It is easy to fall into communication patterns that harm us and those around us. Unfortunately, this often results in tense workplace relationships, soured friendships, and, in the case of your relationship, partner conflict that can inevitably lead to divorce.

Today, we will address two harmful communication styles and offer some techniques and examples to improve your communication.  

Harmful Pattern Number One: Passive-Aggression

Passive aggression is an emotionally harmful, covert manner of communicating feelings of anger but doing so indirectly. Some people may not be aware they are doing this, as it has become an ingrained part of their communication pattern. Others know what they are doing and use it to get back at people, to ‘stick the knife in’ instead of confronting them directly.

In my experience, passive-aggressive communicator tries to manipulate the situation to their advantage, using underhanded tactics, and when confronted, they often deny they are doing this.

Examples of harmful, passive-aggressive behavior:

  • You are joking at your partner’s expense in front of your friends, humiliating them and making them feel lesser.
  • You are playing dumb to frustrate someone or gain the upper hand.
  • They are ignoring someone, walking out of the room when they speak, or refusing to answer them when spoken to.
  • Nit-picking and arguing over small things to avoid dealing with the real issue.
  • Perpetually portraying yourself as the victim, you take no responsibility or accept any need to change your behavior. 

Harmful pattern number two: Avoidance.

In marital research, this is also termed “stonewalling.” While this may occur in both genders, it is more prevalent in men than women. Avoidance refers to someone being emotionally unavailable and deliberately cutting themselves off from someone. They may not want anything to do with a specific person or avoid discussing the topic causing the conflict.

Avoidance can come in the form of walking out of the room, changing the subject, ignoring others when they speak, or making it known that their interest is elsewhere when the uncomfortable topic is brought up, for example, turning on the television as the discussion begins.

 For example, Sarah and Tom had been close friends since college, sharing a deep bond for over a decade. However, every few months, a minor disagreement or misunderstanding would trigger Tom’s intense anger. Sarah struggled to handle these outbursts; her response was to avoid his texts and calls for a week. This strained their friendship. Following each incident, she would withdraw and create emotional distance, leaving Tom feeling isolated and hurt despite his sincere apologies and efforts to repair the connection.

The Assertive Communicator

Assertive communication enables people to explain their thoughts clearly, wants, needs, and feelings to people without offending others or feeling the need to walk away or avoid the situation.

Assertive communication skill number one: Send a clear message.

An assertive communicator understands that body language is vital to good communication. Research shows that 80% of communication is done without words, using non-verbal behavior. If your comments say one thing, but your body language is saying another, the listener may need clarification. 

Imagine your friend pouring their heart out, saying their relationship just ended. You offer your sympathy and genuinely do feel for them, but all the while, you constantly look at your phone and check your watch while you gather up your car keys. The message would be clear. I am sorry, but I want to get out of here and get on with my day. You may not even be aware of your actions, but those we talk with certainly see the signs.

When talking with a loved one, pay close attention to your body language and actions. 

  • Facial expressions 
  • Eye contact
  • Posture 
  • Hand movement (fiddling with keys, phone)
  • The tone of your voice

Assertive communication skill number two: Learn to listen.

Assertive communicators have well-developed listening skills. As you may notice, many people need to improve their listening skills. They may be distracted with their phones or simply waiting, somewhat impatiently, for their turn to talk rather than listening deeply to what you are saying.

Hearing occurs with our ears, while listening engages our hearts. Put down distractive devices, take a deep breath, and actively listen to the other person. Think about what they are saying and let them talk openly and freely without interruption. When you reply, do so sincerely and respond from the heart instead of moving onto a topic that may interest you more.

 Just remember, taking the time to listen may help someone you love out of a place of inner turmoil. Being open to hearing brings you closer in your relationship and helps strengthen the bond you share.