‘”He said, She said” … Creating psychologically informed communication to build positive relationships’
03.12.2021: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I have been reflecting on various sessions I have been involved in facilitating or supporting this week in the organisation. In particular, I have been thinking about the wider topic of communication, and how important this is in building and maintaining relationships with others. In a PIE (c.f. Keats et al, 2012), “a focus on managing relationships is perhaps at the heart of what makes a psychologically informed environment different. In this model, relationships are seen as the principal tool for change, and every interaction between staff and clients is an opportunity for development and learning” (https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/340022/1/Good%2520practice%2520guide%2520-%2520%2520Psychologically%2520informed%2520services%2520for%2520homeless%2520people%2520.pdf; p.24). However, I would argue that in a PIE organisation that whilst important, it is not just about focusing on the relationships we are forming with the homeless young people that we support; it is also about focusing on the relationships we have with our colleagues. Regardless, whatever relationship we are focusing on, the one thing that will make them ‘work’ is good communication.
I have previously reflected on the power of the language we use in a PIE in a previous blog (c.f. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/the-power-of-language-ef76959ca3bb), however this week I have been thinking more about the specific type of communication we need to build relationships. Therefore, what makes communication effective and how can we ensure our communication with others, wherever we are working within the organisation is psychologically informed? Of course, good communication occurs when we connect with another person in a manner that allows for the exchange of thoughts, feelings, and ideas, which leads to a mutual understanding between us. This sounds straightforward, and we often take the process of communicating with another person for granted, but as decades of psychological research tells us, it is far from simple! Human beings are annoyingly complex (especially for a psychologist trying to study the subject!), and the potential for misunderstanding between us is huge. After all, miscommunication is often the source of conflict, whether between individuals or even between whole countries, which in the worst case has led to a history of our species littered with examples of battles or war. Even on an individual level, communication failures can be a major source of distress and contribute to the breakdown of relationships.
The psychology of communication is therefore a huge area of research, which of course it is impossible to do justice to within this short blog. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some key points that I hope will help us to reflect upon how we communicate with others; not just with the homeless young people we support in our services, but also with our colleagues within the organisation and our external partners and stakeholders. Improved communication will build better relationships, the underpinning of a PIE, and will help us to work more effectively and collaboratively in the future, in order for us to achieve positive outcomes and work towards our strategic objective to #EndYouthHomelessness by 2037.
Psychologists have noted that there are many factors that determine whether or not a particular communication experience will be successful (Mager, 2017). There are also certain ‘principles’ inherent in the communication process that can help reduce the chance of misunderstanding and conflict. Of course, we do not always get these right! Even as a psychologist, I have not always managed to communicate effectively with either my clients or my colleagues. However, the key to good communication is the willingness to reflect upon, and repair these when needed, after all, we are all only human! I know when I am rushing to complete a task, if I am tired, stressed or frustrated with a situation; I can fail to communicate in the best possible way. For example, with past clients I have been working with therapeutically, I may have misunderstood what they have told me or with colleagues, I have not always considered their perspective when I am passionate for change. Therefore, there have been times when I have needed to take a step back, and spend a moment reflecting, apologising and reconsidering my approach to ensure that this therapeutic or working relationship can move forward positively.
Psychologically informed considerations (or principles) in improving our communication with others can include us being aware that ‘the message sent is not necessarily the message received’. Whilst we might assume that what we have said (or written) makes sense to us, it might not necessarily make sense to the other person, or even be received in the manner we intended. Our message must pass through the other person’s filtering system of personal thoughts and feelings, shaped by their previous experiences. For example, with our homeless young people who have had many past adverse or traumatic experiences, even neutral or positive statements can be interpreted in a negative manner, if that is what they are used to receiving or expect to hear from others. Moreover, if our colleagues are expecting criticism or are feeling pressured or stressed (i.e. they are in ‘threat mode’), then even positive comments can be interpreted negatively or just dismissed, as their responses might be coming from them being in a ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Thus, there is considerable space for misunderstanding between what we intend to say, what we actually say and what the other person hears. Moreover, the less conscious attention the speaker and/or the listener is paying to the conversation, perhaps if they are distracted, or the more emotionally charged the subject is, the greater this space is for misunderstanding. To manage this and ensure that the message we communicate is the same one as the other person receives, we might need to utilise a feedback process. In other words, checking that what we said is what the other person heard. We can do this by summarising information with clear, simple and concise language or asking clarifying questions, as well as monitoring the other person’s reaction (i.e. non-verbal cues) or providing written summaries of information if we are communicating face to face. This is especially helpful when the information we are trying to communicate is particularly important or significant, and whilst being more time-consuming in that moment, can avoid the consequences of miscommunication in the future.
Psychologists also highlight that communication is more than the words we use. A significant amount of communication is non-verbal (e.g. voice tone and volume, body language, facial expression). Sometimes not even speaking is actually conveying a message. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of not just what we are saying but how we are saying it. This is of course easier face to face then in written communications (e.g. text messages, emails), but taking just a few moments to review these before you send them can be time well spent. Are you accidentally shouting (i.e. using capitals in an email), using language that demands not asks or is impersonal to the receiver of the message? It can therefore be helpful to reflect before you send something, how might you feel if you received this email or text message?
We also need to be mindful that our communication conveys not just words but also feelings. As a therapist, I have heard a lot of the typical British ‘stiff upper lip’ response to the question; “How are you?” being “I’m fine”, when clearly the person I am speaking to is not ‘fine’! Thus, sometimes our nonverbal cues are more believable than our verbal ones. Consequently, when I have given space to that person (or been willing to sit with silence for a moment) I have often found that they move beyond the polite expected response and communicate something quite different, which allows us the opportunity to explore their true thoughts and feelings, and move forward more positively. It is important therefore, to understand that good communication can take time, especially when we are building relationships with others, whether with the homeless young people we are supporting or our colleagues at work.
In addition, sometimes we need to think about what our communication strategy might need to be for the person we are communicating with in that moment. If we reflect, I am sure we might communicate differently with our close family and friends than with our supervisor or work colleagues, or the homeless young people we support. This is natural. However, there are some universals such as holding compassion for the other person and being respectful. Ensuring our message is simple and clear (especially if there may be language or cognitive barriers to communication) is also helpful. Perhaps we may also need to plan our communication beforehand, especially important if we need to have a more ‘difficult’ conversation when emotions on both sides might be running high, so that we can ensure we get all aspects of the message across successfully. I would also argue that holding trauma informed principles in mind when communicating with another person (whose background you may not be fully aware of) can be helpful. For example, trying to give them control and choice in your conversations where possible, using communication to empower them and build trust in your relationship, and trying to collaborate rather than dictate to the other person.
Additional psychologically informed communication principles to build positive relationships (e.g. Goodman, 1988) can include the importance of being honest and transparent in your communication, keeping as calm and friendly as possible (again especially important when you are having difficult conversations), and using the language of ‘I’ feel / think / believe rather than ‘you make me’, the latter of which can increase the other person’s defensiveness. Rogers (1959) ‘Person Centred’ approach also highlights the importance of holding an empathic stance to the other person whilst adopting a stance of non-judgement and positive regard as much as possible. This creates the type of psychologically safe space where the most constructive communication can occur. Being psychologically informed in our communication with others means thinking that if I would not speak to a homeless young person I am working with in this manner, why would it be acceptable to speak to fellow colleague in this manner? Whilst we might not always get on with (or even like!) another person, it is critical to remain professional in our interactions with them at all times.
Most importantly, I think it is key to remember that human beings are more motivated by praise not punishment (e.g. Behaviourism — Skinner, 1920s), or to put it another way, we respond better to the ‘carrot’ than the ‘stick’. If our communication with others is always about the negative (i.e. what they are not doing) rather than the positive (i.e. what they are doing), then this can damage our relationship with them. No one wants to hear everything they may have failed at, when what they need is support to understand and learn from their mistakes. Moreover, how often do we praise others for a success however small or a job well done? Hearing genuine and specific praise from another person, particularly those in a position of ‘power’ can be very reinforcing and motivating for us whether we are a homeless young person or a staff member. It builds our self-esteem and self-competence, lifts our mood and increases our motivation (Herzberg, 1959), which can also help us to feel more positively about our relationship with the person who said it. Of course, when we are busy we can sometimes fail to say ‘thank you’ — but such small and simple communication gestures can go a long way. On reflection, who can we say thank you or offer some praise to today? Are we guilty of forgetting to do this and just assuming the other person knows we are proud of them or appreciate their hard work?
Finally, the most important aspect of psychologically informed communication is listening — after all we have two ears and only one mouth, so as a previous supervisor highlighted to me, we should try and utilise these in our interactions with others in that proportion! Listening to others allows us to get to know or understand them better, and therefore how best to communicate with them moving forward. Listening therefore underpins good communication with others, and a willingness to listen is arguably the most important starting point to any communication, even more so if and when we may need to repair any miscommunications. As the psychologist Carl Rogers notes; “when I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and go on. It is astonishing how elements, which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens’…