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Family and Consumer Sciences

College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Barriers to Communication

While it is always best to learn "how to do it right" rather than memorize "how people get it wrong," the following list of barriers to communication may provide insight on behaviors which strain communication…and alternative approaches which could improve interaction in couple relationships.

What doesn't work and what to do about it

Criticizing - negative comments and non-verbal actions (glaring, furrowing forehead) which attack or reject the person, not the action tend to provoke a "fight" (criticize, defensiveness) or "flight" (silence, withdrawal) response

Alternatives to critical communication:

  • Speak for self rather than "at" other: "I enjoy our time to talk and realize that watching TV all night is taking that time away."
  • Try framing comments as constructive criticism: "If you could rinse dishes as you finish washing them, soap won't dry on the surface."
  • Offering a solution can focus conversation in a more constructive direction: "Perhaps we can get up at different times to avoid crowding our one bathroom."

Name-calling - labeling, projecting blame, comparing someone to an ideal leaves the receiver in a position of "being" a negative, without options to "do" something positive

Alternatives to labels:

  • Describe the situation rather than giving a person a label to live up to:

(Instead of "You're lazy" or "You care less"): "There's a lot to do here and I

need your help." (or simply appreciate what he/she does do)

  • Help your partner find a positive label: "When you're at home you do the most fun things with the kids!." (rather than focusing on his/her absence)
  • Identify the pattern in which both you and another may be stuck: "I sense that we're locked into a cycle of blame and escape. How can we work together?"

It takes two people to create a relationship, you and me. When it comes to making things work or keeping things from getting worse …it’s up to me.

Diagnosing - finding fault or analyzing establishes a problem-focus rather than a solution- or person-focus; moreover the "problem" is defined from one person's viewpoint
Alternatives to diagnosing:

  • Observation and feedback: "I don't feel right about the way things are going. I think this is what is happening…what do you think?"
  • Offer options which free and refresh: "Since it's a problem for you to be there at that time, how about…" (rescheduling, making other arrangements, finding a way to leave/arrive on time)
  • Reexamining priorities: "Is this really important enough to stress ourselves over?"
  • Praising
  • Ordering
  • Threatening
  • Moralizing
  • Excessive/Inappropriate Questioning
  • Diverting
  • Sympathizing/Placating

Source: Robert Bolton. (1979). People skills. New York: Simon & Schuster/


Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service Family Life Specialist

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