Humanity's defining feature from other species includes our ability to communicate and relay information amongst each other. Accurately sending and perceiving messages should be instinctive, however expressed desires often are misinterpreted in comparison with our intended initial messages, exacerbating distressing conversations.
Navigating a difficult conversation has both universal and unique methods for engaging in healthy communication and preventing or reducing stressors and toxic behaviours. Depending on circumstances, conversation intentions, and your relationship/connection to the engaging party - There are varying methods for improving and preventing distressing conversations.
In this article, we discuss how to effectively communicate in a distressing conversation, as well as reduce/prevent them within personal relationships.
Healthy Communication Within Personal Relationships
Personal relationship communication often includes presenting conversations in which each member engages with preconceived ideas, assumptions, and beliefs regarding the topic being discussed. These preconceptions can often lead to debates over truth, and correct opinions between engaged parties, resulting in hostile and defensive behaviour. The error with a closed off mindset and a desire to be correct is that - one, both, or all engaged participants are already unwilling to listen, consider each other’s ideas, perspectives, or feelings, thus producing an unhealthy conversation.
Tips for promoting healthy communication in personal relationships
"Healthy communication occurs when both participants are calm, they are open to hearing a differing perspective or opinion, and their goal is to find a common ground, a solution, or just to learn about the other person, all without judgment or anger in reaction to what the other person says," Kryss Shane, LMSW, LGBT sex and relationship expert.
Maintaining a two-way conversation
Healthy conversations allow both parties to have equal ability to share their thoughts and feelings. Pay attention to how much each participant partakes in the conversation. Taking turns is crucial.
Approach the conversation with your participant, actively engage in the thoughts being expressed to you, and ask questions for clarification. Maintain an open mindset, and eagerness to understand one another. Together, come to an agreed upon conclusion/compromise that everyone feels comfortable with. Go into the discussion with the intention to come to an amicable understanding.
Be upfront, open, and honest
"Healthy communication in any relationship is based on the premise that both parties are open and honest with each other," Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics
Be upfront with your needs and feelings by using I-statements, as leaving people to wonder can result in misunderstandings, confusion, frustration, and distortion of understanding, further accelerating a toxic debate
Set Aside Defensive Tendencies
One must have a willingness to take responsibility for their actions as well as remove defensive tendencies during a conversation. Vulnerability between parties is a key component for effective communication.
Emotional trust and vulnerability can be established through admitting to our mistakes, transparency, honesty, expressing empathy and showing that we care about what the other is suggesting or feeling. It is important that the participating party feels respected, listened to and understood.
Tips for de-escalating/preventing a distressing conversation
Tone can contradict statements. A friend may say that they are ‘feeling fine’, but they sound frustrated or melancholy, these are signals that they may not be feeling how they are trying to perceive their feelings. Tone and attitude give more information than words, allowing us to peer into a person’s true thoughts and feelings.
Recognize posture / motion
Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, found that whole communication involves “55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and 7% words only”.
Alongside pitch and tone, one can also develop a better understanding of another's genuine feelings through the way they carry themselves throughout the conversation. Pay attention to their facial expressions, what emotions do you see? Are they fidgeting? Are they avoiding eye contact? Have they crossed their arms or turned away a little? These are all indicators of varying emotions such as discomfort, or a need to be self-protective. Actively recognizing these gestures takes a lot of time and practice and can be difficult to look out for during an active conversation. When applicable, use your observant skills to determine whether or not you are putting the participating party in an uncomfortable situation. Pay attention to cues that may suggest aggression, a feeling of being upset or hurt, sadness, fear, and/or anxiety, to help navigate the conversation in a direction that will be less distressing for you and the other person.
The use of pronouns
Pronouns consider more than just gender. Notice the frequency of “I”, “you”, and “we” pronouns. An ideal conversation considers both parties equally - conversations are not balanced if there is an overuse of one pronoun and lack of another. Recognize if you are using “you” a lot - Is it in reference to blamatory or considerate behaviours? Also consider the frequency in the use of the word “I” - Has the conversation become one-sided?
Allow yourself / others to calm down and collect
If you can feel yourself going down a negative pathway emotionally, it may be best for you to take a moment to collect yourself and your thoughts before continuing the discussion. It is ideal to remain proactive rather than emotionally reactive in a discussion. An example might be sharing with your participating party “I am feeling very anxious, may I have a moment to ground myself before we proceed?” Take a moment to yourself, focus on your breathing, and take in your surroundings to reduce your anxiety.
The benefits of speaking with an integrative health coach regarding communication in a personal relationship
If you are dealing with a challenging conversation that you know has to be initiated, Integrative health coaches can teach you techniques and awareness for the highest levels of listening and communication (global listening). In global listening, you are paying attention to what is NOT being said, as often this is more important than what is being stated. Integrative health coaches can guide you in using your intuition and energy awareness to bring about the highest good for both in the conversation (see video above).
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Written by Kylie Lenartowicz