Say What? Strategies for Healthy Communication

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You speak. Your friend listens. 

If only healthy communication were that simple. But you know it isn’t. 

“Supposedly we get better at something we do every day,” says Beth Esposito, MS, LPCC-S, LSW, of Samaritan Behavioral Health. But, she adds, effective, healthy communication requires our constant attention.

“I think we’ve lost touch with the art of directly communicating with another human being,” Esposito says. “Right now, one of the barriers to healthy communication is technology. We’re constantly communicating, yet the human touch is not always there. You go to a restaurant and see a couple sitting at the same table, but they’re never looking at each other. They’re on their phones.”

Esposito offers the following strategies for overcoming common obstacles to healthy communication in any relationship – close/personal, casual or professional:

Actively Listen

When it’s your turn to listen, provide your full attention. Put your phone away, clear your mind of distracting thoughts, don’t even think about what you’re going to say next. Just listen – and maintain eye contact with your conversation partner. 

“People know you’re listening by the responses you give back to them, and the eye contact you have with them,” Esposito says. She recommends asking questions if you don’t completely understand. And paraphrasing what’s been said to confirm that you do understand.

Don’t interrupt. Allow others time to express their feelings.

Watch Your Body Language

“Body language is incredibly important when listening,” Esposito says. “If you’re nodding your head but not making eye contact, the person talking probably thinks, ‘You are hearing words, but you’re not listening to me.’”

And as you maintain eye contact, keep your arms uncrossed and lean forward to signal you’re focused on the conversation. 

“People know you’re listening by the responses you give back to them, and the eye contact you have with them,” Esposito says.

Keep Emotions in Check

“How you say something can make the difference in how others receive what you say,” Esposito says. “A lot of times our emotions get in the way of communication.”  

Be Self-Aware

Being aware of how you come across to others in conversation can help you adjust your tone to prevent relational missteps. But short of an out-of-body experience, this can be difficult. So, Esposito suggests, “It’s always good to check in with someone you trust and say, ‘Hey, how did this feel when I talked with you?’”

She explains, “People respond more to how they feel around you than your words. So, just being aware of how you impact people is very powerful.”

Make Time to Communicate

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Esposito recommends making time for unrushed, face-to-face conversation, particularly with significant others and close friends. And particularly for important conversations. That way, both parties can provide their full attention. “When we feel rushed, we don’t provide the time to really listen.”

Use ‘I’ Phrases

Speak in “I” phrases to express how you feel, rather than in “you” phrases, which can create feelings of defensiveness. “Healthy communication is speaking for yourself, not speaking for others,” Esposito says. ”You get in trouble communicating for other people.”

Know What You Want from a Conversation

Go into a conversation knowing what you want from the other person, Esposito says. And be sure you understand what the other person in a conversation wants from you. Your advice? Or just a listening ear? If you don’t know, ask.

And when you have a potentially upsetting or life-changing topic to bring up in conversation, approach with care. “Be painfully honest and share your perspective of how it feels to communicate about this difficult subject – and ask permission to share about it. You might be trying to share it at a time when the other person is not ready to receive it.” 

Practice the Golden Rule of Conversation

Esposito sums up her strategies: “Go back to that rule of thumb, treating others like you want to be treated in the sense of ‘I’m going to communicate with you in the style I would like you to return to me if possible.’” 

That is, speak with respect and give your full attention.

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.


Beth Esposito, MS, LPCC-S, LSW

President, Samaritan Behavioral Health

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