Managing Conflict in Relationships​

Barriers to effective communication

Communication skills allow members of a family to ask for what they want, to say ‘no’ when appropriate, and to express their feelings in such a way as to achieve their goals while maintaining the dignity of the other person in the interaction. These skills are also important in dealing with interpersonal conflict effectively. Certain things sometimes obstruct effective communication, including lack of skill, negative thoughts, strong emotions, indecision and the environment.

Lack of skill

People learn social behaviours by watching someone else do them first, practising them and refining them until they can be used to obtain good results. To be effective communicators we need to learn the skills (see below).

Strong emotions

Strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, frustration and guilt often interfere with using effective communication skills and can often drive ineffective interactions.


Ambivalence about what we want to do interferes with our ability to be clear and assertive in interpersonal interactions.


Aspects of the environment within which interactions occur can interfere with effective communication. Such aspects include significant levels of stress or obvious aggression.

Basic communication skills

Communication is a two-way process between a sender of information and a receiver of information. To be effective, communication involves the use of four skills:

  1. Levelling
  2. Listening
  3. Validating
  4. ‘I…’ statements


Effective communication can only occur when both parties know all the relevant information (thoughts, feeling and facts). It is wrong to expect others to know what is on our minds. Misunderstanding and conflict commonly arise because one party does not know important information. Levelling means giving the other person information about
your thoughts and feelings, rather than expecting her or him to read your mind. It is also important to regularly check that the other person has understood what it is you are saying. Essentially, this skill is the development of a level playing field in all interpersonal interactions.


This skill not only involves hearing but actively processing what others say. This requires directing our attention to what others say rather than what we are going to say next.


This skill involves communicating to others that you have heard their position or opinion. It is not necessary to understand or agree with them, but it is important to recognise and accept their rights to feel and think as they do. It is important to accept that what others say about how they are feeling is true.

‘I…’ statements

When you communicate how you feel to someone, are making a request, or saying ‘no’ to a demand, begin what you say with the expression ‘I’. In this way you take responsibility for your wants and feelings rather than putting them on to the other person, which can lead to defensiveness and hostility.

An example of these communication techniques…

“I feel worried and frustrated when you don’t take your medication because it is an important aspect in the management of your illness (‘I’ statement). I understand that you may have concerns about the side-effects of the medication (validation) and I am here to support you and listen if you need someone to talk to (willingness to listen)”.

Verbal and non-verbal communication

Communication methods

Experts say that communicationis composed of different methods: words, voice, tone and non-verbal cues. Of these, some are more effective in delivering a message than others.

According to research, in a conversation or verbal exchange:

  • Words are seven percent effective
  • Tone of voice is 38 percent effective
  • Non-verbal cues are 55 percent effective.

Most people fail to realise that a great deal of our communication is of a nonverbal form. Non-verbal communication
includes facial expressions, eye contact, body posture and motions (eg arms crossed, standing, sitting, relaxed, tense), and positioning within groups. It may also include the way we wear our clothes or the silence we keep.

WHAT you say is not nearly as important as HOW you say it. A dull message delivered by a charismatic person, filled with energy and enthusiasm will be accepted as brilliant. An excellent message delivered by someone who is not
interested in the topic will not engage the enthusiasm of its intended audience. In person-to-person communications
our messages are sent on two levels simultaneously. If the non-verbal cues and the spoken message are incongruous,
the flow of communication is hindered. Rightly or wrongly, the receiver of the communication tends to base the
intentions of the sender on the non-verbal cues he or she receives.

Knowledge of non-verbal communication is important when dealing with a difficult or potentially violent situation with a family member who has a mental illness.

  • Picking up on the early non-verbal cues in a difficult situation will mean that you are better equipped to handle
    that situation
  • By understanding the non-verbal communication, you will be able to respond to someone in a way that is more appropriate to their communication style
  • Having knowledge of non-verbal cues may also enable you to act in such a way as to prevent a potentially violent situation from escalating any further.

If you show a true awareness to non-verbal cues, you will have a better chance of a successful interaction in a difficult or potentially violent situation.

Static features of nonverbal communication that provide information


The distance one person stands from another frequently conveys a non-verbal message. In some cultures it is a sign of attraction, while in others it may reflect status or the intensity of the exchange.

Personal space

Personal space is your ’bubble’ – the space you place between yourself and others. This invisible boundary becomes apparent only when someone bumps or tries to enter your bubble.

How you identify your personal space and use the environment in which you find yourself influences your ability to
send or receive messages. How close do you stand to the one with whom you are communicating? Where do you sit in the room? All of these things affect your level of comfort, and the level of comfort of those receiving your message.


People may present themselves in various ways: face-to-face, side-to-side, or even back-to-back. For example, cooperating people are likely to sit side-by-side while competitors frequently face one another.


People can be lying down, seated, or standing. These are not the elements of posture that convey messages. Are we
slouched or erect? Are our legs crossed or our arms folded? Such postures convey a degree of formality or relaxation in the communication exchange.

Physical contact

Shaking hands, touching, holding, embracing, pushing, or patting on the back all convey messages. They reflect an element of intimacy or a feeling of (or lack of) attraction.

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Marinda Reynecke

Marinda Reynecke

Counselling Psychologist

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