I believe one common reason for the stress people experience is due
to chronic feelings of being misunderstood. Whether the actual problem
being discussed in psychotherapy is depression, anxiety, childhood
events, addiction, couples or parenting concerns, job distress or a
variety of other situations, much of what I listen to seems to be a
question of not feeling “heard” or understood by other people.
Why is it so hard? Often we are just asking for simple things or
relating ordinary thoughts—and someone else (seems to) hear something
totally different. It seems even worse when it comes to talking about
very sensitive needs, concerns, or requests to another person to change a
What makes talking to other people so challenging? Shouldn’t it be
easy to just ask somebody what they want or tell them what we need or
are thinking about? The reasons sharing information about ourselves is
so difficult are complicated, but there are things we can do to improve
the likelihood of understanding others and being understood and
responded to ourselves. Here are a few of the most obvious (but, good
communication is far more complex and delicate than this list would
- Be clear about what you want to say, then put it into as direct a
statement as possible. Avoid long, round-about discussions that might be
difficult for someone else to follow.
- Repeat in your own words what you believe you heard the other person say to you.
- When making a complaint to someone, focus on how the situation has
affected you. Avoid blaming and use “I statements” and whenever
possible, offer an alternative solution.
- Be respectfully honest—don’t leave the other person guessing what
you are trying to say by merely providing hints of your concerns.
- Listen to the speaker with all your attention—avoid thinking ahead to what you want to be saying next.
The simple idea of putting yourself into the shoes of your
conversational partner may be the single most important skill we can
learn. It is tempting to believe that we know what the other person
“really” means when he or she is speaking—especially a person we know
well. However, if we fail to check out our assumptions directly with
that other person, we run the risk of committing the most dangerous of
communication errors—one that I believe underlies more long-term
disagreements and misunderstandings between people than any other kind.
Assuming we “know” what another person thinks or feels is likely to
lead to continuing difficulties, whereas clarification generally opens
things up to understandings and trust that both speakers are being
These are key areas to explore in family and couple therapy.
Well-meaning, caring people feel stuck in efforts to change old ways of
being together, and can’t shift to new patterns because of old habits of
Consider therapy if you think that you could use improvement in ways
that you and people you care about communicate with each other.
Copyright Kathi Whitten 2008