How to be a poor communicator

And why you should want to change that

As a couples’ counsellor, one thing has become quite predictable about every new couple that walks through my door.

The typical stance that most distressed couples display is … blaming.

He thinks their problems are her fault. And, guess what? She thinks their problems are his fault.

Sometimes, I even get people on their intake phone call who give me the diagnosis for their partner. He has this personality disorder, or she has these syndromes. It’s almost as if, by offering an untested psychiatric diagnosis, they hope it can get them out of their marriage vows.

I want to help couples see how destructive blaming is.

Fortunately, Jesus is one step ahead of our human immaturity.

Do you remember the logs and speck of sawdust comment in his Sermon on the Mount? As Matthew 7:3-5 records: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

As a clinical psychologist, I don’t usually quote Matthew 7 to couples in the first session – but I sure think about these verses. Because very soon in their sessions, I am going to be “naming the blaming”. I want to help couples see how destructive blaming is. It’s actually a form of attack, a verbal blow, and an attempt to shame and avoid personal responsibility. And it only creates more woundedness and defensiveness in the relationship.

One of my favourite little interventions in a first session is what I call “three things”. Either as homework or there in the session, I will get them to identify three of their own behaviours that they think are contributing to the problems and three of their partner’s behaviours. And then I send them home to work hard on the first list.

That tiny step of asking them to “look in the mirror” shifts their perspective enormously.

From here, we need to shape some communication guidelines to foster constructive and effective interaction.

One of the best tools I have to help this is a handout in my office called “Be a poor communicator”. Written in that negative style, it describes 12 habits which will always be destructive to communication – seven are about listening, four about self-talk and one is a suggestion.

How to be a Poor Listener – The List

1. Don’t listen
Instead of trying to hear the other person, you are just waiting for your turn to talk again.

2. Interrupt
Why should you even wait until it is your turn to talk? Just interrupt what the other person is saying, so you can keep having your say.

3. Mind read
Apparently, you already know exactly what the other person is really thinking and feeling.

4. Yes, but
You contradict some, or all, of the things the other person is saying.

5. Don’t validate
You say things like, “That’s ridiculous. Now, what I’m saying is …”

6. Off beam
You drift from one problem to another, without trying to help solve any particular issue.

7. Cross complain
You counter your partner’s complaints … with your own complaints.

These first seven “How to be a poor communicator” points are familiar, aren’t they? When we see them listed out, it makes perfect sense that these are things we should not do.

We even hear James 1:19 ringing in our ears – “Be quick to listen and slow to speak” – or Proverbs 18:13 – “He who answers before listening – that is his folly and shame.”

So why is it so hard to listen well? To really try to listen so we understand our partner, and not just listening to rebuff, belittle, dismiss, invalidate, correct or just win.

In a conflict, our heads fill with our own perspective. We can only see the logic of our own position, the legitimacy of our reactions. We forget there is another person involved and they might have a different perspective.

To have healthy communication, we need to remind ourselves to respect, hear and validate both parties. Both parties need permission to be involved – not just me and what I think or want.

This “reminding ourselves” is self-talk – the sorts of things we say to ourselves during communication with someone else. And self-talk shapes the next four unhelpful habits of being a poor communicator.

8. Assume negative intent
You think that unless they prove they mean well by you, it is safest to expect they have negative intentions – and to beware of them.

9. Do a stand-off
You assume catastrophic outcomes if you “give in” or if you appear to see the other person’s point of view. You definitely don’t want to lose any ground.

10. Insults
You rehearse in your mind, and say out loud, a few names or insults (if you get stuck during the conversation).

11. Poor self-esteem
You can assume you are not really worth having a good discussion or relationship with.

And the last item on the “How to be a poor communicator” list is a suggestion:

12. Don’t call a “stop action”
You do not comment on how poorly the communication seems to be going and do not suggest that different ways of approaching it might actually help.

I commend these 12 points to you as helpful guidelines for what not to do during your communication. Go back over the list, think about each point and be honest about how they might apply to the ways you interact with others – especially your loved ones.

I would also add one more point of my own:

13. Don’t ask: “What could we do differently next time?”
You don’t see the need to offer this super-useful, always-helpful option during your problematic communication.

Seriously applying the “How to be a Poor Communicator” list to yourself as a diagnostic tool is tough and confronting. It can seem too hard to even know where to start. But someone in your relationship needs to take the lead, so you can kick off by aiming for three things:

1. To hear both perspectives, seeking to better understand your partner and yourself.

2. Appreciate what God is teaching you about growing in Christlikeness; and

3. Agree on what both of you could do differently next time.

And here is one last idea from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, for it sums up well the best guidelines for healthy communication: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist and cognitive behavioural therapist with extensive experience in relationship counselling.

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