Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Options for Improving
Your Communication

Get more needs met
more often!

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/improve.htm

Updated  12-29-2014

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

       This article is one of a series describing effective thinking, communicating, and problem-solving concepts. The series summarizes seven learnable communication (relationship) skills that are essential for building high-nurturance relationships and resolving internal and social conflicts effectively.

      If you seek more effective communication with someone, try out the idea that you are at least half of any problems with them.

      If you're looking for suggestions on how to change another person, refocus on changing yourself (e.g. by learning to communicate differently). Doing so can improve the quality of the relationship, if you choose a mutual-respect attitude.

  Learn something about yourself with this 1-question anonymous poll

      This article is about significantly improving your communication effectiveness. It...

  • provides preparation and motivational options, and key definitions;

  • describes typical surface problems, and three interactive primary causes of ineffective communication,

  • illustrates how psychological wounds affect communication outcomes; and...

  • suggests how to improve your awareness.

       The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it, and 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

Prepare to Improve

__  Learn what you need to know about effective communication - take this quiz.

__  Say your definition of "effective communication" out loud. Then compare it to this one.

__  Name...

several adults or kids you have chronic trouble communicating with (i.e. difficulty getting your needs met), and...

any situations you have trouble communicating effectively in, like job interviews, personal intimacy, facing angry people, receiving major criticism, disrespect or praise (!); disciplining kids: and making important assertions and confrontations.

__  Imagine what your life would be like if you could consistently communicate well with each of these people and situations. I guarantee you can, if you commit to studying Lessons 1 and 2 here.

__  Imagine any minor children in your life sitting in a group looking at you. Now imagine they are grown, and have adult kids and grandkids of their own. Imagine all of these adults and kids in a semicircle around you. The youngest child speaks for the rest of the kids. S/he asks "Please - would you show us how to think and communicate really well? If you don't - who will?"

      Try answering that question out loud now. Then reflect - how would you like to answer?

      To make what follows more real and less abstract, pause and think of several people you judge to be (a) really effective communicators, and (b) very ineffective communicators. Reflect on the criteria you use to make these judgments, and bring these people along as you learn.

__  Rate yourself...

  • On a scale of one (I'm never able to think effectively) to ten (I consistently think very effectively in calm and stressful situations), rank your recent ability to think (communicate internally) in calm ___ and stressful ___ situations

  • On a scale of one (I'm never able to communicate effectively) to ten (I consistently communicate very effectively), rank your recent ability to communicate in calm ___ and stressful ___ situations.

  • On a scale of one (I'm never able to problem-solve effectively) to ten (I consistently problem-solve  effectively), rank your recent ability to resolve problems and conflicts in calm ___ and stressful ___ situations.

Would people who know you well agree with your ratings? Option - ask them!

       Premise - if you commit to studying and practicing the ideas in Lesson 2 here, you can rank yourself at least a solid 9 in each of these domains. How interested are you in achieving that for your-self and any descendents? For perspective, ~80% of site visitors who responded to the poll above  say they are "extremely interested."

 What is Effective Communication?

      Try answering this question out loud. After 45 years' study and reflection, I propose that effective (vs. "open and honest") communication occurs when each person involved clearly feels...

  • they got their current primary (vs. surface) needs met well enough (in their opinion), and...

  • they feel good enough about (a) themselves, (b) each communication partner, and (c) their process.

      Think of the last time you experienced "effective communication."  Were these two criteria clearly met? Now think of the last ineffective oral or written communication you exchanged. Were either or both criteria clearly not met? 

       In any communication exchange between two people, there are 16 possible combinations of these two criteria. Only one satisfies both criteria for both people, so in important situations, the odds of fully satisfying outcomes for two persons is just 6%!

  What Causes Ineffective Communication?

      Common "communication problems" - my partner...

  • never listens to me

  • blows up or shuts down if I argue

  • has to have the last word

  • is too intellectual (or emotional)

  • won't stay focused on one thing

  • won't say what s/he wants

  • is so illogical / "unreasonable"

  • won't talk to me

  • never apologizes

  • is always pessimistic / optimistic

  • doesn't keep her/his promises

  • gives me double messages

  • won't always tell me the truth

  • never lets me finish

  • tells me what I think and feel

  • criticizes and lectures me

  • swears and calls me names

  • keeps bringing up the past

  • never shuts up

  • won't look at me when we argue

  • jokes too much / won't take me seriously

  • makes everything sexual

  • repeats the same thing over and over

  • talks down to me  

  • will never get specific (generalizes)

  • does other things when we talk

      Complaints like these are "communication problems" - and each of them is a surface issue. Trying to correct any of these permanently is often a frustrating waste of time and energy. Discover the primary needs causing these surface problems, and seek to fill them together!

Three Primary Problems (Opportunities)

      My experience over half a century suggests that three factors combine to hinder effective communication, regardless of maturity, education, gender, and profession:

  • psychological wounds,  and...

  • not knowing...

    • descriptive words (a limited vocabulary),

    • communication basics and skills, and...

    • healthy-relationship basics.


  • chronic unawareness of personal and communication dynamics.

      You can't validate or discount this premise until you know more about each factor. Has anyone ever taught you about them? Are you teaching your kids about them yet? Our wounded, unaware society promotes ignorance of these factors so far.

      The good news: you can significantly reduce each of these three factors over time and improve your communication outcomes once you understand and admit them. The bad news: you're probably controlled by a well-meaning false self (wounded) and may be living and working in a low-nurturance environment. These may hinder you from wanting to improve the factors above. 

      The rest of this article outlines specific options for improving each factor over time.

1)  Reduce Your Psychological Wounds

      A basic premise here is that normal personalities like yours are composed of a group of talented but uninformed "subselves." Many of us who survived early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma) are strongly influenced by some of these subselves rather than guided by our talented true Self. Until that changes, our "false selves" makes effective thinking and communication difficult.

  How Inner Wounds Block Communication

      To see how inner-family (subself) communication affects your outer communication, meet Gina and Tom. Both thirty-something, they divorced conflictually several years ago. They have joint custody of their nine-year-old son Harold, and need to talk together weekly about him. Both acknowledge that "poor communications" was one reason that they separated after six years of marriage. 

      Their expensive, frustrating work with a marriage counselor and a divorce mediator didn't focus meaningfully on the two real problems hindering their communication. Both Gina and Tom came from low-nurturance childhoods, and are significantly wounded as a result. Neither knows this, though each is pretty sure "something's real wrong" with their ex mate. Each of them is also unaware of the ideas in this article. Like most average adults, they don't know what they don't know.

      Three simultaneous dramas unfold when Tom calls Gina to discuss Harold's alarming report card:

1) the dialog among his subselves ("thinking"), plus...

2) the dialog among her subselves ("thinking"), plus...

3) the verbal and nonverbal exchange between them.

Versions of these dramas have happened many times before, despite both parents feeling dissatisfied with the outcomes. They each care deeply for their son, and feel sadness and great guilt about Harold's suffering from their divorce.

      The titles in italics are different personality subselves.  The words are the subselves' "speaking" (conscious thought streams). If you're not clear on personality subselves yet, what follows will make more sense if you first read this two-page overview of inner families (like yours)!

TOM - before calling his ex-wife Gina about their son...

Catastrophizer - "Four D's! Oh, man - Harold's gonna flunk! He'll never make college, and have to struggle for money his whole life! We'll have to support him forever, and that means..."

Good Dad (Nurturer) - "Oh, shut up, Gloom King - we have to help Harold - now!"

Inner Critic - (acidly) "Really nice job, Tom. What drug were you on when you thought you could be a competent father? Now Harold's failing, because you messed up."

Shamed Boy - "See - I AM no good!"

Distracter - "Hey - a beer would taste great right now! Why don't you..."

True Self - "Not a good idea. You've already had two... We should call Gina and talk this report card over."

Good Dad and Practical Adult- "Yes, good. Do it."

Historian - "Remember the last couple of times we talked about Harold's school problems, Gina blamed me, and blew up."

Skeptic- "Yeah - we can call, but you'd better brace yourself for the usual - hysteria, accusations, and no constructive ideas."

Inner Judge (or Critic) - "What a lousy excuse for a woman and mother she is - how did you ever get involved with her?"

Practical Adult - "You'd better balance the check book before you go to bed - you bounced two checks last month, and that cost us."

True Self - "Stay focused on Harold - he needs help from Gina and all of us. Call her now." 

Tom dials her number, and she answers. Bold words are spoken, and words in italics are thoughts.

TOM (distracted by tooth pain)


Skeptic - "Hear that voice tone? No way she's going to listen now! This is a waste of time."

Peacemaker- "Easy does it, go easy, now ..."

Good Dad - "Come on, we can do this..."

GINA (weary from work, slight headache)

"Hello? Oh... Tom"

Worrier - "Oh God, what kind of problem is he going to dump on me now? "

Optimist - "Wait a minute - maybe we can have a good conversation, for a change. Maybe this time..."

"Have you seen Harry's report card?"

Analyzer - "Could it be a problem with a teacher? Maybe Harry's glasses are too weak, or..." 

"I'm kinda worried. Harry's grades have been dropping this whole school year."

Good Dad - "Sounds like good ideas..."

Practical One - "Hey, where's the money going to come from? We can't afford a tutor."

Judge - "See, there she goes taking control again. Hell will freeze before she thinks about asking our opinion. She is so self centered...

Historian and Guilty Boy - "Last time, the counselor implied Harry's problems came from our break up. She talked about parents 'like us'  needing post-divorce counseling. His low grades are really our fault..."  

"Yeh, I just read the mail a few minutes ago."

Good Mom - "Ah - Tom and I really do need to talk together about this..."

"I'm concerned too. I think he feels bad about it - he's holed up in his room now. We ought to set up a conference with his counselor, and maybe consider a tutor." 

"Well, I'm not real crazy about Ms. Richardson (the school counselor). She's got 40 kids to take care of, and I..." Judge - "See, right away, it's the 'yes but' game. I make a constructive suggestion, and Tom shoots it down with no alternatives. Why did he call me, anyway? What a jerk!"

(sarcastically) "Well Tom, what do you think we should do?"

Judge and Skeptic - "Uh huh - here we go again..."

"Gina, you know I feel he watches too much TV at your house. Why don't you cut that back, and pay closer attention to his home-work?"


Guilty One - "He's right. I really should insist Harry do his homework first.'

Weary One - "But he puts up such a stink - it's just easier just to let him watch..."

Inner Critic - "No excuse. You chose to have Harry, and you are responsible - so stop whining, and do your job!"

Shamed One - "Aagh - I am so BAD!"

Good Mom - "I'm really trying, but it's so hard, be-cause..."

True Self - "Wait - wait all of you. Calm down, so we ...!"

Chorus - "Ah, shut up, wimp!"

Scared Girl - "Something bad is going to happen. I'm gonna get hurt again!"

Amazon (Guardian) - "NO! We are not going to let him trash us again! Watch this!"

"Ah, so you think that I'm causing Harry's bad grades, because I'm a lousy Mother, huh? We're going to get into finger pointing and complaining again? Some things never change..."

Warrior (Guardian part) "You want to fight, Gina? Fine with me, you b_____. I know just how to make you back off."

Good Dad - But wait, this is about Harry ..."

Anxious Boy - "Oh no, no..."

Skeptic - "See - I told you so!"

Health Director - "Man, your tooth really hurts! You have to get to the dentist this week."

Catastrophizer - "This is bad. Gina' and her shark lawyer'll probably turn this into a tabloid court fiesta. That'll mean..."

Shamed Boy - "Dad was right - I'll never amount to anything."

Distracter - "Look, this is going nowhere. Tell her you'll call back, and get that cold beer..."

Warrior - "Oh no you don't. We've had a lifetime of backing away from controllers like her. Time to stand up and draw the line!"

True Self - "Will you all be quiet so I can think? I can't make a good decision unless you all..."

Chorus - "Yeah sure - your 'good decisions' got us into this mess! Butt out!"

<<< inner chaos / mind babble / tooth pain >>>

Paralyzer (Guardian part) "Alright, this is too much. I'm going to shut everyone down."


"Are you still there?"

      Notice what you're thinking and imaging. This three-way drama took under two minutes to happen. Similar versions had happened many times before, which conditioned these parents to expect "poor communications." How would you guess this conversation turned out?

      Think of the last conflictual conversation you had. Can you imagine your and your partner's subselves interacting like this?

      Recall the requisites for effective communication: (1) each person's primary needs get filled well enough, (2) in a way that both people feel good enough about.

      In this example of subselves affecting verbal communication...

      Neither adult's ruling subselves had begun to identify their or their partner's primary needs. Tom could have clarified "What do I need from Gina?" before he called. Conversely, she could have asked him what he needed from her when he called;

      Neither Tom's nor Gina's true Self was able to guide and direct their other subselves. One result was that each parent got distracted by the opposing agendas, thoughts, and feelings of the subselves comprising their false self.

      Neither Gina nor Tom were aware of what was happening inside themselves or between them - so they couldn't talk about their three processes or focus them as parenting partners on Harold's problems; Finally...

      Their spoken conversation was beginning to polarize into a familiar attack > defend > counterattack (1-up / 1-down) sequence. This polarity was powered by the powerful feelings of their shamed and scared Inner Kids and the narrowly-focused, reactive Guardian subselves dedicated to protecting them.

      Neither parent was aware of...

  • their respective subselves and...

  • their internal conflicts,

  • their disabled true Self,

  • their inner and spoken communication sequences, or...

  • the communication basics and skills they might have used to help each other help their son.

      From many prior experiences, neither Gina's or Tom's subselves felt respected or trusted by the other. This left a vital communication unfilled. That blocked their ability to hear each other, which made brainstorming and effective problem-solving impossible.

Net result: ineffective communication, reducing the chance that both parents could act together to assess what their son needed, and provide it. Lose-lose-lose.

      The point: communications among adults and kids are powerfully influenced by their (your) respective subselves specially in internal and mutual conflicts. Most people (like you) are unaware of this. Think of recent conversations between you and key other people at home or work.

      Can you begin to see them in a new way? When you finish here, read this example of how unseen subselves affected a real stepfamily couple and their kids and ex mates.

 A Better Way

      If Tom and Gina had each progressed on reducing their wounds (Lesson 1 in this Web site), their true Self (Capital "S") would have directed their respective inner-family processes - specially if both people had learned to practice the seven Lesson-2 communication skills.

      Their true Selves would have focused their other subselves on their unfolding communication process to keep it effective; and on trying to help their son with his many needs without getting into a toxic blaming > defending > counter-blaming spiral or lured into other conflicts.

      If you and some important people often experience communication frustrations, you can reduce them over time. You may have some of these relationship hinderances. With commitment and patience, [wound-recovery + improved communication awareness] can help you improve your key relationships. 

      Option - separate your tangle of relationship problems into separate issues, and work on re/building self and mutual respect and trust first.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect on what you just read. Imagine you are Gina or Tom, trying to communicate effectively without awareness of your many subselves.

      This illustration exists to encourage you to commit time and energy to progressing at Lesson 1 here - free your resident true Self to guide you in calm and confusing times. One major benefit among many is promoting more effective communication with the key people in your life - if you follow two more suggestions...

   2) Learn New Words and Communication Basics

      Words are like the colors on a painter's palette. The more colors and brushes an artist has, the more vivid and evocative a picture s/he can create. The more words you're fluent with, the more effectively you can express yourself - so....

 Expand Your Vocabulary

      You don't have to memorize a dictionary. You can significantly improve your communication effectiveness by gaining fluency with selected words and phrases about...

      For perspective, note that you've already acquired thousands of words - most without conscious effort. Where did you get them?  Imagine committing to learning two new words a day, or five new words a week. Can you do that?

       The challenge here is motivation to learn and practice new words. Can you imagine feeling solidly confident that you can say exactly what you mean in important situations? How often can you feel that now?

      If a false self controls you, those well-meaning subselves will probably sabotage your wanting to expand your vocabulary ("Boring!" / "Too much work!" / "Too many other things to do!"). Check your motivation:

_  I'm determined to learn a few new words every day or week now;

_  I'll start learning "pretty soon;"

_  I'm not motivated to learn new words now, tho I see the value of doing so.

Option - print any interesting articles in this Web site, and circle or hilight any words you can't describe to a typical teenager. Then use the glossaries here (links above) and/or a print or online dictionary to learn their meaning. Cement your learning by watching for chances to use the new words in your speech and writing.

      The next way to reduce crippling ignorance is to...

 Learn Communication Basics and Skills

      Despite maturity and formal education, most people (like you?) don't know what they need to know about the vital skill of communicating. To see if you need to update your basic knowledge, get undistracted, take this quiz, and review these Q&A items. If you do need to update your knowledge, study Lesson 2 over some weeks.

      Another powerful option toward more effective communication and satisfactions is to...

  Learn Relationship Basics

      Beside ignorance of communication basics and skills, most men and women (like you?) don't know they need to learn basic concepts about healthy relationships among their subselves and with other people. See if you need to learn about these by taking this quiz and studying these Q&A items when you finish this article. To expand your knowledge, take self-improvement Lesson 4 here.

      In addition to psychological wounds and ignorance, ineffective communication is also promoted by a lack of personal and social awareness.

3)  Improve Your Awarenesses

      Try saying your definition of "awareness" out loud now, and bring it along as you read...

      A powerful line in the inspiring hymn Amazing Grace is "(I) Was blind, but now I see." After five decades of studying the "Human Condition" and 29 years' personal recovery from severe psychological wounds, I now suspect that well over 90% of typical Americans - probably including YOU - are "blind" to the amazing worlds within and around them - as I have been.

      Typical adults think they're "aware," and are unaware of present-moment awareness that they could achieve. You are probably often unaware of...

  • what you [ see + think + smell + feel + sense + need ] right now;

  • the traits and dynamics of the talented group of personality subselves that control your life; and...

  • the dynamics of your relationships (needs and behaviors) with your Higher Power, other people, and Nature.

Reality Checks - pause, breathe, and thoughtfully rank your recent awareness of each of these domains from one (I'm never aware of this) to ten (I'm constantly aware of this). Notice how it feels to rank them, and what you learn. I suspect you've never done this exercise before, unless you're practicing some form of meditation.

      Now think of the adults and kids in your life. How would you rank their respective three awarenesses, most of the time? If there's a special adult or child you want to communicate more effectively with, how would you rank her or his awareness in these three areas?

      Premise - your awareness is shaped and limited by your knowledge. For example, you can't become aware of the dynamics of your subselves and who is leading them until you know about personality subselves and how they act. That's why committing to improving your knowledge of wounds, communications, and relationships is vital!


      To improve your awareness in these three domains, you'll need your true Self in charge, and to want to overcome two barriers:

  • believing that growing your awareness isn't as important as being physically active and "productive," and...

  • your hyper-stimulating social environment (TV, cell phones, PCs, iPods, the Web, advertisements...), which ceaselessly distracts you from improving your three levels of awareness.

Reality Check: Reflect and affirm your current truth: my governing subselves are...

__  extremely motivated to reduce these two awareness barriers, or...

__  they're ambivalent about or moderately interested in overcoming them, or...

__  my leading subselves are not motivated to overcome these two awareness barriers now.

      Notice the paradox - you can't commit to growing more aware until your true Self leads your other subselves, and you can't achieve that without wanting awareness. This is why people (like you?) who haven't hit true bottom often can't genuinely commit to improving their thinking and communication effectiveness over time - even tho parts of them really want to.

       If your true Self is guiding your other subselves now and is "extremely motivated" to expand your awareness, then read on. If not, give priority to patient progress at Lesson 1, and accept reduced interest in improving your awareness and communication for now  Notice (be aware of) your self-talk now...

      To intentionally increase your internal + communication + relationship awarenesses...

__  Practice this simple exercise at random times each day and night until it becomes a habit. Give special emphasis to being aware of what you feel and need now.

__  Participate in some form of reputable meditation program like Zazen or Tai Chi for several months and see what you learn;

__  Experience professional massage therapy for several months.

__  Work with a veteran awareness coach and/or spiritual advisor;

__  Experiment with keeping a daily log, journal, or "lab notebook" for several months. Julia Cameron's books on The Artist's Way are practical resources.

__  Search the Web for "awareness," "journaling," and "meditating."

__  Commit to patiently studying the communication and relationship basics above, and applying your learnings to see what results. Give special emphasis to learning and practicing Awareness skill

__  Become aware of key attitudes that unconsciously affect the quality of your communication and relationships.

__  Practice analyzing communication sequences with various people to discern your and their respective current surface and primary needs. Option - validate your guesstimates with each person where possible.

__  Experiment with...

  • periodically telling communication partners what you're aware of about...

    • yourself - e.g. "I'm aware I change the subject often",

    • them - e.g. "I'm aware that you're having trouble keeping steady eye contact with me", and...

    • the process between you in important situations - e.g. "I'm aware that when we talk about ___, we both get emotional and distracted, and neither of us gets our needs met.". Use awareness and metatalk skills as resources.

    And experiment with...

  • asking partners what they are aware of at the moment and over time; and...

  • mapping typical and important communication sequences and patterns to become more aware of your process dynamics and outcomes.

__  Identify people you feel are unusually aware of themselves and their environment, and ask them what other awareness-building options and resources they suggest.

      Were you aware of all these choices? Do they seem practical and do-able? There are probably other options you can add as you grow...

Status Check - Reflect and identify your top five or more current life priorities, as judged by your actions. Does "Work steadily at improving my thinking and communicating effectiveness" rank among them? If not - why not? Who's answering - your Self, or other subselves?

What could the rest of your life be like
if you doubled the effectiveness of
 your thinking and communicating?


      This Lesson-2 article focuses on improving communication effectiveness among people. It...

  • provides improvement-preparation options and key definitions;

  • describes typical surface communication problems and three primary problems:

    • psychological wounds,

    • ignorance (lack of knowledge), and...

    • unawareness. And the article...

  • proposes practical solutions to each primary problem.

      Once adults and older kids understand these basics and are guided by their true Self, they can help each other reduce any communication blocks over time by working at this self-improvement course.

       Note my practical guidebook for Lesson 2 - Satisfactions - 7 Relationship skills you need to know; (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed.  2010),  It integrate key communication articles and resources in this non-profit Web site.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self or ''someone else''?

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