A primary reason for lack of effective communication is that, without realizing it, people typically inject communication barriers into their conversation. Communication barriers are high-risk responses, these are responses that frequently impact communications negatively.

In order to avoid these common roadblocks, it is very worthwhile working through them, understanding what they are and considering when you might have either instigated these roadblocks or been on the receiving end of them. This will make you far more aware of them and able to avoid them in your work and day to day life. You will get the most out of this if you can be completely honest with yourself. Each of these can destroy or erode trust with clients. Take your time with this and refer to it every day over a period of weeks, you will enhance your communication immeasurably.

Work through the list and identify times that you will have experienced each one:

Judging the Other Person

No one likes being judged by others. It’s fine to disagree in ordinary interactions, as long as we’re civil, as much of life involves negotiation. In the therapeutic setting disagreement and judgement are trust killers. Have a think about your own experience of disagreement and judgement, when was it ok? When was it really not ok?

As a mental health practitioner, I am striving for unconditional positive regard, and I really can’t achieve that if I judge others through imposing my perspective on a client.

Examining how judgmental you are:

1. How often do you criticize people? Who do you criticize and what do you criticize them about? Do you criticize them publicly, personally, mentally or secretly?

2. What stereotypes do you project onto people? Do you have thoughts about certain groups of people which you’ve boxed into a generalized character model?

List everyone who you box into a stereotype and write down the characteristic, personalities and behaviors you expect of them. Usually, most stereotyping is negative, so start challenging yourself to realize this negative bias you hold against these people and ask yourself what you get out of doing this.

3. Mental health diagnoses categories people according to their symptoms and treat them all the same way, despite everyone having unique differences surrounding and influencing their mental health.

These blanket diagnoses and subsequent blanket treatments let down thousands and potentially millions of people whose health doesn’t benefit from being boxed into a stereotype.

Do you, or does anyone you’ve encountered, have mental health problems which haven’t benefited from blanket treatment? Have you found differences between people with the same diagnoses, and if so, what differences have you seen?

4. You’ve probably come across people in the world (potentially online) who you’ve disagreed with but saw that that person was being positively praised and supported by thousands of other people.

Seeing someone we so strongly disagree with being praised is incredibly confusing to us, but then we’re also “guilty” of confusing others by praising people they don’t agree with. Think of how you’ve judged people who have praised people you disagree with and write down what you think or assume of those people and then try inverting the task: write down what you think people judge you as based on who you praise.

Sending Solutions

1. You’ve likely encountered someone who orders you about based on their status to you, whether that’s a boss, teacher, parent or superior at work. Commands are sometimes couched subtly, so that at first they don’t appear to be commanding. Instead, they take the form of ‘should’ or ‘be careful not to’.

Can you think of any time you’ve ordered someone around based on their position to you - what made you justify your right to command them to do something. Likewise, think of someone who has ordered you around: were there some people you didn’t mind ordering you around and others you did? If so, list the differences between how they went about ordering you around.

2. Unfortunately, many of us have met someone who has threatened us (although for most of us, it was one of our parents). They order us to do something by finishing the command with a threat: “If you don’t do X, Y will happen.”

We can’t determine how others act and behave, and the frustration of this reality often results in threats. Have you ever been threatened within a personal or professional situation, and if so, how did it make you change your behavior? Did you change for the better, or was the overall effect more negative?

Also, have you ever threatened someone, such as your child or even your partner or colleague? What did you threaten them with and how do you think that influenced their perception of you and the overall outcome of their experience with you?

3. Children serve as prime examples of excessive questioning; every answer is usually followed up with a following question which can go on for hours at a time. Interrogating is a one way process, an excavation for information in which one person feels less and less energized whilst the other hungers for information.

But, responsiveness to questions is key. If all we do is chase information, we are ignoring the feelings and emotional state of the person being questioned. It is fine to ask for information, but in context and with due empathic awareness of their state of mind. Even the act of giving certain information may alter a client’s state, and so rather than ignore that and continue interrogating, we might want to help the client explore the significance of what they’ve revealed before moving on.

So, observe your communications, are you probing others for information? Are you being interrogated? Write down times you may have interrogated, or been interrogated, by others and what you learned from the experience.

4. The problem with preaching is that it demonstrates no intrinsic morality, it can be and often is a case of ‘do as I say not as I do’. In addition, most of us tend not to react well to being preached at unless we have specifically sought it out. If an acquaintance starts to adopt a moral high ground and to preach to us it represents a fundamental value judgement that we rarely react well to.

We can also fall prey to dishing it out, especially if it is about a subject that we have researched and know well, but others may not. Have you ever been preached to, or has someone preached something to you, religious or non-religious? If so, what do you think were the true outcomes of the situation?

Avoiding the Other Person’s Concerns

1. In general conversation, it may be that you find a friend straying onto a topic that doesn’t interest you, so you divert it to a subject of more interest. Perhaps you’ve heard enough about your friend’s troublesome love life and just want to discuss something different. That can be fine with friends, and maybe you’ll want to gently help them realize how much they go on about their relationship and perhaps need to take action! In the professional relationship, it is not our job to divert to topics that interest us, or that we think are more significant.

Also if we are uncomfortable with a topic they raise, then it may flag up an issue that we need to deal with personally, but it is not a reason to divert the client. We have to be fully present and available to the client. If they need to talk about a topic, then you should go with it, hear them, read their body language, look for the communication beyond the language and reflect back to the client what they are talking about. Have you ever had someone change the subject or make the subject about them at an inappropriate time when you were talking? Or, if you’re honest with yourself, when have you done it and why?

2. Have you ever approached a friend or a family member because you’re upset about something, and been met with a cold rational response? It doesn’t make us feel as if we’re being understood and really listened to. It carries a subtext of distance and disengagement.

If you have seen the movie about the genius behind apple - Steve Jobs - you may remember the scene where his daughter says that he named a computer after her. Jobs, an amazingly unempathetic man, then explains to his young daughter what ‘coincidence’ means.

It is an entirely rational response, but utterly crushing for his daughter. It demonstrates clearly how logic can be a remarkably useless instrument when what is required is empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence. When have you given or received a logical argument?

3. Most of us will remember some incident from our childhood where we slipped and grazed a knee, fell off a bicycle, fell down a step, took a football to the face and the eyes were stinging with tears.

Then a mother, auntie, kindly adult wrapped us in a hug and told us everything would be fine, how brave we were, how we would soon be fine. Maybe we cried, maybe the comfort staved off the tears.

We were learning as children that living involves occasional pain. When we first experienced episodes of pain it is something of a surprise as if we really didn’t expect life to have pain in it.

So it was appropriate for caregivers to console us and let us know that pain passes and let us feel protected whilst we’re still pretty small human beings. Some of us never quite leave that stage. Some people are still looking for a ‘mother’ to dry the tears and make everything alright. Some people will look for that from their counsellor. If you give them that, you are confirming their rather immature attitude to life and infantilizing them. You will not be doing them a service.

Yes, sometimes our friends want tea and sympathy from us, and that is fine, they just need to get something off their chest. If we are in the business of helping people mature and grow, then we can’t afford to indulge them.

When a client has pain and is looking for sympathy, it is far better to help them understand that this pain is not fatal, that they can recover all by themselves and emerge even stronger for having experienced the pain. Sympathy and consoling will do the opposite. Empower people you meet, don’t disempower them.

Have you been in a situation where someone’s reassurance has left you feeling disempowered and stuck in the problem? Or have you, without realizing it, kept someone in their problem through excessive reassurance?

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