Communication is essential to all relationships, but a lack of effective communication could leave you unsure of where you stand. Here’s what to do next.

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Learning to communicate clearly and consistently with others is an essential tool for developing healthy relationships.

If you’re able to communicate well, you may find that the relationships you have with your partner, friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances are easier and have less conflict.

Communication can be verbal or nonverbal. By crossing your arms and rolling your eyes during a conversation, or nodding your head and leaning in toward the person speaking, you can convey a lot of meaning without words.

Body language is a vital aspect of communication that can display your emotions and the subtext of your words without having to say it all out loud.

But if you find yourself in a relationship where clear and reassuring communication is insufficient, you may feel confused, lonely, or left with mixed signals because you don’t know how the other person is feeling. This lack of productive communication can also take a toll on your mental health over time.

But everyone — with a little practice — can learn to communicate better and make their relationships stronger.

A “lack of communication” typically occurs when someone experiences challenges with effectively communicating their needs and expectations. If you have a difficult time communicating, you may find yourself not getting your needs met at work, with your family or friends, or in romantic relationships.

You may also feel anxious, insecure, and lonely. Challenges with communication can make it difficult to maintain relationships or leave you feeling uncertain about where you stand in a relationship.

Ineffective communication can lead to many misunderstandings or disagreements, too. This can include making mistakes or completing tasks incorrectly, having your feelings hurt, causing arguments, or distancing yourself from others.

If these or other communication issues occur frequently, it may have a negative impact on your relationships.

Ineffective communication in the workplace can also cause your work to suffer. If your manager neglects to give you feedback, positive or negative, it can be difficult to improve your performance.

The communication patterns that your partner’s family may have taught them can influence your relationship with them, too. If they often fall back into those learned patterns of poor communication, it may cause rifts in your relationship with them.

For example, maybe your partner grew up in a family that didn’t communicate effectively, but instead regularly communicated through yelling and shouting at each other. This, in turn, may cause them to shut down when attempting to convey their needs because they were criticized or yelled at when they had previously tried.

Poor communication can also affect you beyond just your relationships with friends or family — it can also present challenges at work. Ineffective communication among co-workers can also affect your job performance and your team’s ability to reach goals.

Imagine a different example: Perhaps your supervisor doesn’t clearly communicate what is expected from you during the workday, which could leave you wondering what they really want from you. This failure to communicate clear expectations could lower your morale or cause you to get in trouble for not meeting unclear expectations.

But situations like this aren’t strictly one-sided, and constructive communication will rely on your input as well. If you don’t communicate to your supervisor that you’re unclear about their expectations, they won’t know that you’re having trouble meeting your goals and might even assume that your silence means that you understand the assignment.

In both of these examples, rifts in communication can cause negative outcomes between you and another person, and thus, impact your relationship.

Different communication styles

When you’re looking to improve communication, it’s important to note that each person’s style and manner of communication are different. This article mainly focuses on neurotypical styles of communication.

Neurodivergent folks, including autistic people, may communicate in different ways. For instance, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting may help them concentrate better or feel more comfortable in conversation and doesn’t always mean disinterest.

Using different communication styles doesn’t necessarily mean that the communication is less effective, though it often requires communicating with greater thoughtfulness and intention.

You can read Healthline’s “Neurotypical’s Guide to Speaking to Someone with Autism” here.

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Poor communication can leave you feeling frustrated, upset, distant, confused, and more. Even if you can’t pinpoint exactly where the communication is breaking down, you can feel the stress of those interactions.

This is why it’s important to identify the signs of poor communication in your relationships, so you can work to address them.

Some general signs of poor communication include:

  • passive listening instead of active listening
  • shutting down
  • letting things bottle up inside until you explode in anger or sadness
  • yelling or screaming
  • becoming physically or verbally abusive
  • dismissing other people’s points of view
  • demonstrating passive-aggressive behavior
  • not being clear about expectations, needs, or wants
  • giving the silent treatment
  • interrupting

Poor or insufficient communication doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker, as long as both people are committed to learning and practicing better communication skills.

It’s a two-way street, and repairing communication works best when all people involved share the responsibility of making it work.

By practicing, giving feedback, and seeking out help, anyone’s communication skills can improve.

However, if someone continually crosses your boundaries or frequently degrades or verbally abuses you, it might indicate an unhealthy relationship, and you may benefit from re-evaluating that person’s role in your life.

Improving your communication skills is an ongoing process, and like most learned skills, the more time and practice you put into it, the more improvements you’ll see.

There are many techniques that you can learn and practice in your everyday conversations to create more opportunities for positive interactions.

Use ‘I’ statements

Using “I” statements helps you put your feelings into words and explain how you’re specifically affected by another person’s behavior. Because you’re intentionally focusing on yourself, you aren’t attributing negative actions or placing blame on the other person.

This can help prevent a defensive reaction because the other person is less likely to feel attacked or blamed. Once you’ve communicated how you’re impacted by the behavior, you can then start to describe what changes you would like to see to resolve the conflict.

An example

Instead of saying: “You never help me around the house!”

Consider using “I” statements like: “I feel overwhelmed when I’m the only one cleaning the house. I’d like for you to help me take out the trash and do the laundry.”

While the first example is accusatory and may cause the other person to become defensive, the second example clearly states the person’s feelings, needs, and expectations.

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Set clear boundaries

In any relationship, setting clear personal boundaries is very important so that there’s no misunderstanding about when those lines are crossed or what topics are off-limits.

If boundaries aren’t clearly communicated, people may be unaware that they’ve gone too far.

Here’s an example of setting a clear boundary:

“Mom, I don’t like it when you shout at me over the phone. I’m not OK with shouting, and I don’t want to have our future conversations include shouting.”

This person is clearly communicating a boundary — that they’re not OK with yelling — and stating their expectations for future conversations.

Take a timeout if necessary

There are certain times, especially during a heated discussion, that it might be necessary to take a break so that you can calm down, collect your thoughts, and return to the discussion with a clearer mindset. Even a brief pause can help prevent a further communication breakdown.

If you find yourself in a heated argument, overcome with anxiety, or very upset, it might indicate that you need to take a timeout.

Taking some space for yourself doesn’t mean that you’re avoiding the issue at hand, but rather helping to make sure you can return and communicate your ideas clearly.

In fact, it can be an effective technique when tensions are running high because it gives everyone the chance to cool off.

Practice active listening

Active listening is when you listen closely to what someone is saying with the intention of understanding and responding to what they’ve shared.

If you’re only “listening” just to share your perspective, or if you find yourself tuning out, chances are that you aren’t practicing active listening.

To practice active listening:

  • Give the speaker your full attention.
  • Avoid interrupting.
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions.
  • Reflect back what you hear the person saying.
  • Be aware of your body language.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Don’t judge or shame the speaker.

A 2014 article that examined communication between physicians and patients found that active listening is key to maintaining an emotional connection and trust in the physician-patient relationship.

The article noted active listening should include displays of empathy, reflecting what the patient has said, using encouragement, nonverbal responses, and more.

People who communicate well are able to clearly express themselves and their needs and understand the expectations that others have set for them. But this isn’t a skill that always comes naturally and it can take time and practice to truly master.

If you face challenges with your communication skills or feel that there is a lack of strong communication in your personal relationships, consider talking with the other person about your concerns and commit to finding new techniques that can make you both better communicators and listeners.

However, if you feel too overwhelmed or anxious about exploring how to improve your communication, it may be helpful to consider talking with a therapist or a trusted friend. They can help you identify challenges and offer suggestions to improve your communication skills.

Remember, poor communication doesn’t have to signal the end of a relationship or that it has failed. Instead, it can be used as an opportunity to practice and improve.