Communicating seems relatively simple. All we have to do is open our mouths to speak, and, other times, hear what the other person is saying.
In reality, however, communication is a bit trickier. In a single conversation many things can get lost in translation.
“Barriers to good communication are always present,” said Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist who specializes in communication.
Below, he shared three common errors we make in conversations all the time, along with tips on solving our slip-ups.
Error: Unclear Language
Using unclear language includes using the words “always and never,” said Karmin, who practices at Urban Balance, which provides counseling services in the Chicago area.
Here’s an example: “You’re always criticizing me,” or “You never say anything nice.”
The problem? These words aren’t literal facts. They actually speak to how you’re feeling.
And they often trigger debates. If you’re using “always” or “never,” this leads the other person to point out all the exceptions, instead of trying to understand how you’re feeling because of their actions, Karmin said.
The fix: Instead, he suggested making a slight change in your phrasing: “It feels like you always…” or “It feels like you never…” or “It feels like sometimes.”
If the other person is using unclear language, don’t hesitate to ask questions, Karmin said. For instance, you might say: “I’m confused, can you put it another way?”
It’s also helpful to repeat back what they’ve said — in your own words — and to ask for clarification, he said. For example, “So what you are saying is that…” or “What I hear is…. Is that right?”
Error: Mismatched Cues
Another common communication error occurs when a person’s body language contradicts their spoken message, Karmin said. He shared this example: A wife says, “Thanks for doing the dishes, you are such a big help!” while using a sarcastic tone, shaking her head and letting out a big sigh.
In a second example, someone says they’re not upset — not at all — and yet they keep yelling.
The fix: Respond by pointing out the person’s emotions. If they’re yelling, you might say: “You must be very angry.”
They still might deny feeling angry. Don’t debate with the person, Karmin said. Instead, simply reply: “I hope you aren’t because anger is a very painful emotion. But if you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”
The key is not to talk people out of how they’re feeling. “You can acknowledge someone’s reaction without condoning it,” he said.
Also, be mindful of your own verbal and non-verbal cues. Pay attention to what you’re saying with your “tone, posture, hand gestures, head positioning, eye contact, breathing, facial expressions and movements.”
Error: Poor Listening
“It’s not easy to listen fully,” Karmin said. Everything from the environment to your inner thoughts can get in the way. Plus, if the speaker isn’t clear, is “distractingly attractive” or misses a point you’d like to mention, your attention may shift away from their words, he said.
The fix: Asking questions can help you pay better attention. Karmin shared these examples when the speaker “seems hesitant or stalled.”
- “What’s the worst part about it?
- How does that make you feel?
- What happened to make you so (insert feeling)?
- What would you prefer instead?”
Another solution is to paraphrase the key points the speaker made after they’re done. You might say, “’Help me understand. You are saying …’ and then mention an important point in your own words.”
Paraphrasing isn’t parroting back, he said. Rather, it’s creating communication and it improves remembering.
Also, avoid interrupting the speaker. Let them finish their sentences. “You cannot learn anything from others if you try to do all the talking.”
Here’s more on becoming a better listener.
Plus, in general, avoid starting sentences with “you” or “why.” According to Karmin, such statements put others on the defensive. Instead, replace “you” with “I feel,” and “why” with “I’m confused.”
“These suggestions are assertive statements that promote insight into how you are reacting to another’s behavior.”
Effective communication may not come naturally. It’s a skill that takes effort. And that’s a good thing because it’s a skill you can learn and master.