How Not To Communicate In Relationships

By: Dr. Ashwin Mehra, C.Psych

It is a well-known adage that good communication is a central component of healthy relationships. Whether we communicate as a partner, parent, family member, or employee, the quality of the communication drives the outcome of that interpersonal interaction. We know this to be true through scientific research, as well as from our personal experiences. However,  it should be emphasized that negative communication can be just as detrimental to interpersonal outcomes as positive communication can be beneficial to them. We can understand negative communication using the framework of Polyvagal Theory, which is based on the activation status of the autonomic nervous system mediated by the action of the vagus nerve. This theory posits that our mind and body can be in a positive  (social engagement) state or in a distressed negative (fight/flight/freeze) state. The resultant communication from each state invariably influences the quality of the communication made from the respective positive or negative state. An interesting observation is that the neural pathways linking to empathy, mentalization and long-term thinking are disengaged during the fight/flight/freeze mind-body states. Engaging in communication with a partner, child or co-worker from this state is obviously counter-productive. Most people, in hindsight, usually wish to take back the things that they have communicated from this negative mind-body state.

In therapy, we can learn to better manage these negative mind-body states so that we can effectively navigate towards the positive mind-body states before communicating, rather than after. This helps us to be in the best possible position to communicate our emotional and other needs and to stay open to other viewpoints during the discussion. This allows us to stay engaged with empathy, mentalization and long-term thinking and the quality of our communication reflects this increased mental capacity. We can use our communication to emotionally self-regulate and strive to co-regulate with others, leading to desired interpersonal outcomes. Therapy becomes an exploratory process to help understand the pathways towards negative communication as well as a structured process to help remove blocks and build capacities towards positive communication. In summary, good communication is built on the foundation of also learning how not to communicate, and therapy can help with achieving that capability.