Communication Tips for Family Members

July 20, 2015

For Family Members/Mental Illness and The Family

Active listening skills are not exclusive to clinicians.  In fact, one of the most helpful things family members can do for their loved one is to practice active listening.  Oftentimes, individuals with mental illnesses believe, through their life experiences, that they do not have a voice.  One of Guardian Behavioral Health Foundation’s core objectives is to give those individuals a voice in society.  This starts within the family unit and spreads outward into the community.  When family members actively listen and communicate with one another, they open the door for change and new experiences – but it is not easy.  Even trained professionals can make mistakes that lend themselves toward unhealthy communication.  The following are common mistakes to avoid:

  • Interrupting
  • Focusing on what you are going to say, and what you are feeling rather than what the other person is actually saying
  • Interrogating, rather than interviewing
  • Considering words as the only form of communication – missing out on key messages in the form of body language, affect and eye contact
  • Offering a solution before having all of the information
  • Using absolute terms such as always, never, forever, all, etc.
  • Disregarding cultural background – not taking into consideration and respecting/interpreting communication in a cultural context
  • Confronting
  • Using double-barreled questions – Simply put, one question at a time. When we say “Did you talk to Karen? Are you upset?  What happened?” you can send mixed messages and often come across as interrogating and pressuring the person
  • Trying to control the conversation
  • Pushing the person to go beyond what they are capable of doing in the moment
  • Using words like should, could have, would have, etc.
  • Using clichés
  • Closed or confrontational body language

By avoiding some of these common communication patterns, you can open the door for healthier, positive exchanges.  Active listening combines talking and listening skills so that the other person feels understood. In turn, they are encouraged to express themselves further. The following are some terms and skills that you can use to practice active listening with a loved one:

  • Hearing – paying attention to the meaning, tone, and feeling attached to the words
  • Observing the nonverbal communication conveyed through eye contact and body language
  • Consistently encouraging the other person to continue speaking (i.e. nodding, mmhmm, go on, tell me more, etc.)
  • Reflecting – paraphrasing the other person’s statements and identifying the feelings they are experiencing as a form of acknowledgement
  • Seeking clarification – when you ask the other person to elaborate or re-phrase, it sends the message that you really want to understand. For example, if a person said, “I just can’t take it anymore”, you might respond by saying something like: “when you say that you just can’t take it anymore, what do you mean by that”
  • Summarizing – Going over what was said during the conversation so that both you and the other person are clear.
  • Being consistent – Your body language should be congruent with your verbal communication so that you are reinforcing rather than confusing the message. For example, saying that you are open to talking, but not making eye contact and having a closed posture with arms crossed sends a mixed message – your verbal and non-verbal communication signals contradict each other.

It can be difficult to simply listen without judgement, assumption or giving your opinion on what “should” happen.  This is especially difficult when our loved ones are struggling and we want to help. Sometimes people just need to be heard.  Unfortunately, we live in a society that perpetuates mental health stigma, marginalizing a portion of our community that needs us the most.  When we take the time to listen, to really listen, to what someone is communicating, we are letting them know that they have a voice.  We are telling them, without saying a word, that they matter.  It could make all the difference.