Communication Pitfalls: Words That Shut It Down

Communication Pitfalls: Words That Shut It Down

A huge portion of our mental health is affected by our relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. In order to have strong supportive relationships, we need good communication skills. However, communication skills are usually picked up from childhood, rather than a topic we study in school. I love this quote:

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

How often have you had a talk with someone about an important issue, and later realized that the other person still didn’t know what you wanted? How often has someone else’s communication left you feeling angry and unheard? Communication is fraught with pitfalls. In this post, we’ll explore dismissive and/or controlling phrases that shut down communication.

We’ve all experienced or said things like:

  • “You’re making this a bigger issue than it is.”
  • “Why would you want to do _______?”
  • “You can’t do that!!”
  • “You just need to _______.”
  • “You’re too sensitive or difficult or loud or _______!”
  • “What is your problem?” in an irritated, impatient tone.
  • “Why can’t you be like _______? your brother, sister, or co-worker

For most of us, we grew up hearing these phrases too often. So they became part of the soundtrack of how we talk to ourselves, and to others. What’s worse is that we often are unaware that we’re even talking this way. Unhelpful comments/questions lead to our feeling bad about ourselves, and upset with others. How do we change how we talk to others so our relationships are more helpful than harmful?

Become Aware of What You’re Saying

First of all, nothing can change until we become aware of what is going on in our communication. Here’s an example from my life. I’ve been aware for decades that certain comments will trigger anger, self-doubt, and distress in myself, and/or in others around me. It wasn’t until lately though, that I sat down, and wrote a list of what those statements or questions were. I realized that these words led to my feeling dismissed, unvalued, or like someone wanted to control me.

In fact, these phrases have filled my life from the time I was a child through my 21 years of marriage to an abusive man. I still hear my father say these things to me today. He’s 87, and hard-of-hearing. My father is not going to change. That is how his parents talked to him.

Unfortunately, I used those phrases far too often parenting my own children. At first I just felt really guilty about it, but now I’m mad. Mad enough to change the way I talk to others, and the way I talk to myself.

So, first we have to become aware of our conversations. Listen for phrases and questions like the ones above.

Get Sick & Tired & Fed Up Enough To Change

Next, you decide to change the way you talk to your children, your spouse, your friends, etc. Way to go!! I’m happy for you!! BUT…how do you ask others to stop talking to you in these unhelpful ways???? I have agonized for months over this question. I’ve come to realize that some people like my father will not change, so we need to change how we respond to these comments instead of letting the comment ruin our day or our lives.

Not that long ago, my dad said to me, “You were a fool to marry that man.” His words hurt, but after much therapy I know that my ex was the best liar I’ve ever met. For the first time in my life, I was able to say to my dad, “I wasn’t a fool, I was fooled.” Even though I was upset about his words, I stood up for myself by speaking the truth. And that made all the difference!

We cannot change how others talk to us, but we can change how we respond to unhelpful comments.

Our Response To Hurtful Communication

There are two parts to how we respond to unkind words.

1. How we think about ourselves related to what was said.

2. What we respond with.

For some of us, we fire off an answer without stopping to think first. Some of us think a bit longer before replying. Then there are people like me who don’t respond at all, until later. I have to think about the exchange, and figure out what I want to say if anything. Then I need to rustle up the courage to say it.

In my experience, how we think about ourselves related to what was said is far more important. Does that person’s opinion really matter to you? Is the person’s comment valid, but they just used hurtful words? Is the comment more telling about where the other person is struggling, and not about you at all?

If after thinking about these things, you decide to respond to the hurtful comment, remember to use “I” statements. Like I did in the example above with my dad. If I had said “Don’t talk to me that way.” he would have gotten angry thinking I was disrespectful. If I had said, “You’re always blaming me for his actions!”, communication would have ceased. Because, I remembered to use an “I” statement, my dad ended up agreeing with me that I had been fooled. Awkward conversation ended.

When we start with “You Statements”, it instantly puts the other person on the defensive. This usually ends in an argument. If we want the other person to hear us, we cannot start with accusations. However, we need to remember, ultimately the other person has the final say in how they respond to our statements and requests. All we can do is share how we feel when other people do or say certain things. If they aren’t concerned about it, we can decide that it’s not really all that important or ask someone else for help. For more information about using “I” versus “You” statements click here: Are ‘I’ Statements Better Than ‘You’ Statements?

Sometimes, relationships go sour and nothing helps to restore them. In that case, you get to decide how and to what extent that person’s unkind words change you. If you feel devastated by another’s words and actions, see a therapist. They really can help you sort out all the garbage.

Wrap-Up of Communication Pitfalls

As George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s a skill that takes listening, and thinking before responding. It also requires that we know what we want or need so that we can communicate it to others. Let’s work at real communication with each other.

Lack of self-awareness leads to muddled conversations. I’ve found that journaling, and talking about communication and relationships with my therapist and daughter does help me figure out what I want.

If you’re very self-critical, this critical talk will spill over to others. For help on changing your self-talk, click here: Your Self-Talk Impacts How You Handle Stress

So if you’re struggling in your relationships, try these ideas and see if things don’t improve. Till next time, Kathy

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