When Words Get in the Way: 3 Ways to be a Better Communicator

05/29/2015 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016


Communication. It's vital to our relationships. From the boardroom to the bedroom, what we say and how we say it can either make or break our relationships.

As a coach and hypnotherapist communication issues are something I work with often. Have you ever felt like the more you try and communicate the less you're understood? Recently a client expressed this frustration perfectly: "I know communication is supposed to be at the heart of a healthy relationship but every time I open my mouth whatever comes out just seems to make things worse."

Why is communication so difficult sometimes? One of the big issues is our emotions. When it comes to important relationships like our family, spouse, friends, and business partner there can be a lot of emotions on the line. Like a bullhorn, emotions can bring intensity and an unintentional aggression to what we are expressing that can lead to hurt feelings and defensive responses. The good news is that there are simple techniques that we can use to help dial down the bullhorn factor so that our real intentions can be heard.

Here are three ways we can become more respectful and responsible communicators:

Let's start with an example of the typical way someone might express themselves in regards to a situation and then we can show how each technique can be applied.

Example: "When you got up in the middle of dinner and stormed out, slamming the door, you made me so embarrassed and angry!"

1. Own it

Take responsibility for your experience by making "I" statements instead of "you" statements. By starting with "you" statements the other person it put on the defensive from the start and it is hard to listen when we feel attacked or blamed. By using "I" statements you invite the other person to understand what you are feeling and experiencing without placing blame. Secondly, remove the words, "you made/make me feel..." from your vocabulary. No one can make us feel anything. What we feel is what we feel but no one can MAKE us feel anything unless we allow it. These small changes in our language make a big change in our way of thinking. It is very empowering when we take responsibility for own feelings and experiences and allow other people to be responsible for theirs.

Let's change the example above to reflect this new understanding. "I felt embarrassed and angry when you stormed out in the middle of dinner and slammed the door." Feel the difference? When it is framed as an "I" statement there is less to feel defensive or argumentative about. Instead it is informational about the speakers experience.

2. Just the Facts

Stick to the facts when communicating, without using emotionally-charged words that assume knowledge of another person's intention or feelings. Words like "stormed" and "slammed" have the emotion of anger and the intent of rudeness built into them. No one storms out in a good mood or slams a door in joy. It is disrespectful to tell someone else about their experience and it only adds to the listener's defensiveness. Remember what they feel is their responsibility and what we feel is ours.

Let's change the example so it's just the facts -- "I felt embarrassed and angry when you left dinner suddenly and the door closed loudly." When we stick to the facts it allows the other person to explain their intention and emotions.

3. Time to Listen

Being a good communicator is also about how well we listen. Once we have expressed ourselves it is time to stop speaking and listen. We need to take time to listen to the other person's experience and ask questions to clarify. Taking this time doesn't mean we agree with them. It simply means we want to understand the other person before responding.

As we practice our new, more respectful and responsible communication style we often find that not only are we more centered and clear but that the person responds more calmly and openly. If we find ourselves on the wrong end of someone else's bullhorn, we can use our new tools to help translate their message so that we can respond to what they are really saying instead of what they are projecting. While it can be healing to share these tips remember you are not in charge of how the other person communicates, only how you do. There are some people who are attached to disrespectful forms of communication such as blaming, belittling and shaming. In these situations either respectfully remove yourself if the relationship is not an important one or include a third professional party like a therapist or mediator to help.

There are many communication tools but I like to start with these three techniques because they are simple and they help us get back to the basics of why we communicate in the first place; we speak to be understood and we listen to understand. When we put both of these into practice we become more respectful and responsible communicators all around.