3 Communication Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

Communication mistakesAre you making any of these 3 communication mistakes?

You are probably articulate and informed, and present yourself very well in social and professional situations.  Maybe you’re able to negotiate business deals with many commas and zeros, or convince your three-year-old that she’d rather join you at the grocery store than continue watching her favorite TV program.

But as strong as your communication skills might be, you probably still find yourself in an argument you don’t know how to get out of.  You start with the of best intentions, simply trying to resolve an issue or make a decision about something important.  Then all of a sudden you are stuck in and endless loop, wondering what happened.  The worst part is that this probably happens most with the people you love the most.

You want the conversation to just resolve itself quickly, yet your efforts seem to make matters worse, either by saying the wrong thing or by not saying the right thing.

While it seems mysterious at first glance, you may be surprised to learn that most communication mistakes come from very predictable and (thankfully) avoidable patterns

Relationship experts have been studying conversation patterns for decades, and we have seen very clear, common mistakes made over and over again.

Here are some of the most common communication mistakes people make and advice about how to avoid them:

Communication Mistake #1

Attempting to talk about your feelings, and then accidentally morphing into accusation or blame.

Just because a sentence starts with the words “I feel”, does not necessarily mean that you are talking about your feelings.

If an emotion does not directly follow the word feel, you are likely talking about an opinion, a thought or interpretation.

For example, each of the following is an accusation couched as an emotion:

I feel that actions speak louder than words. You say you’re going to make changes, but you don’t.

I feel like you just assume I’m going to walk the dog without even asking me.

I feel as if I’m the only one who ever suggests going out for a date.

When this happens, the other person is probably trying to be understanding, but not sure why he or she is feeling defensive.

What to Do Instead

Be consistent with your language:  talk about feelings using emotional language and state opinions and requests directly.

For example:

I feel frustrated that the solutions we’ve tried so far haven’t worked.

I feel really disgusted coming home to dog poop in the living room and would like to come up with a dog walking schedule that works.

I appreciate it when you come up with great date ideas and would love it if that could happen more often.


Communication Mistake #2:

Expecting someone to listen to you calmly and respectfully even though you are (admittedly) speaking to him or her in a blaming, accusatory manner.

In the sixties, before there had been much scientific research, couples therapists told couples to vent their resentments out loud to one another and then hit one another with foam bats.  Subsequent research showed that although it felt better to the person doing the resenting and hitting, overall this advice led to increased resentment.

What we know now is that conversations start the way that they end (96% of the time to be exact).  This data reveals that the onus of responsibility for a productive conversation is placed on the speaker just as much as on the listener.

How Does this Relate to You?

Even when you are upset about something, it is your responsibility to be kind and respectful.  It will not work to expect the other person to listen non-reactively regardless of how you say it.  (this may contradict what you have been taught about active-listening, but new research has replaced this advice)

What to do instead:

Start the conversation in a calm respectful tone, and the conversation will most likely continue in that manner.

Dr. John Gottman, forerunner in relationship research recommends what he calls a “Gentle Startup”.  Click here for the step-by-step formula.

Communication Mistake #3:

Offering unsolicited advice to someone who is just wanting to be heard.

I know and truly understand that it is very hard to see someone you care about in pain.  Especially if they start to cry, you want to jump in and do anything you can to make things better.  Your intention is to take the pain away as fast as you can.

If we give advice in situations like this, we can often make things worse.  Problem-solving is a crucial part of any partnership, but if it comes too early, the other person may feel dismissed.

Often times people just want a listening ear.  They probably had to bite their tongue during the actual incident, doing their best to stay calm and manage the situation. It is important to know whether they want advice, or would prefer to have some space to vent frustration.

Let’s think about this example:

Sarah is a mother of 3 kids, under the age of 8.   She woke up with a migraine, yet her attempts to stay in bed for an extra 20 minutes were thwarted by kids asking for breakfast options, clean socks and help finding library books.  Things go from bad to worse as the kids start to argue with one another. Sarah feels miserable as she watches the morning routine rapidly spiraling downward.

Fast forward 8 hours…Sarah’s partner comes home seeing how frazzled and exhausted she looks.  He gives advice about how she should be getting more rest because he read an article correlating sleep deprivation with migraines, and then starts asking what happened to the plan of keeping all library books in the bin by the front door.  The next thing you know, Sarah and Sam are in an argument.

Sarah feels blamed, misunderstood and patronized, and Sam feels unappreciated helpless and frustrated.

What to do instead:

If you are ever in a situation where someone is speaking with you with a stressed out tone, and appears upset, take the time to let them talk freely for a little while.  Your first job is to listen with a warmth and understanding.  When there is a pause, ask the following question:

This all sounds really rough!  What would be helpful right now, would you like to just vent, or do you want to brainstorm?

At this point, you now know how to be supportive.  If they want to vent, you can just give them a shoulder to cry on by letting them know they are not crazy for feeling the way they feel.  If they want to start problem-solving, you can now help by giving advice or opinions, because they are calm enough to use the rational part of their brain.

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Thank you for your interest in improving communication skills.  If you would like more communication skills training, click below to enroll in Laura Silverstein’s free empathy course.

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