Holiday (and Every Day) Communication Basics
Relationships are among the most important elements of our lives. Whether with our families, friends, romantic partners, and/or even our professional connections, relationships help us understand ourselves and the world around us. Research has demonstrated time and time again that the quality of our social connections is the biggest predictor of health, happiness, and longevity. No wonder it causes so much distress to us if one of our relationships is struggling!
Whether you already have established, healthy relationships and want to further build or enhance them or you have significant struggles or are lacking relationships, the good news is that there are concrete steps you can take to develop skills to improve your relationships.
While each situation clients bring in is unique, the vast majority of the time, conflict with loved ones stems from a few key places. With the holidays in full swing, one of area that may be especially helpful are having some foundational communication skills!
Communication skills are the bedrock, so to speak, for so many other relationship skills, and it’s usually the first place I start with clients experiencing any sort of relationship distress.
All too often we hear folks say they want relationships with good communication, but what does that actually look like? It looks like understanding how you are communicating, what that communication may be leading to, and what communication style may be more helpful.
What even are communication styles, and why do some breed conflicts? Read on to learn some simple, effective ways to improve your communication skills today!
Passive communication is when folks avoid expressing their feelings or needs, typically for fear of upsetting others or because they believe other peoples’ feelings are more important than their own. Thoughts, feelings, and needs are swept under the rug and ignored.
Example: Your parents, who you perceive as controlling, assume you are spending Christmas with them. Meanwhile, you actually planned to spend it with your partners’ family this year. Instead of stating that, you go along with their wishes to keep the peace and cancel the plans you were excited about.
When it becomes a habit to avoid expressing your feelings, resentment moves in and takes up residence quickly. We all want to feel that our wants and needs matter. This may apply to you if you’re someone who feels they are walked on by others often.
Aggressive communication is the opposite of passivity; it is overbearing, intimidating, critical, and the speaker makes certain their feelings are heard loud and clear. The impact of this style of communication is people fear upsetting you, do not feel safe expressing themselves to you, and therefore ignore their own needs to keep peace with you. In extreme cases, aggressive communicators may resort to violence to make themselves feel seen and heard.
Example: To continue the previous example of parents assuming you will be spending the holidays with them, an aggressive response might sound like… “How dare you just assume how I will spend my holiday! I don’t care that that’s what you want, I have other plans and that’s that! Deal with it.”
Aggressive communication often results in fractures in relationships. At the end of these conversations, participants will typically reflect that neither side felt heard, understood, or responded to. Also, aggressive communication can lead to escalations and almost always results in miscommunications. Characteristics of aggressive communication include using all or nothing language, black and white language, raised voices, threats, contempt, dismissal, and invalidation.
Passive-aggressive communication takes on qualities of each of these unhealthy styles. The speaker tries to appear passive on the surface, but their actions are motivated by anger or aggression, as well as discomfort in expressing themselves directly.
Example: Muttering under your breath “I just love it when y’all make decisions for me,” followed by a “nothing” or “never mind” when they ask what you said.
Passive-aggressive communication often results in needs going unmet and resentments growing and simmering over time.
Now that we’ve covered the unhealthy styles of communication, let’s discuss the healthy alternative called assertiveness. Assertive communicators express their needs and feelings directly, clearly, and respectfully with a calm tone. They avoid “you” statements which may be perceived as attacking and remain solution-oriented and self-focused.
This may look like: “I feel frustrated when I hear a plan that includes me without having a conversation together first to see what would work best. Next time, would you mind asking me what my plans are first? This year we’re spending the holidays with my partners’ family, and next year we can talk about potentially spending it with you.”
Assertiveness protects relationships from resentment, promotes emotional safety, and fosters deeper connection and vulnerability.
If you take just one skill from this post, it would be to use “I” statements whenever possible! The great thing about stating what you feel to somebody is… they cannot tell you you’re wrong.
Secondly, memorize this simple formula: “I feel ____ when ____. Can we/you ____?”
By stating what you feel and keeping the focus on yourself, then moving to requesting or suggesting a solution, it decreased the likelihood of a defensive response. BONUS POINTS if you say, “Do you have any ideas for how we could work on this?” when you aren’t exactly sure how to solve it. This approach comes across as collaborative communication between equals, where everybody’s needs are considered.
I encourage everybody to start small and try incorporating this simple formula into low-stakes conversations for practice. Something simple like, “I feel so happy about this weather, can we spend time outside?”
Which unhealthy communication style do you find yourself falling into most often?
Emily is joining Honeybee full-time starting in February 2023. She is currently accepting new clients and will be able to accept BCBS, out-of-network, and cash payments for sessions. Emily specializes in relationships of all kinds and has offered powerful interventions for couples, parents and adult children, and more. If you are interested in getting scheduled, please email firstname.lastname@example.org