Healthy Communication: What's Your Style?
Whether you have experiences of addiction or not, communication is a vital part of mental health and successful relationships. So what's your communication style?
What's the difference between healthy and unhealthy communication?
We develop our communication styles in early life, usually by observing the adults around us. Often we aren't told directly how to communicate, we just pick it up from watching what the "grown-ups" do. If we see particularly strong ways of communicating, we may either pick them up ourselves or work really hard to do things differently. (It's a bit like when you say "I swore I'd never do XYZ because my mother does that and it's so frustrating!")
If we have witnessed self-abusive or other-abusive communication in our families of origin, often our own communication can be poor, patchy or swing between extremes. For example, if we grew up in a household where aggressive communication and behaviour was present, we might grow up thinking that aggressive communication and violence is acceptable and take it into our adult lives. Or perhaps we were so affected by the aggression we experienced, we firmly decided we would never communicate or behave that way. However, either of these styles can cause difficulties in our adult lives.
Even though we can move between the different styles of communication, we tend to use one more than the others.
Why is communication important for addiction recovery?
When we're in active addiction, communication is hard...or non-existent. Often, part of our recovery work is to repair the damage caused to our relationships, and a key skill for this repair is open, honest and clear communication. It's not a magic fix-all, but it goes a long way to helping you get your needs met, feel understood, and avoid relapse.
What's your communication style?
"Your needs are important, but mine aren't"
Passive communicators tend to;
allow other people to trample their boundaries and rights, and often feel "walked all over"
minimise their own needs, wants and desires,
over-apologise for themselves or their needs,
neglect themselves or their needs,
avoid being direct and asserting themselves, or can tend to "dance around the point",
avoid conflict or confrontation,
can feel stuck or hopeless,
can be "leaky" or have anger outbursts that seem to come out of nowhere (due to built up resentments),
feel guilt and shame after an outburst, so they quickly return to being passive,
may feel confused and out of touch with how they feel,
feel embarrassment, shame or guilt about not "standing up" for themselves
often unable to grow emotionally because ongoing feelings and issues aren't resolved,
"It's just easier not to argue"
"I feel bad for doing/saying..."
"People never think about my needs or feelings"
"There's no point in being honest about how I feel"
"My needs are important, but yours aren't"
Aggressive communicators tend to;
not listen fully, or ready themselves to respond without hearing the other person first,
be impatient or become frustrated easily,
interrupt a lot,
blame others for their behaviour or actions,
patronise, criticise or attack others,
use their posture and eye contact in an overbearing or threatening way,
use "you" or "they" statements, rather than "I" statements,
make threats or use humiliation to attempt to scare or control others
alienate others - other people may feel fearful, repulsed or angry with them,
often not able to grow emotionally due to not taking responsibility for their behaviour,
"They can't do that!" or "How could they do that?!"
"It's your fault this is happening!"
"I wouldn't get angry if they didn't..."
"I will get my way and that's all there is to it"
"My needs are important, but I'm worried about expressing them directly"
Passive-Aggressive communicators tend to;
say things under their breath, make snide remarks or roll their eyes a lot,
"stir the pot", use sarcasm or make "jokes" - sometimes about serious things like aggression, violence or abuse,
be angry or resentful without realising it,
deny anything is wrong, or say they're fine when they're not,
pretend to get along with others while purposely annoying, sabotaging or disrupting others,
feel powerless, stuck and resentful,
say they'll do something but then don't do it,
gaslight or manipulate others, or use backhanded compliments,
setting others up for failure and then feigning innocence,
often not able to grow emotionally because they can't be honest and forthright about their feelings and needs,
"I'll show you" or "I'll teach them a lesson"
"He/she/they are an idiot"
"I'll just tell them what they want to hear but do whatever I want"
"It's funny to wind people up or cause chaos"
"My needs are important, and your needs are important too"
Assertive communicators tend to;
use "I" statements,
use calm, gentle body language and tone of voice,
express their feelings, thoughts and emotions moderately and respectfully, and in an appropriate time frame,
listen well without interrupting or trying to come up with a reply before the other is finished,
stand up for their thoughts, behaviours, needs and rights,
mostly feel relaxed and calm while communicating,
openly discuss their feelings and not hold onto resentments,
often are able to grow emotionally because they take action to resolve any issues between themselves and others,
"I'll address this problem or person with honesty and respect"
"I can ask to have my needs met"
"I can respect and tolerate if someone tells me 'no' and I can say no to others"
"I don't have control or responsibility over anyone but myself"
"Nobody can make me feel anything I don't first allow them to"
"My happiness, success and fulfilment is my responsibility alone"
How do I improve my communication style?
So, now you've got an idea of what your communication style might be, how do you improve it?
1. Write down what you want to communicate before the discussion
Don't leave it to chance and hope you'll remember everything you want to say. If you're practising a new communication style that isn't familiar, your brain and body are going to be in overdrive, so support yourself by thinking it through beforehand and making notes to help you. If it feels a bit weird or silly, perhaps you can say to the person you're talking to something like "I made some notes because this discussion is really important, and I want to make sure I do the best I can".
2. Put a time limit on the discussion
Our brains and bodies can only handle about 10 or 15 minutes of intense discussion before we go into overload. Support yourself and the person you're talking to by setting a time limit on your discussion. It's okay if you don't get to say everything you want to - you can make a time to come back to it. If either of you are starting to get overloaded, the discussion can go downhill quickly!
3. Remember to keep track of your "internal state"
When you're trying new ways of doing things, especially if they feel difficult, it's a good idea to keep track of how you're feeling. You can focus on the conversation you're having while also checking in with yourself occasionally. Do you feel agitated? Angry? Sad? Embarrassed? Frustrated? Annoyed? Are you having self-judgemental or other-judgemental thoughts? Do you want to burst into tears or feel like punching something? All of this is valuable information - if you start to track your feelings and they get a bit much, call off the conversation and come back to it another day.
4. Take it easy on yourself
Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day - your communication style is an old, ingrained pattern, and changing it will take time. Practice self-compassion while you're practicing your new communication skills, and make sure you celebrate the small victories.
5. Talk to a counsellor
Talking to a counsellor about strategies for effective communication is a great way of expanding your skills and understanding your own communication style better - as well as the communication styles of the people around you. Communication is a huge part of recovery work, so I encourage you to prioritise it!
Assertive communication is the best way of getting your needs met, and building supportive, healthy, fulfilling relationships - as well as a satisfying life of addiction recovery. If you want to expand your communication skills, click here to get in touch with me now.
Until next time,
The content of this blog is based on our counsellors' academic and clinical experience, but does not constitute therapeutic advice. This blog is intended as general information about counselling, psychotherapy, addictions and mental health issues only. For specific treatment related to you or someone you know, please contact us via www.sydneyaddictionsrecovery.com to discuss your needs.