What’s Really Behind Our Communication
“Can you say that more assertively?”
“That was aggressive communication, do you want to try that again?”
These are the sounds of students who have just finished up a communication continuum group. So, what is this group and, more importantly, what is the value in identifying different types of communication?
The communication continuum examines the varying degrees of communication that one uses, how it looks to those around us, and why we may fall into certain categories. It starts with withdrawn communication. This can look like slumped shoulders, nods, shrugs, or staying in our room all day. Next is passive communication. This is probably a familiar one to those of us who have a teenager. Phrases such as “fine whatever,” “I guess I’ll do the dishes,” as well as sarcasm fall into this category. The next is what we all strive for, assertive communication. Assertive communication can sound like using “I feel” statements, simple, clear statements, and setting boundaries. On the other end we have aggressive communication which can sound like arguing, name calling, and blaming.
Most of our students will be able to identify the different types of communication they fall into. And while naming something is powerful and important work, what comes after is the real beauty of this exercise. Sometimes this conversation will lead into shame around using certain types of communication with family members or a pressure to always express assertively. I often direct this group away from naming types of communication and towards examining why we use this communication and how we learned it. Questions I often present are: “What did I need in that moment that I couldn’t express?” and “What was my safest option?” From there we can take away the stigma and look at the deeper meaning behind interactions.
As we pull the lens back even further, we can look at how our communication functions in our family system. Families each have their own rhythms and forms of expressing themselves. And much like with our students, I often hear shame creep in when talking with families about communication styles. This shame can often stem from parents feeling like they couldn’t role model assertive communication. I direct the same questions towards families as I do with my clients: “What did I need in that moment that I couldn’t express?” and “What was my safest option?” If we can set the shame aside for just a moment, we can try to piece together what may have been happening underneath the argument or examine ways that we create space for withdrawn communicators to step forward. Often times we are reacting to whatever form of communication is coming towards us. The internal questions that are often unasked in these interactions are: How do I want to receive this communication? What is my role in creating understanding rather than getting swept into another power struggle or moment of frustration? Most importantly we can look at this continuum as a cultural expression and acknowledge how certain types of communication may hold more value depending on our family’s background.
One of the main goals of the group is to identify and practice assertive communication as a gold standard. With assertiveness comes the ability to express oneself clearly, to practice holding boundaries, and identifying needs. And while assertive communication is the basis of conflict resolution and understanding, I want us all to take a moment and honor the value of other forms of communication. Each of these types of communication--withdrawn, passive, and aggressive--provide valuable insight into what our kids are experiencing.
For our kids who struggle with the crushing weight of depression, withdrawn communication can feel like a lifeline when it’s too challenging to do anything else. Passive communication can be a way that our kids test us to make sure we are in a space to help share the weight of unresolved trauma or grief. Aggressive communication can feel like an effective way to work through anger when the anger feels overpowering. The next time we hear the phrase, “Can you say that more assertively?” I want us instead to ask ourselves, “What is my child really trying to say?” and ask our kids, “What are you feeling and what do you need?”