Communication: Do the Words You Choose Determine the Response You Get?

We’ve all been there. It starts out with a mindless comment, “You never clean the kitchen. It feels like I am the only one in this house who ever cleans up.” Before you know it you’re in an argument over who-knows-what and neither of you understand how it even began. Often times, ineffective communication can create a gap where the sender intends one message, but the receiver hears something totally different. Luckily, there is help. With a little mindfulness, communication in relationships can be improved. It starts with learning about common habits that lead to ineffective communication. After reading this blog series, you will understand how we sometimes unintentionally send a negative message and how we can change these messages to be more effective in communicating what we are really trying to say.

Characteristics of ineffective communication: Part One

“You” Language Plus Directives

People often use certain types of “you” language that elicit a negative response from the listener, such as, ”you need to,” “you should,” and “you better.” Directives or statements that give orders or pass negative judgments on people are often paired with these “you” statements and the result is frequently a negative response from the listener.

Avoid saying things like:

  • “You better not miss class again.”
  • “You have to listen to me.”
  • “You are doing it wrong.”

“You should pay more attention”

How would you respond if someone said that to you? Most people do not like to be told what to do. By nature, statements like this often provoke a “no” response. The receiver of these types of messages feels defensive or resentful.

If we should avoid using “you” language, what can we use instead? I-statements are a tool that can be used to assign the emotional responsibility to the speaker rather than blaming the listener. I-statements use the pronoun “I” which helps the speaker take ownership of the statement.

Effective I-statements contain three elements:

  • A brief, non-blaming, description of the behavior you find unacceptable
  • Your feelings
  • The tangible and concrete effect of the behavior on you

Examples of effective I-statements:

  • I felt disappointment when the principal called with another report of misconduct.
  • I feel frustrated when I’m not heard and I need to repeat myself.
  • I feel angry when I have to redo things.

I-statements allow the receiver to understand and relate to the emotional response the sender is having and in turn they are more likely to modify their behavior accordingly.

Universal Statements

You always do this”

Universal statements are troublesome in many ways. First, universal statements mean that the sender of the message believes there is no room for change. They also discourage change by pointing out what is wrong in the person, rather than what they are doing correctly. Lastly, and most likely to provoke an argument, universal statements are very easy to dispute. The receiver of the message only has to come up with one example that contradicts the statement. For example, “You never wash the car” can be contradicted with “That is not true, I washed it the second week we had it, two years ago.” Universal statements are over-generalized, negative, and an easy way to begin an argument.

Often paired with “you” language, universal statements are generalizations about a person’s character or behavior with a negative emphasis. Common words to avoid using include: “so,” “always,” “never,” “again,” “everyone,” and “every time.”

Avoid saying things like:

  • “You are such a slob.”
  • “You are never on time.”
  • “You did it wrong

Situational statements can be used in place of universal statements to change the response the sender elicits. By reframing the problem behavior into a specific situation, the sender communicates that there is room for improvement and change. This can be more motivating to the person receiving the message. Situation specific statements are also useful when addressing negative behaviors because they allow the sender to speak to a certain situation where there is room for improvement, without overgeneralizing the negativity to the person’s character.

Try using statements like:

  • “I am concerned about the struggle to keep things tidy lately.”
  • “It would mean a lot to me if you could please let me know when you will be late.”
  • “This didn’t work out so well. What can we do differently next time?”

Once we learn to recognize the ineffective habits we have in communicating, we can work towards finding better ways to communicate.

  • Recognizing “you” plus directives and universal statements is a great place to start.
  • Next, see if you can replace these with I-statements and situational statements to change the response from the receiver.

Check back in for part two on ineffective communication to learn more tools for better communication.

You can also get more information on ineffective communication in Preston Ni’s Communication Success.

If you found this blog to be helpful, feel free to hit the “share” button; your friends and family may find it useful as well.

Stay tuned,

Taylor Knox, Practicum Therapist

Supervised by Amy Fuller PhD, LMFT-S, LPC-S

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