Humans have evolved with a drive to develop personal relationships, as this increases our chances of survival. One important influence on our ability to form strong, successful, healthy relationships is communication; good communication brings us together and enables others to understand how we feel and helps support our psychological wellbeing.
We communicate with each other in many ways. For example, we can exchange information verbally through language, or non-verbally with body language and eye contact. This can be as simple as reading the expression on another’s face or hugging someone.
It’s easy to take the ability to communicate with each other for granted and not appreciate its importance unless there’s a problem. However, for many people and for assorted reasons, poor communication can be the source of challenges in romantic relationships, workplace culture, and overall well-being.
Below are common communication issues, how they can affect people’s mental health, and some methods for better communication in daily life.
Types of communication issues
Poor communication can affect adults and children alike, sometimes temporarily, or as a symptom of a broader mental health challenge.
The following skills that individuals often struggle with may be common workplace communication problems or evident in personal relationships. Especially in our modern workplace with remote employees and video conferencing, often employees feel a disservice without healthy workplace communication. Types of communication issues include:
Empathy is putting ourselves in the shoes of another to understand how they feel. Expressing this understanding underpins effective communication and our ability to build strong relationships. Without it, those around us do not feel understood.
Lack of assertiveness
Many people have difficulty asserting their needs. Instead, it’s quite common for people to:
- Avoid issues, refrain from delivering bad news, or share feedback for fear of stepping on someone’s toes
- Behave passively and put others’ needs ahead of their own
- Tip-over to the other extreme with aggressive communication
It’s easy to become caught up in strong, negative feelings at times, particularly in the heat of an argument. In this emotional mindset, we might react to others in ways that are unhelpful or upsetting to others. This can damage our relationships.
People are unique; we all learn and express ourselves in slightly different ways. We risk the delivery and intent of our message being misunderstood if we don’t adjust our communication patterns to match our audience, especially in the delivery of bad news. For example, if we use overly complex language when speaking to a child, they are less likely to understand.
It’s easy to make a mistaken assumption about what’s being said, particularly as we use technology and our devices to communicate more by text than by in-person approach. We tend to race ahead in our own minds without really listening, reading, or understanding the message which results in inappropriate information or sensitive information being conveyed.
Not listening actively
Active listening involves giving our full concentration to what’s being said and giving responses to show that we’re listening and understanding – this is a pillar of healthy communication. People feel invalidated when we lose attention, get distracted, or interrupt when they are talking. We also run the risk of missing details and not understanding their message.
Prevalence of communication issues
Communication issues are quite common and often go hand-in-hand with problems in relationships, work, or school. One study found that 45% of children referred to services with a mental health concern also had language or communication difficulties (1).
Communication issues earlier in life can stay with us through adulthood. A US study found that 22% of adults aged 65 and older experienced communication issues, and that this was linked to having:
- A smaller social network
- Fewer positive social exchanges
- Less frequent social participation
These factors are likely to increase our risk of mental health challenges (2).
Communication issues and mental health
Communication problems can sometimes be a part of a mental health diagnosis, including, but not limited to:
When communication problems and mental health challenges are in the same picture, it’s helpful to have added support, skills training, and therapy.
The DSM 5 recognizes social (pragmatic) communication disorder as a childhood neurodevelopmental diagnosis that impacts on communication. This condition is characterized by persistent difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. You can read more about it in this PDF released by the American Psychiatric Association.
Ways to address communication issues
If communication issues are affecting your life, consider a combination of the following to improve communication skills and open communication pathways:
- Therapy: Most therapists have the skills to address issues and have better understanding of any associated or underlying mental health challenges. Depending on the aspects of your life affected, whether you face problems in the workplace or at home, consider individual, couples, family or group therapy, where you can strengthen communication skills in a private setting.
- Support or educational groups: You don’t necessarily have to go to therapy to learn communication skills. Group communication skills, social skills and assertiveness skills training classes can be a wonderful way to learn active listening skills and other communication tools, and practice in a social, supportive setting. This is a terrific way to find effective, positive feedback with real people. Group sessions can be effective for many organizations to address these issues, so employees understand each other, families and partners improve their interpersonal communication patterns, and children learn appropriate ways to express themselves. Search online for groups running in your local area.
- Social support: Communication issues can make it difficult to ask for the social support and help you need. However, it is important to stay connected. Reaching out to friends and family for help or to talk things over is important.
- Online resources: Explore self-guided psychological and communication skills resources online if you’re encountering difficulties with different schedules. Online research can also help you broaden your world view, which can help you to communicate with people of different cultures or identities.
- Speech therapy: If communication issues are related to language problems, working with a speech therapist can be a significant help. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website is a good place to start.
- Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
Therapy for communication issues
Many therapeutic approaches can be tailored to help break down communication barriers. The best-fitting type of therapy depends on how communication problems are affecting your life. For example, think about whether it's having a broad impact on your life – are you having issues with workplace communication and team member interactions due to cultural differences or conflict resolution? Or is it limited to family interactions or relationships dealing with hurt feelings or the inability to be on the same page as a partner? It can be exhausting to worry about always choosing words carefully or a person’s message having a negative impact on the listener. To become an effective communicator, consider the following therapy types:
- Mindfulness Practices help us become more aware of thoughts and emotions without automatically reacting to them. This is particularly helpful for communication issues relating to emotion-driven reactions and difficulties with attention and listening.
- Family Systems Therapy helps all family members to better communicate and support each other.
- Couples Counseling is an excellent choice when communication issues are affecting your relationship.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a skills-based approach that teaches communication skills in addition to mindfulness, distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors and create more balanced perspectives.
- Trauma-Focused CBT can help particularly when communication issues stem from traumatic experiences.
Before choosing, consider how the different therapy types resonate with you. If you’re not sure, your prospective therapist is a great person to talk it over with and help with the decision-making.
What to look for in a therapist for communication issues
Factors to consider when choosing a therapist for communication issues include:
- Specialization: Most therapists will be able to help with communication issues. However, when selecting a therapist, consider the context of the communication issues and then look for a therapist who has specialized training in that area. For example, if there is a history of trauma alongside communication difficulties, look for a therapist with that specialization. If communication issues are affecting your relationship, look for a therapist specializing in couples counseling. Therapists often identify their specializations on their website or online profile.
- Qualifications: It can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see, with so many different provider types available. Most importantly, look for a currently licensed mental health professional. You can work with any provider type, as most therapists will have training in communication skills. That said, if you think medication might be needed, make sure you see a psychiatrist. This particular type of mental health professional can prescribe medication if necessary.
- Relationship: The trusting relationship with a therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy. The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for preliminary phone calls. This also enables you to ask about their experience, what type of therapy they suggest, and what it will be like. Try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding on a provider.
- Therapy type: Alongside this, you’ll also want to prioritize the therapy type that appeals to you, as discussed in the section above.
Sources and references
- (1) I Can Communicate blog, Speech, language and communication and mental health: a complex relationship
- (2) Palmer, A.D., et al., How Does Difficulty Communicating Affect the Social Relationships of Older Adults? An Exploration Using Data from a National Survey
- The Communication Trust (PDF)
- American Psychiatric Association, Social Communication Disorder (PDF)
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
- Cohen, N.J., et. al., Higher order language competence and adolescent mental health