Recently a friend shared that she noticed a shift in her relationship with a good friend. She expressed concern that their once fulfilling friendship has become draining. She noticed that she feels on guard during their time together and no longer feels comfortable sharing her thoughts and feelings. She hates that the dynamic of the friendship has changed drastically but feels it would be too difficult to address. She decides to avoid her friend for a while until the awkwardness dies down.
How many times have we experienced a disagreement or a misunderstanding with a friend? If you have friends you have known for a while, you know this can often happen. When problems arise, communication is vital to reaching a solution. The ways we use communication reflect our goal in a relationship. Our goal could either be to foster connection or disconnection. Connection is developed through vulnerability. Disconnection is maintained through avoidance of vulnerability.
Deep down we all long for others to accept us, to choose us and to desire our friendship. Memories of rejection or manipulation by others could lead us to create strategies to protect ourselves from future pain. If we grew up in an environment in which others validated our thoughts and feelings or experiences, we are more likely to develop confidence that our view matters and that we are valued as individuals. This confidence allows us to be vulnerable with others and still feel secure in who we are. On the other hand, if we grew up in an environment in which our thoughts and feelings were invalidated or ignored, we are more likely to believe that our view does not matter and that we do not have value as individuals. If we believe that our thoughts and feelings are not important, we probably won’t value the opinions, thoughts, beliefs or feelings of others.
A critical environment creates a sense of fear of judgment and shame for who we are. We don’t feel secure to speak our mind and share what we think and feel. Fear and shame begins to motivate unhealthy communication styles such as: passive communication, aggressive communication and passive aggressive communication.
Passive Communicators keep their real thoughts and feelings to themselves. These communicators are extremely agreeable in an effort to avoid judgment. They can be described as people pleasers. They never allow others to see them upset and they may discount their own desires for the sake of others. They want to matter, but to risk trusting someone else with their thoughts and feelings is so scary that they choose to avoid it all together. It does not take long until this communicator begins to resent the other person for the one sided relationship they have created.
Aggressive Communicators desire to have all the power in a relationship. They maintain control by intimidating the other person and invalidating their thoughts and feelings. Any time they perceive their power is threatened, they become more aggressive. If a disagreement arises, aggressive communicators refuse to gain understanding but instead focus on getting the other person to agree with them.
Passive Aggressive Communicators avoid being vulnerable in relationships but still hold people accountable for any offense they perceive. They may withhold attention, affection, forgiveness or love in order to punish the other person for hurting them. The other person may sense something is wrong but because the passive aggressive communicator refuses to admit any hurt the other person has no opportunity to make amends.
The healthy approach to communication is Assertive Communication. Assertive communicators speak to gain understanding. They value others opinions and are not threatened by different points of view. They don’t tell people what to think, they ask people what they think and genuinely desire to know. A power struggle does not exist in this style of communicating since both individuals are secure in their worth as individuals.
As you read the descriptions of unhealthy communication styles, you may have had a few people come to mind. Maybe you thought about a friend or your parents that are unhealthy communicators. It’s easy to recognize these styles in other people, but I want to challenge you to see if you, intentionally or unintentionally, use one of these styles in your relationships. We cannot change other people but we can absolutely change the way we communicate. If you notice that you are a passive aggressive communicator and your goal in relationships is to connect, something needs to change. The first step to change is to explore the ways that your communication style keeps you from intimacy in your relationships.