Today’s blog post features our intern, Sami Pastian who is a graduate level art therapist at Ursuline College.  Sami is currently accepting new clients ages 13 and up in our office and online in Ohio.  Read more about her here.

This is an alcohol ink drawing that represents how the change in communication styles can create growth in relationships. Poor communication styles can lead to conflict, which is shown in the starburst of reds, oranges, and greens that extend from the left of the image. The flowers growing from the starburst represent growth and progress that comes from learning how to apply healthy communication skills to a relationship.

Relationships can be tricky, especially when there is a breakdown in communication. Whether it’s with your partner, parents, siblings, friends, or co-workers, a breakdown in communication is bound to happen now and then. This can often lead to conflict with those we care about, which is uncomfortable for all parties involved. Intense emotions can come from this, such as anxiety, anger, fear, and sadness.

Conflict can also leave us feeling misunderstood by those we care about most. Without healthy conflict resolution skills, what starts out as a small disagreement can turn disastrous and the painful cycle only continues.

What Does a Breakdown in Communication Look Like?

A breakdown in communication occurs when one or both parties are not able to clearly communicate their ideas or needs. This can happen when two parties disagree on how events took place, what has or has not been said, or when someone feels they are not being listened to. Miscommunication is common, but conversations can get out of hand if miscommunication does not get resolved effectively.

Am I in a Toxic Relationship?

A relationship you have with someone may feel toxic due to breakdowns in communication. Not feeling heard and being misunderstood by someone you care about is incredibly painful, and you may begin to question the intentions of the other person. Your relationship is then likely to suffer.

When someone participates in toxic or passive aggressive behavior, it is important to clearly state your stance calmly and respectfully. Saying something along the lines of “I do not appreciate being talked to like that. My feelings belong to me, and they are not wrong,” can set clear boundaries with the other party and communicate to them what you are not willing to accept.

Clear and effective communication when you are experiencing a toxic relationship will be further explored.

How can I Get People to Understand Me?

One of the most important things to remember when conflict happens is to take ownership of yourself. When expressing your feelings or thoughts to others, using “I” statements is crucial. Avoid sentences that start with “you,” because this leaves the other party feeling attacked. This can lead to them becoming defensive because their interpretation of the event may be different. “You” statements can easily turn into a blame game, and no one benefits from these kinds of responses. A formula that can help guide you through expressing yourself to others is this:

“I feel _____ because _____.”

This format clearly and effectively communicates your thoughts and feelings and why you feel that way. This gives the other party the chance to reflect on your experience, instead of being on edge or feeling the need to defend themselves.

When saying “I” statements, it is crucial to use feeling words instead of accusations. Using “I” statements with feeling words looks like this:

“I feel sad because…”

“I am struggling with this situation/conversation because…”

I statements can easily be formatted in a way that is accusing the other party of something. Using accusatory language will only put the other person on the defense, and your thoughts and feelings will not be heard or understood. Be careful not to fall into the habit of phrasing I statements like this:

“I feel ______ because you are doing *this*”

When using I statements you really must reflect on yourself and begin to look inwards towards your own experience. Focusing on what others are doing to you will lead the conversation towards a circular pattern of accusation and defense that will leave both parties upset and unfulfilled.

I Feel My Feelings are Being Invalidated

There is a difference between challenging and asking questions. When there is tension between two people and emotions are running high, asking questions can feel like someone is challenging you. This can often feel like invalidation. What does challenging look like?

Challenging and invalidation in a conversation can happen when someone makes you feel like you are wrong for feeling your emotions. This can look something like this:

“You shouldn’t feel that way”

“That’s not what happened”

“You’re overreacting”

Challenging often takes the form of gaslighting, which was discussed earlier. When others aren’t ready to own up to their actions or there’s a disagreement on what happened, distress for all involved is likely to happen. In situations like these, giving each other space and coming back to the conversation later may be the best option.

However, asking questions about another person’s point of view is crucial to understanding others. The way you frame your questions can affect how the conversation can go. When asking questions, avoid “why” questions. Often when people hear why questions, they get defensive. Instead of asking “Why do you feel that way?” try asking these questions instead:

“Is there a reason you feel that way?”

“What about this situation made you upset?”

“How can we avoid this in the future?”

When questions are formatted this way, people feel like you are trying to understand them, rather than feeling interrogated. Reframing how you ask questions can lead to more productive conversations, and conflict resolution becomes easier.

Are My Feelings Bad?  Your Feelings Aren’t Wrong

Feelings and emotions are not wrong. They are natural responses to events and situations and each emotion has their own purpose. Anger serves to protect us when we feel boundaries have been crossed. Sadness tells us we need to heal. Anxiety and fear tell us when something is unsafe. When we feel intense emotions, it is important to remember to respond rather than react. How we respond when we feel emotions is what is important. Although you have every right to feel emotions, what you do with that emotion will guide how the conversation will go.

This is an abstract mixed media image of boundaries in relationships. Other people affect us in many ways, and maintaining healthy boundaries on both sides can foster healthy relationship building and deeper connections.

What is the difference between a reaction and a response

A reaction can look like this:

Yelling or lashing out when feeling anger

Name calling

Abruptly leaving the conversation

A response can look like this:

Taking a deep breath and pausing when angry, then verbally expressing anger.

Saying “I am not in the mindset to continue this conversation. Let’s come back to this later.”

Calmly explaining your perspective.

If you feel yourself about to react rather than respond, here are a few ways to slow yourself down.

Count to three before you answer.

Take a deep breath or two.

Take a moment to check in with your body.

Reactions can lead conversations to build up into tense and volatile situations. Responses allow room for reflection and is more likely for the other party to really listen and understand your perspective.

How Do I Fix a Conflict?

It takes more than one person for conflict to occur. When emotions run high, you are bound to say or act in a way that may not be well received. It is possible to unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings or come off as rude. If someone effectively communicates to you something you did that bothers them, it’s up to you to address it.

Imagine this. You are walking, and accidentally step on someone’s toe and they let out a yelp of pain. You did not intentionally step on their toe, but you still caused someone else pain. In this situation, it’s obvious that you would apologize. But when it comes to feelings, people often get defensive and can be reluctant to apologize. Just because you did not mean to hurt someone’s feelings does not mean their feelings should not be hurt. Taking ownership of your actions and apologizing validates the other person’s feelings and you can focus on how to avoid similar situations in the future.

When Should I Walk Away from a Conflict?

Sometimes we can follow all the right advice and do everything perfectly, but that does not mean the other person is doing the same. If someone is unwilling or unable to see your perspective, you can easily get trapped in a circular conversation or argument that goes nowhere. These are highly stressful conversations and rarely come to a solid solution. Time and distance from the conversation can give both parties clarity about the situation you may not have had before. If you feel the conversation is going nowhere and things are getting out of hand, it’s okay to leave. Even if things are left unresolved, this is better than letting the conversation lead to a blow up.

What should I do when I leave an argument?

Writing in a journal is a helpful tool to get your own thoughts and feelings out of your head. Write down what you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and things you want to come from the conflict. When you’re done, put your journal away and come back to when you feel calm. By doing this, you can re-evaluate what is important about the situation, and what things may not bother you anymore. It’s okay to change your mind and decide that something that bothered you yesterday is no longer a problem. Once you’ve decided what the core issues of your conflict is, you can enter a new conversation with a clear head and clear goals.

Decide whether the conversation is worth revisiting. Sometimes when we’ve had time to cool off, we realize the conflict wasn’t that deep. Or maybe the conflict is something you and the other party may never see eye to eye on. Both situations are bound to happen. Sometimes it is better to let things go and move on rather than rehash a problem that is unimportant or unsolvable.

Participate in self-care. What things help you calm down? This could be taking a bath, drawing, going for a walk, or playing a video game. Think about things that bring you joy, calmness, or things that need to be done to benefit your mental health. Having a list of go-to self-care activities can give you a default to fall back on when you decide to walk away from a conversation.

Leaning in to Discomfort

When you are in a disagreement with another person, remember that you can only control yourself. You may feel slighted, unheard, or have hurt feelings about how others respond. Your feelings are valid. However, the other party’s feelings are just as valid as your own. How both parties’ thoughts and feelings are said is what is important. You may find discomfort to find that your partner is mad at you, but discomfort is not inherently bad. Ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen when I am uncomfortable. The answer to this question is usually not as bad as you imagine it.

Sitting with discomfort without trying to solve or fix things can help train yourself to keep calm during times of conflict. Being calm is key when conversations get out of hand. By developing your own communication skills and self-regulation, you can strengthen your relationships by resolving problems before they get out of hand.

Can Therapy Help Me With Communication?

Navigating communication issues on your can be incredibly difficult. Getting an outside unbiased perspective from a professional can help you tailor your own communication needs and styles. If you feel stuck in any of your relationships, art therapy can be a safe way to explore your relationship and yourself. If you’d like to talk more about how art therapy can help build your communication skills, feel free to reach out to me for a free consultation.

Learn more about Sami Pastian here.