Having a Voice: Improving Your Communication Skills

Caitlin Plato
Healthy and effective communication skills are at the core of a balanced life, but who teaches us these skills? It’s not typically part of our core curriculum in school and we are all raised in home environments with differing levels of healthy communication. This leads many of us to feel lost and confused about how to communicate effectively.

Working as a mental health and addictions counselor for 8 years, I always hear people say that they avoid many conversations because they are unsure of how to handle them. One of our most basic instincts is to avoid discomfort and so learning skills to better communicate can help reduce this fear and anxiety.

Assertiveness: There are four main types of communication (assertive, passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive). Assertive communication is the only strategy that ensures everyone involved is equally respected and heard. Many conversations become strained because people are simply trying to convince the other person that they are right. When we shift our goal to be one of understanding rather than winning, it significantly improves the outcome. Some skills to improve assertiveness include

- “I statements”: speak from your own experience rather than blaming or accusing
- Be self-accountable
- Regulate your emotions
- Treat yours and others’ needs as equal

Locus of control: We cannot control how other people communicate, but we can control how we do. I often hear clients say that it would all be fine once the other person finally communicated better. Unfortunately, it might be a long wait before that happens, if it ever does! Therefore, being able to take a step back and focus on what we can control often allows us to distance ourselves from that frustration and anxiety and make a more balanced decision about how to proceed.

Mindfulness: We can be impulsive at times, and this often causes problems in communication. Mindfulness can help with this. Listening, rather than waiting to talk, can significantly improve the outcome of a conversation. It is easy to forget that listening is just as important as talking when learning communications skills. Being mindful by taking time to pause, actively listen, and then choose our response helps both parties get their point across.

None of us are perfect, and you are not alone if you struggle with communication. I always encourage people to think about their goals on a scale of 1-10. If you think you are at a 4 on your communication skills right now, try thinking what it might look like to move to a 5. Taking small steps towards your goals greatly increases the likelihood of success. For example, if you want to start being more assertive, tell yourself that over the next week you will try to focus on using more “I statements”. Specifying your goals makes them more trackable and increases confidence about the changes you’re making.

Further Resources: There are many ways to start improving communication skills. I always encourage people to consider talking to a licensed counselor as a way to start working on your goals. There are also many evidenced-based therapeutic interventions that help with communication skills including Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. You can find a plethora of CBT and DBT books and worksheets online. If you are unsure of where to start, calling your EAP is a great first step!

Disclaimer: This blog post is an opinion piece and is not intended for, or able to diagnose or function as a treatment intervention.

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Caitlin PlatoCaitlin Plato earned her Master's degree in Counseling Psychology: Trauma & Recovery, from Arcadia University in Philadelphia and she is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor I. She provides management consultation, organizational development training, as well as counseling on a broad range of topics. She specializes in trauma, addictions, depression, anxiety, communication skills, diversity training and gender/LGBTQ related topics.