Dear Barb – Learning to communicate

Dear Barb,

I seem to have a lot of difficulty maintaining relationships. As long as I can remember, I have had problems with my parents and my siblings. Then, when I began dating, my relationships all seemed to end after a few months. I never saw this as a problem within myself, but now I’m beginning to see a pattern. I have just met a man and I don’t want this relationship to end like the previous ones. People have told me that I’m very defensive and difficult to communicate with. Can you help me to become a better communicator?

Debbie in Ottawa

Hi Debbie. Effective communication is vital for the success of any relationship and you have taken an important step by accepting that you may be partially responsible for the friction in your relationships.

There are several barriers to successful communication. One is defensiveness, as you mentioned. If you are on the defensive, you will perceive others as trying to attack you. Therefore, you will feel the need to defend yourself and always be on guard, even though this most likely was not the other person’s intention. As well, our reactions are influenced by our past experiences. For example, if you grew up in a home where dishonesty and lying were ongoing issues, you may see dishonesty where it does not exist in your present relationships. This can result in a loss of trust, and if there is no trust, a relationship cannot survive.

Nonetheless Debbie, all is not lost, there are steps you can take to improve your interactions with others. Successful communication begins with listening to what the other person is saying. Many people don’t really listen to what others are saying because they are too busy planning what they are going to say in response. Take the time to hear and digest the words rather than jumping to conclusions. Carefully consider what you want to say in response. Try to choose words that are going to convey the exact message you intend.

Also, consider what the consequences may be to what you are saying. Are your words going to cause the other person to react negatively or become angry? If this is a possibility, are you sure this is the desired outcome? In addition, watch for nonverbal cues. If you notice the person you are talking to backing away, crossing their arms in front of them, or averting eye contact, think about what you are saying. You are most likely offending the person in some way, as they no longer want to hear what you are saying. If this is not the response you were looking for, perhaps at this point you could try to explain what you meant to say.

Finally Debbie, the best advice I can give you is to take your time, pick your words carefully and make sure they relay your intended message. At first, you will have to select your words carefully, but eventually this will become second nature and ultimately you will find your relationships improving.

E-mail your questions to Some submissions may be edited for length or to protect confidentiality: your real name and location will never be printed. This column is for entertainment only. The author is not a professional counsellor and this column is not intended to take the place of professional advice.