The Secret to Bridging Communication Gaps

We've been told that assertive communication is the best way to get our ideas across. But what if our assertiveness causes hurt feelings or misplaced frustration? The Savvy Psychologist explains how to navigate different communication styles, plus gives tips on the most powerful communication tool of all - listening!

Jade Wu, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #343
The Quick And Dirty

Being assertive tends to be the most effective communication style. But sometimes "assertiveness" is misunderstood as aggression. Next time you need to have a difficult conversation: 

  1. Consider timing and context.
  2. Layer your directness with graciousness, empathy, and vulnerability.
  3. Listen with a relational style, where you prioritize understanding the other's feelings instead of trying to critique their logic or solve their problems. 

Recently, a Savvy Psychologist listener named Michael H. from Ohio contacted me with a question about communication styles. He writes:

“I recently fell out of a relationship and during the breakup when my partner told me that my assertive communication style often made her feel guilty, I felt terrible that my words made her feel bad about herself ... I thought being direct and honest with my feelings was for the betterment of the relationship, but only now do I see that I failed to properly bridge the gap between our communication styles. While it breaks my heart knowing I cannot go back to fix things between us, how I can better prepare myself for partners down the road?”

First of all, I want to say to Michael: I’m sorry to hear about your breakup, but I can tell that your soul-searching and openness to growth will be wonderful assets in future relationships. Thank you for your very thoughtful question!

Second, I must say that this question really stumped me at first. If you’ve listened to the Savvy Psychologist podcast before, you know that I’m all about assertive communication, which means to express your feelings and needs honestly and directly. It’s one of the most important skills we therapists teach for improving relationships. There’s a generally acknowledged belief that, if we could all learn to be assertive, instead of passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive, there would be a lot less misunderstanding, resentment, and unnecessary conflict.

But Michael has a really good point. What if being assertive misses the mark? What if communication styles don’t match between two people? What if not everyone responds positively to what we think is assertiveness?

After some research and much reflection, I think I’ve got a few good answers for Michael and anyone else feeling stuck in unproductive communication patterns with an important person in their lives. And these include one answer that seems obvious now, but I really hadn’t expected to find. Let’s dive in:

Tip #1: Different relationships call for different communication strategies

One therapist mantra that supersedes even the “assertiveness is good” rule is this: Flexibility is key.

Just like a fluffy bejeweled unicorn costume might dazzle at an EDM concert ,but not so much at a job interview, communication strategies need to be tailored to the occasion.

In most situations, assertive communication is a good bet. Whether you’re trying to solve a conflict at work, figure out the chore wheel, or let your partner know that they have hurt your feelings… being clear and honest helps to avoid misunderstandings and allows you to be true to yourself. On the other hand, being passive can lead to you feeling resentful because you didn’t get what you need, while being aggressive tends to push people away. And being passive-aggressive just leaves everybody feeling annoyed and unfulfilled.

But timing matters. And when the timing is bad, one perfectly good option is to not say anything at all. If you see that your partner is extremely upset right now, they might not be able to hear your assertive communication, however honest and authentic it might be. Wait for the emotional temperature to cool before you dive into the deep end.

Context matters, too. Let’s say you’re upset about some insensitive thing your manager said. Going straight over her head to her boss might land poorly, even if you’ve phrased your assertiveness well. Now you’ve embarrassed someone who could have become your ally if only you’d spoken to them first.

In other words, it’s not just how you say it. It’s when and in what situation you say it. The best way to keep on track is to ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve with this assertive communication? Is now the best time and is here the best place to achieve that goal?”

It’s not just how you say it. It’s when and in what situation you say it.

The great thing about communication is that it’s an ever-evolving thing in a relationship. Things said can’t be unsaid. But you can always make amends or practice different phrasing.

Tip #2: You may not be coming across the way you intended

Direct and honest are good. Both are important parts of being assertive. But these core elements need some support … from compassion, vulnerability, authenticity, and graciousness. See if you can tell the difference between these two sentences:

  • "You’re being passive-aggressive and it’s not helping the situation."
  • "To be honest, I’m feeling a little confused and frustrated because I can’t tell what’s on your mind. Could you help me understand?"

Why is the second sentence more palatable? Well, if someone is being passive or passive-aggressive, it might be because they’re feeling vulnerable, threatened, insecure. And if you can help them feel safer, they’ll be more willing to talk openly. Here’s how:

  • Speak about your experience (“I noticed,” “I feel,” “I wonder”) instead of labeling the other person (“You’re acting like a …”).
  • Make sure they know that you’re on the same team, and that they matter to you.
  • Be gracious. Be ready to admit your role in the conflict, and make sure to give credit to the other person’s efforts.

Tip #3: Listening styles matter, too

This is the real secret to leveling up your communication style, no matter whom you’re interacting with. Often, when we think of communication styles, we think only of how we speak. But communication is a two-way street. It’s not just about what comes out of our mouths. It’s about what comes into our ears. That’s why being a good listener allows a salesperson to sell more stuff, and makes a therapist good at helping people gain insight.

Have you ever been part of a conversation, or watched one happening, where what’s coming out of one person’s mouth is clearly not what the other person is hearing? Is that the speaker’s fault, or the listener’s?

Communication is a two-way street. It’s not just about what comes out of our mouths. It’s about what comes into our ears.

We often don’t acknowledge that the listener has some of the responsibility. That’s because the listener’s listening style -- their attitudes, motivations, biases, goals -- affects whether the message gets lost in transit. When you’re knitting a scarf and hear someone say, “What are you doing?” You might hear, “Stop that, you’re ruining it!” or “Wow, that’s a cool technique,” depending on whether you’re feeling defensive or proud of your skills.

So, minding our listening styles is just as important as minding our speaking style. Here are some common listening styles:

  1. Task-Oriented Style. The focus is on what action needs to be taken. You are mostly listening for concrete information about how to solve a problem or complete a task. If you have this style, you might get frustrated when someone doesn’t “get to the point” quickly or spends time talking about emotions or abstractions.
  2. Critical Style: The focus is on dissecting and critiquing the speaker’s message. Someone listening with this style is evaluating whether they trust the speaker (e.g., a politician), perhaps trying to find holes in their logic or inconsistencies in their claims.
  3. Analytical Style: The focus is on understanding complex information. Listening to a professor’s lecture, for example, requires this style. You are trying to gather and make sense of new information. This style is patient and methodical.
  4. Relational Style: The focus is on empathy, on trying to understand the speaker’s emotions and perspective. When listening with this style, you’re not judging the speaker for the soundness of their logic, or trying to glean instructions. Instead, you’re prioritizing personal connection in the moment.

Again, flexibility is key. If you’re the quarterback and your coach is calling a play with ten seconds left on the clock, you better be in task-oriented listening style -- just know what you’re supposed to do. If someone’s trying to recruit you into a cult, you might want to be in critical listening style before selling off your possessions and following them into the woods.

But in daily life, when we get into miscommunication tangles with our closest friends and family, your best bet is always to start with the relational style of listening. If your partner just got home from a rough day, they probably want your empathic ear more than your problem-solving instructions. If your friend feels slighted by something you said, listen with a relational style first to understand where they're coming from, instead of trying to “catch” them being irrational. When in doubt, listen to the other’s perspective and feelings, because when we listen for action items or logical inconsistencies, that’s what we pay attention to, at the expense of compassion. And it’s never too early in a conversation to have compassion.

So my challenge to you today is to notice your own listening styles. Are you flexible depending on the situation? Do you gravitate towards one versus another? Do some people in your life bring out certain listening styles in you? Are there cultural influences on your listening or speaking style?

Remember not to be judgmental as you consider these questions. Nobody’s perfect, and there’s no such thing as perfect communication anyway. The great thing about communication is that it’s an ever-evolving thing in a relationship. Things said can’t be unsaid. But you can always make amends or practice different phrasing.

And of course, you can always sit back and just listen.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.