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10 Communication Mistakes to Try to Avoid
As we go through life we are constantly communicating. Unfortunately, we sometimes make communication mistakes. Those mistakes are often based on reflexive habits which can destroy our relationships. If we reframe these reflexive communication habits we can improve our communication, and as a result, improve our relationships. Here are 10 communication mistakes to avoid if […]

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October 13, 2015

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As we go through life we are constantly communicating. Unfortunately, we sometimes make communication mistakes. Those mistakes are often based on reflexive habits which can destroy our relationships. If we reframe these reflexive communication habits we can improve our communication, and as a result, improve our relationships.

Here are 10 communication mistakes to avoid if you can.

  1. Wrong Intent
  2. Not Listening with the Intent of Understanding
  3. Criticism for the sake of Criticism
  4. Blaming with the Intent to hurt
  5. Ineffective Complaining
  6. Asking a Question when you should be making a Statement
  7. Nagging
  8. Threatening
  9. Punishing
  10. Bribing

I think the best way to discuss these communication mistakes is to use a real example.  The example I would like to use is your child is doing poorly in school.  As a parent you want to take some action to turn this around, to try and help your child thrive at school.


1.  Wrong Intent

The most important communication mistake to avoid is not having a clear understanding of your intent before you begin the communication.

So, using the example of helping your child do better in school, the first thing you have to do is figure out what your Intent is before you begin to talk to your kid about this.

Here are two broad “intents” you could consider before you begin to talk to your kid:  Find out why they are doing poorly, or, get them to change some behavior.

The difference in the Intent here is huge.  If your intent is just to find out why they are doing poorly you are going to be asking a lot of questions in a non-threathing way.  However, if your intent is to change their behavior in someway you need to take a whole different approach.

2.  Not Listening with the Intent of Understanding

Listening is important to effective communication.  However, many people listen without the intent to understand.  If your intent is to change kids behavior so they do better at school, effective listening would mean that you are trying to understand “WHY” they think they are doing poorly.

I had a nephew once tell me that he thought he was doing poorly in school because he was not good at reading the teachers.  It seems he felt that when he studied for a test he often studied the wrong thing because he did not understand what the teacher wanted.

3. Criticism for the sake of Criticism

There is a difference between criticism made with the intent to offer constructive feedback and criticism to hurt someone, vent our frustrations, or boost our own ego.

  • To hurt someone. Often we just don’t like someone, and want to get at them, attack them. Criticism in this case is destructive.
  • To vent our frustrations. Sometimes we are just frustrated with something, or are having a bad day, and need to vent that negative anger.
  • To boost our ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that…

It’s easy enough for someone to get defensive when they’re given constructive criticism. But when your criticism comes from a destructive place, there’s no reason for the other party to keep listening: it’s a communication killer.

For example, if you’re a parent and your child keeps making terrible grades, it’s easy to get frustrated and immediately knock him or her down for being a slacker. If you want to improve communication, focus less on criticizing and more on offering feedback to support and encourage their improvement.

And this goes back to #2 – Effective Listening.  In order to offer useful feedback and encouragement it is critical to know what specific behavior you want to change.

4. Blaming without any Understanding of how that changes behavior.

While it may be very well true that your kid is doing poorly in school because they are lazy.  However, what are you going to do about it.  And, in terms of your kids behavior how did they get to this point.

It’s understandable that you want to express your dissatisfaction with something. And sometimes you need to express it order to find a solution, but that’s not quite blame.

It’s easy to blame someone (or something) else for your problems.

5.  Ineffective Complaining

Complaining is exhausting because it puts pressure on the other person. Counselor Laura Schenck puts it like this:

Complaining often results in the other person feeling as if they should somehow “fix” the problem or else just get away from the complaining. Whatever the outcome, it puts distance between us and those we love.

Even if it feels good to get things off your chest, venting can be counterproductive. Over at Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Juliano says that people complain for a few different reasons:

  • Venting: Complaining to release strong emotions
  • The Active Effective Complaint: The complainer makes a specific complaint addressed at the person responsible, in order to improve the situation
  • The Ineffective Complaint: Complaining in order to feel some sense of control over something which the complainer cannot control

Three questions to keep your complaints from getting out of hand:

  1. Is my complaint specific and contained or general and vague? Vague, general complaints usually refer to problems that have no solution, like the weather.
  2. Are your complaints the same ones over and over? It might be that your complaints are a way of getting empathy, or an indirect way of asking for help.
  3. Are you afraid that if you don’t focus on the negative in a situation, you will be unprepared for a major disappointment? This strategy prevents a person from fully experiencing the positive aspects a situation might offer.

6. Asking a Question when you should be making a Statement

My favorite example of this is when you think someone screwed up and you ask, “Why did you do that?”  Your intent is not really to ask why they did it.  Your intent is to tell them them did it wrong.

7. Nagging

Nagging is persistently bothering someone to do something you want them to do. By definition, it’s a communication breakdown. Think about it: if you’re nagging someone, you’re not getting through to them for one reason or another. It’s unproductive. Psychologist Molly Howes writes:

The nagging pattern is a demonstration of the remarkably consistent but dumb belief we all have that, if what we’re doing isn’t working, the solution is to do more of it. This pattern is self-perpetuating, with each person repeatedly reacting to the other’s behavior in virtually the same way.

No one likes being nagged, and no one likes nagging, yet it’s a fairly common relationship problem. So how do you stop nagging and start communicating more effectively? The answers are simple, but not easy: it comes down to breaking the pattern of nagging-resisting and instead learning to compromise and empathize. We’ve discussed how to break this pattern with your children. For example:

  • Focus on encouragement, not judgement
  • Focus on the effort instead of the outcome
  • Express your feelings rather than criticize

One tip Howes suggests to break the pattern is to establish a deadline. If you need someone to do something, compromise on when they’ll do it, with the caveat that you won’t bring it up again. This breaks the cycle of nag > resist > nag. The other party has agreed to do something, and you’ve agreed to stop talking about it. Whether they actually do it is another story (again, simple but not easy), but this at least stops the pattern.

8. Threatening

It’s fairly obvious how threatening someone can shut down communication: it doesn’t leave room for discussion at all. It’s a one-way street. As Schenck puts it, when we threaten someone, we become a source of fear and control. That doesn’t exactly lend itself to great communication.

This is why ultimatums suck. Sure, there are times when you might need to give an ultimatum in order to get past a road block in a relationship. But many times, people use an ultimatum as a threat in order to manipulate others.

Everyone’s capable of being a jerk now and then, but a select few seem to have adopted the…

We’ve pointed out before why threatening doesn’t work, even with parenting. First, you teach your kids to use ultimatums or brute force to get what they want. Second, they might call your bluff. And perhaps most importantly, you’re damaging your connection with your child.

Glasser pointed to trust and respect as a more caring response. When you trust someone, you don’t feel the need to control them. You also allow yourself to open up, which is a lot more conducive to effective communication. This hilarious post from Scary Mommy points out why common threats don’t work, and how you can revise them to be more effective. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it makes a good point about how explaining reality to your children is a better solution. For example:

THREAT: ‘Brush your teeth, or they’ll turn green and fall out of your mouth.’

Problem: Kids really don’t care at all about what happens in the future unless by “the future” you mean the next eight seconds.

Revision: ‘If you don’t brush your teeth, they’ll get this weird orange film on them. Look at your little brother’s teeth. See that stuff on them? He has that because he’s 2 years old and insane and screams if we try to put a toothbrush in his mouth. Also, if you don’t brush, you’ll have to go to the dentist, and even though I’ve said his office is awesome and super fun and a place that gives you stickers, it actually kind of sucks, and you want to avoid it at all costs.’

This works with relationships, too. Instead of threatening your partner if they don’t do something, open up about why your request is important. The bottom line: explaining means you trust and respect someone enough to tell them why something matters, and that lends itself better to communication.

9. Punishing

Threatening goes hand in hand with punishment: it’s about controlling someone’s behavior through negative reinforcement. Manipulation and control don’t pave a great path for communication. Communication is a two-way street, and control is only about one person. Instead, Glasser promoted respect.

On the other hand, when it comes to parenting, you do have to discipline your kids sometimes. However, effective discipline is not about punishment, it’s about teaching. In fact, the word discipline actually comes from the Latin word “ disciplinare,” which means, “to teach.” Effective discipline is never about punishment, but about guiding and managing your child’s behavior. The line between the two is blurry, but it’s mostly about the intent: punishment is focused on the bad behavior, whereas discipline is focused on improvement. For example, if your child gets a bad grade, punishing them with a spanking doesn’t necessarily teach them anything other than “make good grades so I don’t get spanked.” On the other hand, disciplining with less play time and more tutoring teaches them that learning is a priority.

Have you noticed how kids behave differently at school than at home? As an early education teacher,

Punishment comes from a place of control and retaliation, while discipline comes from a place of trust, consistency, and improvement. With discipline, the “punishment” serves a purpose.

Of course, discipline applies for parenting, but friendships and relationships are a little different. Discipline isn’t involved, because there should be equal footing.

10. Bribing

Bribery works in the same way. It’s nicer, but it’s still focused on control—it’s just a little more manipulative about it.

But then, what’s the difference between bribery and say, rewarding your child for good behavior? Over at WebMD, parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley explains:

Bribery is offered during bad behavior to make it stop or in anticipation of bad behavior, says Pantley. A reward is applause for a job well done and can help encourage future good behavior. “For example,” Pantley says, “it’s a bad idea to offer an ice cream cone to a child who is having a tantrum about leaving the park. But getting ice cream on the way home to celebrate good behavior at the park is a good way to encourage future good behavior.”

Like a lot of these habits, it’s all about the intention. With a reward, you’re communicating to your child what desireable behavior is. But with bribery, you really don’t care if your message gets through, you just want them to stop throwing a tantrum. I mean, sometimes you do what you have to do as a parent, but ideally, you want to avoid bribery, because it shuts down the flow of communication. When your child, friend, or partner does something you want them to do via a bribe, it’s not because they truly understand you, but because they want the reward. You lose the connection.

Instead of bribery, Glasser said negotiating a compromise is better for communication. It makes sense: negotiating is about coming to a mutual agreement, and that involves the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. In addition, a couple of his other “caring habits” apply here, too: compromise also involves listening and respect.

For some people, negotiating comes naturally. For the rest of us, it can feel intimidating,…In general, these habits don’t exhibit empathy. And when you think about it, empathy is really what’s necessary for great communication. When you can see the other person’s point of view and understand where they’re coming from, that’s effective communication in a nutshell. Learning to recognize these seven “deadly” habits can help your relationships thrive, because you learn to stave off communication roadblocks and see their other person’s perspective a little better.