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.

The Logistics of ‘Fighting’

Conflict, arguments, discussions, fights — whatever you’d like to call them –are entirely normal in all relationships. No matter how hard you might try to avoid them, chances are you are going to encounter conflict at some point within your personal relationships. What if, instead of trying to avoid conflict, we became better at it?

‘Good’ communication is said to be the secret to all conflict resolution. Although ‘good’ communication is essential, you should also consider some logistics when resolving conflict. Here are five tips to improve the logistics of your arguments:

  1. Schedule your conflict. It sounds odd at first, but take a moment to think about it: Have you ever said something you did not mean during an argument? Most of us have. Emotional flare-ups at times stop us from engaging the “rational” part of our brains. Taking some time apart and preparing to “argue” at a specific time will allow both of you to settle your emotions and give you some time to reflect on what is important to you.
  2. Take care of your body first. You would not go into an important business meeting or school presentation hungry, sleep-deprived, or in an unpleasant physical state, would you? Of course not. Doing so would alter your ability to think and perform in those situations effectively. The same applies here. If possible, make sure all your physical needs are met before engaging in a potentially conflictual discussion. Not only will this improve your mood, but it also allows you to think more clearly.
  3. Neutral environment. Our environment makes a huge difference! Try to find a neutral place where you both feel comfortable discussing the issue(s) (and try to keep conflict out of your bedroom!) Ideally, bedrooms are for sleeping or sex; do not bring your arguments into that space.
  4. Limit distractions. Put your mobile devices away, turn off the television, and give each other full and undivided attention. No one likes to feel like they are being ignored or not listened to; inattentiveness may make the argument much harder than it already is. The fewer distractions, the quicker you can focus on the discussion and (hopefully) come to a resolution.
  5. No interruptions. If you have children in the house, make a conscious effort to watch your voice’s volume and tone. Finding healthy ways to resolve conflicts is vital because children and adolescents can absorb discord energy between parents. You also want to make sure you are in an environment where you will not be interrupted or cut-off. It is vital to mutually dedicate this time to focus on each other and the issue at-hand without fearing interruptions.

Rebeca Fernandez Bosanac, B.A. is a counsellor at CFIR working under the supervision of Dr. Reesa Packard, M.A., Ph.D., R.P. Rebeca is currently studying to complete her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. Her professional experience includes working with at-risk youth struggling with extensive trauma, dual-diagnoses, and behavioural issues and working in harm-reduction programs with individuals who struggle with substance abuse, trauma, homelessness, and mental health disorders.