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Building Healthy Communication and Social Connection

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Coming out of lockdown was really difficult for a lot of people. Many of us got so used to isolating, that being back out in public somehow became really difficult. It’s no question the effects the pandemic had on mental health, including social anxiety, depression, relationship stress, and other psychological conditions.

We all know that communication is key when it comes to managing healthy relationships, and yet somehow a lot of us seem to struggle at times when it comes to sharing our thoughts, emotions, and needs. Most of us were never formally trained in effective communication and end up repeating what was modeled to us by our family, community and culture. Sometimes these styles work, and other times they don't. And, unfortunately, that fantasy of living alone on an island is not the solution!

Human beings are wired for social connection. People may lack social connection in a variety of ways and it is often illustrated in scientific research by measuring it in terms of loneliness and social isolation.

The loneliness epidemic

Social connection is rated as the single most important factor when it comes to health and longevity. In their recent 2023 handbook, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community noted loneliness as an “epidemic”. It was further noted that a variety of scientific disciplines, including epidemiology, neuroscience, medicine, psychology, and sociology, come together to one similar finding: social connection is a significant predictor of longevity and better physical, cognitive, and mental health, while social isolation and loneliness are significant predictors of premature death and poor health.

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.” - Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States

Communicating for connection

How we communicate impacts our ability to build trust, feel safe, and ultimately connect with others in a meaningful way. Our communication style has the power to build purposeful connections and is imperative to success in any area of life. Therefore, it's important to first take a look at some of the most common communication styles that most people fall into.

Four types of communication

Passive Communicators

People who speak with a passive communication style have difficulty expressing themselves and tend to give in to others’ needs, often at the expense of their own needs. They are often referred to as “too nice”, and tend to suck it up and hold back their thoughts and feelings. Chronic passive communication often leads to miscommunication, latent hostility, and resentment. A passive communicator may have a hard time expressing themselves due to guilt, shame, low self-esteem, or fear of not being accepted. Although unintentional, this style carries with it subtle manipulation because they are not being genuine. They not only betray themselves, they mislead others about their needs.

You can recognize a passive communicator with the following behaviors:

  • Difficulty making eye contact

  • Inability to say no

  • Go with the flow type attitude

  • Poor posture

  • Need acceptance/to be liked

  • Porous boundaries

You may recognize passive communication through phrases like:

  • “It doesn’t matter that much.”

  • “I just want everyone to get along.”

  • “Ok, yeah, no big deal.” (when it was a big deal!)

  • “No one ever understands me.”

Aggressive Communicators

Pretty much the other side of the pendulum from Passive communicators, Aggressive communicators will make their needs known, regardless of how this may impact others. People who habitually communicate in this style in the workplace, at home, or among friends tend to dominate the conversation. They may come off as mean, arrogant, explosive, self-absorbed, and threatening. Aggressive communicators have a need for power, which at its root, demonstrates they may actually feel powerless therefore need to expand, get louder, and even manipulate others to get their needs met. Aggressive communication has been linked to a number of medical health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

You can recognize an aggressive communicator with the following behaviors:

  • Poor listening, interrupts frequently

  • Controlling, hostile, or demanding

  • Blames others

  • Stares and glares intensely

  • Frowns (#restingmeanface)

  • Criticizes, intimidates, or threatens others

  • Rigid boundaries

You may recognize aggressive communication through phrases like:

  • “It’s my way or the highway.”

  • “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”

  • “Because I said so.”

  • “Your feelings don’t matter.”

Passive-aggressive Communicators

Passive-aggressive communication seems passive on the surface but reveals a hidden resentment that comes through in subtle, indirect ways. These people tend to live in the passive lane for some time, until “boom,” something tips the scale and they can no longer hold back.

You can recognize passive-aggressive communication with the following behaviors:

  • Frequent sarcasm

  • Indirect communication

  • Words don’t align with actions

  • Facial expressions don’t match words

  • Difficulty acknowledging emotions

You may recognize passive-aggressive communication through phrases like:

  • “Fine, whatever.”

  • After saying something rude, sarcastic, or damaging, “I was only joking.”

  • “I’m fine!!”, even though visibility upset

Assertive Communicators

The assertive style of communication is an effective and healthy way to express yourself. It encourages open, honest dialogue while still considering the needs of others. People with an assertive communication style utilize the “firm but fair” approach. They are confident, well-respected, self aware, and tend to hold the most power in the room. They are leaders rather than bosses. Assertive communication styles also lead to improved mental and physical health.

You can recognize assertive communication with the following behaviors:

  • The ability to express desires and needs with confidence

  • Encourages balanced conversations in which both people have a chance to speak

  • The use of “I” statements (ex: I feel frustrated when people show up late.)

  • The ability to say no

  • Maintains good eye contact

  • Well-defined, healthy boundaries

You may recognize assertive communication through phrases like:

  • “I am responsible for my own happiness.”

  • “I respect the needs and opinions of others.”

  • “We all have the right to express ourselves respectfully and honestly.”

  • “I would love to help with that, but I have other priorities that need my time.”

It might be clear to understand why the first three communication styles could cause problems when trying to build healthy social connections and relationships. Failing to listen to others (aggressive), shying away from conflict (passive-aggressive), or the fear of expressing ourselves (passive) prevents effective positive communication.

A few things to consider

Communication styles, like boundaries, are fluid. Shifting communication styles may be necessary at times, depending on context and culture. For example, there may be times where you may need to be aggressive, or passive, when safety is compromised. Communication styles also evolve and change over time as we grow and learn from life experiences.

Connection requires conversation. Breakdowns in communication happen. We say something that suddenly sends people running, hiding, or ready to start a fight. Modeling assertive communication invites others to do the same. Practice staying in the healthy, assertive lane as often as possible and others are better likely to reciprocate in the same manner.

Communication styles are conditioned, meaning they are learned. The great news about this is that there are behavioral strategies to practice communicating in a better way and even un-learn previous patterns. Working with a therapist, taking classes, or reading books on healthy communication are great ways to begin making some changes.

Stress impacts connection and communication. The way people behave toward one another is determined by their perceptions of each other, including assumptions and biases. People who are under chronic stress tend to have stronger negative beliefs, including perceiving others as more threatening. Negativity bias impacts our impressions of other people, our decision-making, and our attention. As such, it can impact our relationships with others.

Benefits of healthy communication

Remember why you want to improve your communication style. People develop relatively stable behavior patterns. form immediate impressions about others based on verbal and nonverbal cues. Our behavioral patterns become habitual over time, and may not match our evolving thoughts and emotions. As a result, what we say may not always align with what we really mean. Here are just a few reasons why we need to connect:

There will always be certain interactions that leave us confused and uncertain, like we missed the mark in trying to convey our thoughts and emotions in words. Then there are those incredible moments that happen when our interactions bring us closer to one another. We feel mutually understood, recognized, and respected.

Meaningful social connection is what life’s all about. When we get it right, it’s a game-changer. Life becomes a little more easy and pleasant.

What’s your communication style? Has your communication style changed over time? If so, how did you do that? Let’s chat. I’d love to hear your questions and comments!


-Dr. Mini

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