Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

We Need to Talk: 6 Steps to Better Communication

we-need-to-talk.gifIn a recent job interview, I was asked, “How would you get your client to see things your way?”


I said, “By seeing things his way first.”

The associate looked a little confused, so I continued.

“You aren’t going to get anywhere if you don’t listen first, right? You can’t make him come around to your plan, if you don’t understand the purpose and intention behind his plan.”

In their insightful book, “We Need to Talk: Steps to Better Communication,” Paul J. Donoghue, PhD and Mary E. Siegel, PhD discuss how a few tweaks in how we approach difficult conversations can save relationships. Whether it be confrontations between spouses, parents and children, work colleagues, or friends, knowing a few basic skills of expressing ourselves can lead to safer, closer bonds between everyone involved. I’ve excerpted the following steps from chapter fourteen, entitled “Communicating Effectively.”


Step one: stop to reflect. 

Per the authors: “You must be clear within yourself first if you want to have a chance of being transparent to others. Effective communication with others relies on successful communication with yourself.” This is an exercise in stepping back to come up with a plan before you open your mouth.

Step two: know your intentions. 

This is not as easy as it sounds. So often we speak not knowing what we truly want. We think our intention is one thing–for example, getting our parents to exercise–when, in reality, the deeper intention is to express our overriding concern about our parents’ health, and for them to know that their health decisions affect us.


Step three: start by saying “I.” 

I learned how to use “I” statements back in eighth grade, when my mom made my sisters and me attend groups for children of alcoholics. The great thing about “I” statements is that you can pretty much say anything you want to, because you’re keeping the focus on you, and you have the right to express your needs, perceptions, intentions, beliefs, and thoughts. By beginning your statements with “I,” you prevent unfair accusations.

Step four: say what you are feeling. 

“I” statements aren’t effective if the pronoun isn’t followed by the word “feel” or something equivalent. This is easier for some more than others. If you are not accustomed to this way of talking, the authors suggest start with basic adjectives like “good” and “bad,” or spatial terms like “close” and “distant.” Like a foreign language, it may require some practice.


Step five: identify your perceptions. 

A perception is the reason for your feeling. If you were an attorney, you might call it Exhibit A. Because, in most cases, you need to provide some rationale or justification for your feeling. Donoghue and Siegel explain: “Your feelings are not governed by another’s behavior but by the way that you interpret that behavior. You have every right to your emotions and to your perceptions. But good communication requires that you accept that YOUR feelings are based on YOUR perceptions.”

Step six: expressing your perceptions. 

The final step often involves using the word “when,” so that you can direct your feelings and perceptions to a specific moment, which improves your chances of being heard and understood by the other person.


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  • Jeanne

    Dear Therese,
    This is one of your best! I like your opening statement: “See things his way first.” So often we are so full, to the pointing of bursting, with how we feel or think, that we almost forget that there is more than one person in a conversation, ans that s/he has his/her own way of perceiving. God bless you for being here first thing every morning to help us put things in perspective. Jeanne

  • Kathy

    Could you add ‘divorce” to your column? I had a husband (and I know its hard on him)divorce me after 28 years of marriage and six years of being sick. He is type A and I just realized is a narsisist (duh!)
    He has been so mean and hateful for the last 3 years. He thinks I choose to be this way and he also thinks I can ‘snap’ out of it so he has taken the really, really!”tough love”routine and he has includd our 19 and 22 year old daughters in. I’m definatly not saying I havent got ‘out of hand’ at times but its been one week maybe three times a year – too much for him because I’m usually angry with him and he turns his back and ignores me.The feeling of beibg disnissed is awful. Also I have no support system or therapist because he always talked me out of it. (guess I’m a wimp)I counted on him for everything because my friends didn’t want to hear anything and stopped calling about 4 years ago – I know I probably counted on them too much because of my husbands actions. His mom is a counsler and she has told him to just ignore me or tell me to shut up or hang up and THATS when we aren’t arguing – were discussing settlement and I have a question and he gets silent, says something mean and hangs up.
    I’m at a loss.

  • Afifi

    It is a great article on communication skill. I congratulate you! I am going to share it with some friends with your permission, please. I wish to hear more often on these subjects. I see our great need for good, open, transparent communication, whether with family members, friends, colleagues or even government officials on high levels. Maybe with your writings and opening up communication to public we can make a difference. I also believe in feedback. Communication is two ways!

  • marymargaret

    I feel motivated to buy that book!
    Thank you, Therese..

  • Lori Madsen

    This is great. I majored in Interpersonal communication in my undergraduate work, and if more people understood the first principle alone, they would be able to save a lot of trouble in their relationships.
    I would even go one step further. Instead of saying “I, I, I, even if it is followed by feel, I feel this, I feel that, it’s usually followed by you. Example: I feel you don’t do this, instead of saying I feel sad, and letting the partner ask why. Even better, when you see an argument coming on, why not say, “how do you feel”? Or please tell me what your take on this situation is…. THEN JUST ZIP YOUR MOUTH SHUT, AND OPEN YOUR EARS. This is the key. People say too much, they want to be heard more than they want to hear. Just try this a time or two and see what happens.

  • jenna

    Recently I found some pictures of my husbands ex and I had no idea of how to really ask him about it. This article really gave me more encouragement of how to be effective in discussing things with him. Thank you.

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