Effective Communication Part 2- Clear Communication

Clear communication starts with knowing yourself: your needs, wants, and boundaries. Here are 6 tips with examples of how to create clearer communication so others will understand you.

In the last blog named Active Listening and Mindfully Engaging, I spoke about how being willing to listen, accept different ideas, and having a flexible mind are important parts of communication, which requires people slowing down, taking breaks (as needed), and having an open mind to help others feel heard and understood.  Now, we move into working on introducing clear communication within relationships and how to set yourself and your relationships up for success.

Revisit the basics – Slow down

Again, it’s always important to go back to the fundamentals by slowing down in conversations that start to feel like arguments. It’s key for all parties to self-regulate to get themselves back to a place where they can truly listen to the other AND can be in a present state of mind to not actively or passively (even unintentionally) hurt the other person.

Is it true, kind, and necessary?

In a conversation or argument it’s important to have this question as an active check point in your communication- is it true, is it kind, and is it necessary? If what you’re ready to say doesn’t at least touch on all three of these, then it’s important to go back to slowing down

I also want to clarify here that being “kind” shouldn’t be misconstrued. You do not have to kowtow or be overly sweet in order to justify speaking your true and necessary points. What I do mean is to be mindful about how you’re speaking and to do your best to be gentle with your words.

Being brave

After you’ve taken the steps of slowing down, asking yourself some questions, now it’s time to be brave. Clear communication takes bravery. Sometimes it can be hard to put yourself out there to another person, to make a clear request or state your needs. People will have reactions to your requests, potentially both positive and negative. This is why clear communication takes bravery because you might face scrutiny or judgement and may feel shut down as a result. It’s important to stay true to yourself, your needs and learn to let go of people’s judgements.

Understanding personal boundaries vs. others’ boundaries

In my experience, I have seen some people come in with complaints, frustrations, and things they want to change that have more to do with someone else’s behavior, than wanting to look at themselves. I think it’s important for everyone to be aware of where their needs begin and end, and where another person’s needs and wants come into play.

There are many different constellations of relationships, but here are just two simplified:

Romantic – Within this type of relationship, both parties should be putting in equal work towards the relationship.  Even if all things are not 100% equal all day each day, things can average out so each party feels seen and heard.

Familial – Family relationships are not so clear cut. Typically, we do recommend healthy parental dynamics towards kids, with parents having the ultimate say. However, that doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t be heard and respected as well. Children grow into more secure attachment styles when parents are willing to take the time to understand what their kid wants and needs, while also putting appropriate limits, rules, and boundaries in place for their child.

It’s still important, no matter the relationship, to make attempts to be heard and understood, AND (maybe most importantly) to actively listen in order to truly understand.

Clearly state your needs and wants

In my years doing therapy, and just being around other humans, I have heard many people say things like the following: “They should know what I want by now, we’ve been in a relationship for X number of years”. This statement is so limiting in many ways because:

  1. Assumes that you will NEVER change your mind on anything, EVER.
  2. People can become passive in relationships and stop being curious with one another and jump to these conclusions of what you used to want or like. For example, your mom saying something like, “Oh, well you always used to love ketchup! Now you don’t want it??”
  3. It also indicates that you probably haven’t communicated your needs clearly.

Maybe you assume that you have communicated clearly or perhaps you have done something that, to you, would have seemed clear. However, some people will not be on the same page as you or pick up those cues you’re dropping (think about someone from different cultures, backgrounds, or other aspects of diversity, who wouldn’t naturally think the same as you). 

It’s important, then, to clearly state your needs or what you’re feeling. Saying something like, “It’s important to me when you are engaged and active with my family, because it shows me that you care about them too. This makes me feel cared for and seen.”

Here’s another random example: “A part of me feels upset when you’re on your phone during family time, because it seems like you don’t want to be here or you’re just not paying attention. So, if you could make sure to put your phone down and be present that would make me feel so cared for.”

Communication doesn’t have to be difficult, but sometimes we think it might lead to a confrontation. If you communicate harshly or jump to a conclusion (assuming someone did something intentionally instead of being absent minded) then it is more likely to lead to a confrontation. This is something to continue to work on and to challenge yourself. How can I communicate clearly, state my needs and feelings, and try do it without inadvertently attacking or judging the receiver?

Creating a Clear Picture – Stating the desired behavior, instead of the absence of a non-desired behavior.

I commonly see this issue arise in all versions of therapy. We, as humans, know clearly when we are feeling a negative emotion, and we try so hard to make that stop happening. We either shut ourselves down or try to get the situation, or other person, to stop doing whatever it is that is that contributes to our negative emotional state.

I work with all of my clients to begin to identify what the clear and explicit ask would be to another person or a situation. How can we start to explicitly state a goal that we can work to achieve, instead of describing the absence of something negative?

I typically provide the following as an example:

“Let’s talk about arguing over laundry and picking up after ourselves. A request for an absence of something negative could be, ‘Could you stop leaving your dirty socks on the floor??’ (read negative tone with the double question mark*). This gives ONE specific problem but won’t address the underlying need. And this examples leaves room for a multitude of interpretations, like ‘Well, they said to not put them on the floor, but maybe I can just put a pile on the chair in the corner of the room.. this way it’s off the floor!’ Sure thing, but I think we can all laugh at that solution with this simple example, right?

Instead, we would all be better served by instead stating something like, ‘I would appreciate it if you could try harder to put your dirty laundry in the basket so I don’t have to pick it up later or nag you to do it.’ This is a clearer statement, with significantly more information provided by the speaker.”

There are many positives in the second statement. I think we can all read that and think, that sounds so much better AND it has a clear intention of this person NOT wanting to get on the other person’s case. Same end goal (to some degree), but VERY different approaches.

This is why it’s important to me, with my clients to work on being curious and finding and understanding the deeper meaning behind the other person’s request/need/want!

One of my recent favorite book recommendations for this is Difficult Conversations – How To Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Patton, & Heen, 2010). This book does a wonderful job at pulling apart how tricky conversations can be- how we confusion/conflate intention vs. impact, and how we make meaning of ourselves and others as we engage in conversations and conflict. I highly recommend this book to clients and therapists alike!

Here’s a link to a pdf for Difficult Conversations and an Amazon link for the book here.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2011). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Portfolio/Penguin.