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  • James Marston

Tips For Effective Communication




Accurate communication is an important part of maintaining healthy relationships. Miscommunications can cause hurt feelings, conflicts, and allow unaddressed issues to fester.


In therapy, we often seek to make communication more effective and accurate. Part of that is understanding how people communicate and how people derive meaning from what people say.


There were some famous studies in the 1960’s that gave us a breakdown of how people receive information. Those studies (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) were generalized into a set of numbers that suggest that 55% of meaning is based in body language, 38% in tone of voice and 7% in the words we choose. Those numbers became famous and are widely quoted, and even though it’s a little bit of a misrepresentation of the study’s actual findings there’s still wisdom in it.


The words we choose are important. We can choose words that are designed to be accurate, gentle, and helpful that contain the same information as words that are accurate but harsh and hurtful. We can say, “I know you mean well, but that may not be the best decision,” or we can say, “That’s stupid and you’re stupid for suggesting it.” Or, we can say something accurate and neutral, like, “I don’t think that will work.”


In situations where the words are neutral, body language and tone of voice carry a lot of meaning. We can convey sarcasm or support with the same statement, based on our tone. We can convey anger or uncertainty with our body language.


The most accurate attempts at communication would include all three parts working together. When you try to communicate, be aware of your facial expressions, the degree of eye contact you are using, how you are holding your arms and your posture. Emotions like anger and anxiety tend to come with tension in the body–being aware of it and relaxing it can help minimize the impact of those emotions on your ability to communicate.


When considering tone of voice, be aware of volume and whether your voice is soft or sharp. Soft and quiet tones can reduce tension and defensiveness, and loud and sharp tones can increase anxiety.


When choosing your words, consider if you can choose words that are gentle rather than harsh. Consider how direct or indirect your message can be. Being too direct can increase defensiveness, but being too indirect can make it hard to understand clearly what your point is. Consider if you can phrase your message in a way that talks about yourself rather than about the other person. Saying, “I don’t like that,” is often better received than, “That’s not good.” Saying, “That makes me sad,” can be better received than, “You’re being mean.”


In order to communicate effectively, it’s best to be thoughtful and aware of all the tools at your disposal. Thoughtful communication is not only effective, it can bring people closer and strengthen relationships.

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