you’re focused on how you’re going to respond the whole time. Communication isn’t about showing off what you know. Don’t worry, if you think of a great point but you forget it, it’ll be ok. Let the conversation flow naturally. Keep in mind that many times when people are venting, they don’t need advice, they just want someone to listen and agree. If they want advice, they will most likely ask for it.
(10) Having expectations
Thinking someone should be a certain way can harm our ability to communicate with them. For example, expecting that a brother should be empathetic and supportive while speaking with your brother, who displays neither of these characteristics, is only going to stunt communication. Put your expectations aside so you can really be present with the person in front of you. They may not be what you expected or hoped but you can’t change them. You can only change how you respond to them and communicate with them. People don’t like to hear that they are doing something wrong and need to change. Instead, be there to support them when they’re ready to make positive changes in their life.
Analyzing and improving my communication skills has always been of interest to me. In doing so, I’ve been able to improve my relationships and build new, meaningful ones. After going over all of the communication killers above, I have put a few more tips on how to improve your communication below.
Address the unspoken: You’re both thinking it anyway. Don’t be afraid to communicate and say the hard stuff that people don’t always want to acknowledge. If faced with passive aggressiveness or deferred meaning, acknowledge it. If there is unresolved conflict, the easiest way to resolve it is by addressing it and working through it ASAP.
Be honest: Don’t say you’re ok if you’re not. Don’t say you don’t need anything if you do. Doing so could immediately put a barrier up where a conversation could have taken place. Don’t block people from reaching out and helping you.
Speak from a place of love and empathy: This can be hard to do when you’re saying what you mean, honestly. Accusing someone of lying is going to spur conflict. Instead, try telling them that you feel hurt because you don’t think they were being honest. This could build connection and actually start the healing process.
Be present: Make whichever conversation you’re in the most important thing to you at that moment. Make eye contact with them, not with your phone. Listen to what they have to say without waiting to speak. Think of how you can help them or just be there to listen.
Change yourself: How others behave is out of your control and should be out of the range of things that affect your emotions and mental anxieties. Focus on improving how you react to conflict in conversation and how much empathy you provide to those you communicate with.