Over the years, I’ve learned how important both verbal and nonverbal communication is in a relationship. Healthy communication, then, requires a new blueprint for those who have experienced childhood abuse. Since the early days of my counseling practice, I have educated clients on my Twelve Steps to Healthy Communication, which I use to help people learn to recognize and avoid faulty communication patterns in relationships.
1.Approach your interactions with yourself and others with an attitude of openness and gentleness. Whether you are dealing with only yourself or with other people, first, beware of the danger of negative patterns of hostility, sarcasm, cynicism, or criticism. These poison your interactions before they’ve even begun. Second, avoid being overly deferential or simply telling people what they (or you) want to hear. The first is not gentle and the second is not open.
2. Don’t immediately assume you’re right. Having an opinion is fine, but so is holding that opinion until you’ve had a chance to hear different sides of the issue. This applies to handling conflict with as well as talking to yourself. For example, don’t assume you’re right if you believe you’re worthless. How you feel about an issue or situation should absolutely be factored in, but please be aware that other information needs to be included for you to come to a right conclusion.
3. Speak the truth to help, not harm. Healthy communication requires truth-telling. Yet the truth needs to be presented as a pathway to deeper understanding. Helping truth opens that door; harmful truth too often slams shut the door to understanding.
4. Concentrate on what to say more than how you feel. Be aware of what you are saying, and the emotional intensity you feel while saying it. Intense, negative thoughts and emotions can impact others. Consider writing down thoughts. Then, later, you can read through them and decide how best to present them.
5. Be aware of different perspectives. What is obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Life experience, cultural markers, age, and gender all play a role in a person’s perspective. Go slow; take your time to explain or clarify. Neither of you are at fault or incompetent; you just don’t understand each other yet. Be patient and you will.
6. Be aware of different opinions. People of different perspectives can come to the same conclusion, but not always. Childhood abuse, especially psychological abuse, can make tolerating different opinions challenging. In the face of different opinions, some people will automatically capitulate, discounting their own opinion as less important than another. Other people will automatically attack, vigorously defending their own opinion as more important than the other. Healthy communication allows for the possibility of agreeing to disagree.
7. Take control of your part in the conversation. You cannot control the other person, no matter how hard you try. However, you can influence them. One way you can influence the other person is by how you choose to communicate. Model a healthy, positive presentation, and perhaps you will influence the other person to at least try to do the same.
8. Interrogate your motivation. A background of childhood abuse can create a well of frustration and discomfort, along with other negative emotions, that you may be tempted to vent onto others.
9. Acknowledge the control of the other person. When you are dealing with another person, the only person you have control over is you. You cannot make the other person love you more or treat you better or give you what you need. If they don’t love you more or treat you better or give you what you want, you are not responsible.
10. Seek to understand the other person. Healthy communication involves two-way communication, which isn’t about word count as much as how each person’s words count with the other.
11. Admit when you’re wrong. Don’t admit to being wrong when you’re not. Abusive messages in childhood can cause you to assume blame when no blame is warranted, so you’ll need to be aware of that trap. However, some people have an aversion to accepting any blame because the punishments meted out in childhood were excessive. They learned to admit nothing for fear of intense retaliation. In healthy relationships, admitting you’re wrong allows the other person to forgive and move on, which means you can as well.
12. Do what you say. Being accountable for what you say allows you to live honestly with yourself and others. Those who grew up doubting their ability may say they will do something, only to have fear derail any efforts to follow through. Those who grew up with a pattern of lying and broken promises may have picked up the habit. My advice is not to promise lightly, and always follow through.
If you or a loved one is struggling with past abuse, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help. Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues, and bringing healing to the whole family. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.