How to Communicate Better with People You Care About – Part 1

Recently I was asked to give a talk about how people can communicate better with one another.  I was searching my files and found a handout that I have used in my practice for years.  It is called The Ten Commandments of Clean Communication.  It was given to me by a former mentor, and it has no attribution on it, so I don’t know if she wrote it herself, or if it came from a book she read many years ago.  As I looked it over, I thought it was the best set of communication guidelines I have seen, and I wanted to share it.

   Of course, since it is called the ten commandments, it has ten parts.  Since the descriptions are an important part of each commandment, I thought I would start with the first five:

  1. Avoid judgmental terms and loaded terms. These are the zingers, the words that convey to the other person that he or she is flawed.  “Total lack of effort… childish behavior…uncooperative… poor me attitude…thoughtless as usual.” These words attack and undermine the other person’s feelings of worthiness or competence.  In a caring relationship, these are words that you want to stay away from.
  2. Avoid global labels. Global labels are generalized words that condemn the other person’s identity.  If you call someone stupid, sexist, crazy, selfish, useless, lazy, etc. you are not attacking the other person’s behavior, you are attaching who they are.  Even if you feel justified in using these terms at first, you will find that after you deliver them your relationship will suffer a loss of trust and of intimacy.
  3. Avoid “you” messages. “You” messages are words of blame and accusation. Basically, you are saying that you are hurting, the other person caused the hurt, and they were wrong to do that to you.  It is much better to deliver “I” messages where there is no blaming of the other person. Notice the difference between saying “You always spoil our time together by being late,” versus the I message of “When you get here late, I feel sad about missing our time together.” Or consider the You message of “You’re never here in the apartment when we have to clean up,” instead of the I message of “I feel irritated when I have to do all the cleaning up in the apartment.”
  4. Avoid old history. Good communication skills help you to stick with the issue at hand.  Poor communication skills create “kitchen sink fights” where you pile up all the resentments from when you first met the other person. Things like “You did the same thing last Thanksgiving,” or “You’ve always done this every time we have a disagreement” conveys a message that the other person is bad and is not going to get any better.  Don’t bring up the past when you are angry because then it is not used to highlight an ongoing problem, but as a way to beat up the other person.
  5. Avoid negative comparisons. You don’t want to make the other person feel bad about him- or herself.  When you say “You never eat healthy food like your sister,” or “Why can’t you be as successful as your brother-in-law” you are tearing the person down.  Clean communication is supposed to help, not hurt. When you make negative comparisons, you are really attacking the other person.

Try applying these rules when you want to settle a conflict with friends or family, and see how it goes.  I think you will find that everyone will feel better and that situations will be resolved with less angst on everyone’s part.