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Communication Styles

Why does communication seem to work beautifully at times and fail miserably at others? When communication breaks down, it’s often because the patterns and habits of how we communicate — our communication styles — get in the way. 

Understanding different communication styles can radically improve the quality of our relationships. Research has found that we adopt different communication styles depending on the situation and the people we are communicating with. Having said this, many of us have a default style that we revert to more commonly than any other. 

Four communication styles

In relationship counselling (but this also applies to all our relationships, whether at work or outside, close or more casual), one way of categorising communication styles is into four basic types:

  1. Conflict avoidant 
  2. Competitive confrontation  
  3. Passive  
  4. Passive aggressive 

Each of these strategies has its own logic, strengths and dangers. They are LEARNED behaviours, often deeply rooted patterns based on painful experiences. We use them because they have worked to some extent. Starting to recognise them is the first step to making shifts – when we become aware of our patterns, we can begin to question them, and to transform the underlying beliefs and emotions that hold them in place. We can start to make different choices. 

What we learn growing up

We are often brought up to believe that conflict is a dangerous affair, one of scarcity (of time, resources, energy, goodwill or creativity) in which our only options are to win or lose. This leads us to tend play the blame game. We try to win by going on the offensive, or we try to protect ourselves. We see things in terms of “I am right and you are wrong” and feel compelled to judge or defend. At the most extreme,  we see other human beings as objects in relation to our needs, aiding or blocking us from achieving our goals and so we attempt to coerce, manipulate or control the situation to get our way. 

Our whole nervous system enters a familiar pattern in all the above – based on our ingrained views.  We can easily lose touch with our deeper values, the importance of a relationship or the capacity to see things from other people’s point of view. We can start to feel frustrated about being locked into these habitual modes but we rely on the strategies because they serve us, at least to some extent. To shed them, we need alternatives. 

What can we do differently? 

Oren Jay Sofer (see link below) says that rather than seeing conflict as win-lose, “I am right, you are wrong”,  it is crucial to start to be able to see where is the other person is really coming from? How can you move forward together? Having the intention to UNDERSTAND the other person, showing genuine curiosity, and carefully weeding out blame and criticism, the easier it is for the other person to hear. When the other person can help you understand WHY something means so much to them, priorities shift and there is more space and willingness to cooperate. In situations of conflict, we tend to state our interpretations as facts. We select data based on our views and biases which are often skewed!

Sofer suggests that we ask ourselves two questions: what do you want the other person to do? AND what do you want their REASONS to be for doing this? 

More information coming!

My next few blogs will go into each of these strategies in some detail and look at more healthy, productive ways to communicate. 

Favourite resources

I will conclude this article by introducing some of my favourite resources around communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also:

Book a counselling session today!

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: Couples counselling: How to overcome communication difficulties

Couples Counselling – Key Communication Skills

Couples Counselling: Why do we have the same arguments?