May 8, 2022

Communication Styles in Relationships

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What’s your communication stress style? How about you partner’s? This is the seventh episode of a series on Getting Ready for Marriage. ​In this podcast episode, Elizabeth Polinsky discusses the importance of identifying your communication stress styles in oder to improve your communication. ​

IN THIS PODCAST

SUMMARY:

  • The 5 Styles of Communication.
  • How stress changes how we communicate. 
  • Importance of identifying your communication stress style. 
  • The importance of authentic, straightforward, and congruent communication. 

1. Why I am doing this series on Getting Ready for Marriage:

I had a wedding photographer reach out to me asking me to provide some tips for couples getting married. I created an entire checklist for her with the things I think are foundational for getting ready for marriage and starting off your marriage on the right foot. If you want the checklist, you can download it here!

2. Recent story about communication styles in my marriage: 

My husband is about to start workups for deployment and we went on a trip with some friends to Charlottesville Virginia. We had a super great time! There was one night were I was working on some stuff on my computer, and all the sudden I looked up and he was no longer right next to me. It turned out that he had gone out to the hot tub with some of our friends and didn’t tell me or invite me. While this may not be a bog deal for everyone, it made me really angry that he didn’t invite me. This is because deep down it triggered emotions and thoughts that maybe he didn’t want to include me or that I wasn’t even a thought to him. These were painful thoughts and emotions for me which then led me to getting really angry and blaming him. And this is partly because blaming is my communication stress style. 

Once a human being has arrived on this earth, communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships she or he makes with others and what happens to each in the world.”

Virginia Satir, 1988

The 5 Communication Stress Styles in Relationships

3. The Theory Behind the 5 Communication Stress Styles in Relationships

These styles come from Virginia Satir who was the mother of family therapy. Her whole thing was that communication is what determines the type of the relationships we have! Her basic idea was that we all react to stress and especially threats to our self-esteem. This is what happened in the above example with my husband and the hot tub–it made me feel that I wasn’t wanted and wasn’t worth thinking about.

This is just an example of how something could be a threat to someone’s self-esteem. Although the threat, or the painful thoughts and feelings, will vary from person to person. Threats to self-esteem could involve feelings of shame, guilt, rejection, fear, low self-esteem. 

When there are threats to self-esteem, people react with one of the communication stress styles: blaming, placating, being super-reasonable, or distracting. These are ways that we protect ourselves from threats to self esteem. They are coping skills to try not to feel so insecure. They all relate to the question of “am I going to be accepted or rejected in this relationship? will I be seen as not good enough or unwanted?” They are coping styles for the fear of insecurity or the painful feelings that come up when rejected or unaccepted. Often these are coping skills that people learned in childhood that they get carried on into adulthood. However, they can become a problem in marriages. The final style is called the congruent style which is the one we all want to strive for.  

[These styles] are like a mask that we wear to try to coverup the feelings of insecurity and to try to not feel so insecure”

Elizabeth Polinsky

4. Communication Style 1: Blaming 

  • On the Outside: Blamers tend to be very critical, complain a lot, and tend to find fault in other people. They often don’t take responsibility for themselves, what they are doing m feeling, or what they want in relationships. 
  • On the Inside: they are pretty unhappy, feeling lonely and unlovable. 
  • How the Coping Skill Developed: In childhood they felt their needs would not be met by other people and so they coped by blaming, going on the offense, so they will hopefully come meet my needs. This is how they cope with the fear of being unloveable and that their needs won’t be met.

5. Communication Style 2: Placating 

  • On the Outside: This is your people pleasers. Often say yes, don’t provide alternative options, and avoid conflict at all costs. 
  • On the Inside: They often feel helpless and worthless. That is the threat to self-esteem on the inside for them. This is because their self-esteem, self-value, and self-worth come from other people. They want others to see them as valuable and to want them. So they people please, go along with what others want or what they think others will want, and hold feelings on the inside. This coping skill is to avoid the risk of disapproval. Because of this it is hard for them to express anger. Often times they are working really hard mentally to suppress emotions which can lead to depression.  
  • How the Coping Skill Developed: They grew up with a lot of fear of disapproval in their families. They coped in their families by keeping the peace, going a long, and trying to either not be noticed or not be a problem for anyone. Alternatively, they might try to be the golden child, perfect, being whatever they think others want them to be.  

6. Communication Style 3:  Super Reasonable

  • On the Outside: I think of a computer with this style. They are calm, cool, collected, and almost emotionless. They will cite a lot of facts. They really don’t like making mistakes or being wrong. They have very good memories for what other’s have done wrong. This part is different from the blamer because there is no heat from the anger; instead it is expressed from a more emotionless stance. People might describe this person as cold, not empathetic, and maybe even robotic.
  • On the Inside: They are very disconnected from their emotions. They are uncomfortable with emotions in general–both  their own emotions and other peoples emotions. They might even view emotions as dangerous and something to avoid. So they cope by going to logic. They are often longing for justice and fairness and to be accepted and to be seen as good. There is a fear of being seen as imperfect or lacking or not good enough in some way. They want to know they belong and are loved. 
  • How the Coping Skill Developed: They often grew up in families that conveyed that they weren’t good enough. To cope with the feeling of not being good enough or being found as lacking, they tried to become perfect. Similar to people pleasing in that they want to be seen positively; but instead of trying to make people happy, they become very detail oriented and logical to make sure everything is done just right, Then there is no argument for someone to say they did it wrong. That was how they could gain acceptance in their family to prevent rejection. 

7. Communication Style 4: Distracting / Irrelevant Style

  • On the Outside: This is very talkative, all over the place, and erratic. Sometimes they are out of touch with reality. They might avoid eye contact and not respond to questions directly. Instead they might make a joke to change the subject, avoid responding, or randomly change the subject. 
  • On the Inside: They feel distrustful and worried. They often think that if they ignore the problem it will go away. There is a lot of fear about how the person will react if there is a problem. They navigate the conversation away from the problem by either changing their emotional experience or getting them on a different topic. 
  • How the Coping Skill Developed: This is a less common style, but in their families conflict was not a safe thing. So the only way to cope was to avoid problem, try to get the person to focus on something else, or try to  get them to not be angry so they could feel safe. 

8. Communication Style 5:

The Congruent Communication StyleThe above 4 styles are styles that come out when someone is under stress and especially when they have feelings of insecurity that are impacting their self-esteem. You want to know what your stress style is and what your partners stress style is. Virginia Satir and her team of researchers estimated that about 50% of people are placaters, 30% are blamers, 15% are super-reasonable, and 0.5% are distracters. That leaves about 4% of people communicating in the congruent style or the leveler style. The congruent style is what we all want to strive for. In this style, people are not using one of the other 4 styles. Instead, in the congruent style the individuals thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all match and are in-sync. This different than in the other 4 styles because in the other 4 styles the person feels something but is doing or saying something different. In order to be congruent in your communication and have you feelings and behaviors match, you have to be able to feel your feelings. This can be very challenging for people. You have to let yourself feel your feelings, then share them with others in an authentic and straightforward ways. 

Ultimately we want couples to be able to feel their feelings, and share them in authentic and straightforward ways; especially when they are handling conflict, trying to confide in each other, or when they are trying to solve problems together. “

Elizabeth Polinsky 

ACTION STEP:

See if you and your partner can identify you communication stress styles. Just knowing you styles will help you prepare for marriage. Being able to identify them and communicate about them will help you navigate when they come up in marriage. It will make it easier to recognize when it is happening and you both will know that it is stemming from stress and when something it triggering you sense of self-esteem. If you find that you need help woking on communicating in  congruent way and changing you stress style of communication, consider working with someone who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) or who is a Certified Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). 

References: Davies, M. (2019, March 21). Four stress communication styles. Medium. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://medium.com/@mattdavies.org/four-stress-communication-styles-b804de9f5c6 Gehart, D. R. (2014). Mastering competencies in family therapy. Belmont, CA: Brooks-Cole, Cengage Learning.

Liz’s Useful Links: 

Podcast Sponsor: The Relate Assessment is the most comprehensive relationship assessment in the world and is based on 10 predictors of marital stability. It’s supported by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and is the one my husband and I used during our premarital couples counseling. To get 20% off the assessment, go to https://relateinstitute.com/ and enter “POLINSKY20”.

Thanks for listening!

     

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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.

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