Building Strong Families with Communication

by Jonathan D. Sherman, LMFT

This column is the fifth in a series that covers the six most common traits of strong families. Remember the acronym ACCCTS (A-Triple C-T-S)? The third C stands for Communication. In the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin laments, "I'm related to people I don't relate to." Learning what communication is and how it really works can make a big difference in how we relate with our families.

Guiding Principle: Communication is a lot more than talking!

We used to think communication was the number one key to successful relationships. However, follow-up studies on a number of communication improvement seminars and other interventions show that the effectiveness of learning new ways of communicating actually has quite varied results. The results generally break down into thirds in how it affects the relationship. A third of the time learning communication skills improves the relationship, a third of the time it stays the same and a third of the time it makes the relationship worse (Marshall & Marshall, 1993). Why is that? The results were clear that communication is a tool to be used with the intentions of the user. As a tool it can be used to help or harm. Take, for example, the classic "I" statement, which is a great technique to help people own their feelings instead of the more accusing "you" messages. Depending on how it is used or misused will determine the results. A person can start with an “I” message and twist it so they look like the good guy in the argument while all the person is really doing is just veiling his “you” message in the cloak of “good communication.”  While most people aren’t as obvious as this: “I feel . . .  that you're a jerk!” we can generally tell when we are being manipulated. No one likes it and it damages relationships.

Practical Technique: Decide on your goal first, and then open your mouth.

 The key, then, to making communication work for you is not so much the techniques, but the goal or intention that underlies those techniques. First, get in your mind a good goal that you can put in your own words and communicate in your own way. It is the goal, not the techniques, that drives effective communication. Thus, if the goal is understanding and exchange of information then the results of that communication will generally be good. However, if the goal is to control the other or to be “right” then the outcomes are poor. While one person may “win” the argument with this type of communication the relationships always suffers which means everyone loses. Examine yourself. What is your communication goal: victory or understanding? Remember, understanding someone does not mean you have to agree with him or her. Sometimes it is enough to at least be open to saying in our mind, "I really do want to understand your distorted viewpoint."

Did you know that over ninety percent of all communication is nonverbal? Don’t get stuck on thinking that all you need is better communication skills. Focus, instead, on the goals of communication. Remember, if you are focusing on and doing the other characteristics of ACCCTS (Appreciation, Commitment, Creative Coping and Problem Solving, Time Together and Spiritual Wellness), then you are communicating volumes to those you love anyway — both verbally and nonverbally.

Practical Technique: Be fun to communicate with.

Have you ever been frustrated by your teen or spouse who comes home with little or nothing to say? Or when you ask what they have been doing or how their day was and all you get is two or three word responses such as, "nothing” and "I don't know". Often times we do not communicate very much simply because it’s just not enjoyable. Listen to how we talk to each other in our families at times. Compare that with how our friends talk to us. Most of us like talking with our friends because it’s enjoyable, they understand us, they listen to us, and rarely, if ever, do they yell at us or belittle us. Instead of thinking your teen or spouses doesn’t know how to communicate, maybe the problem is it's just not fun to communicate. Think about it. It's not fun to communicate with someone who interrupts you, puts you down, lectures you, cuts you off and so on. Our friends don't do those things so we tend to talk with our friends — they’re fun to communicate with.

Guiding Principle: Communication has many benefits.

Learning how to communicate effectively serves an important neurological function. As social creatures, our emotions are very real and very powerful. They are often the gauge we use to measure our social well-being. In psychology there is the saying that, “Feelings not talked out get acted out.” Talking about how we feel and having someone who listens to us and understands us is one of the best ways we have of processing our emotions. Studies are clear that in children, adolescents and adults, in males and females, those emotions that are not regularly processed find other ways of manifesting themselves. For example, acting out or aggressive behaviors, physical illness (the American Medical Association estimates that about seventy percent of all doctors office visits are stress-related), depression or anxiety related disorders, increased conflict and so on. On the other hand, we know that people who communicate more effectively tend to have better relationships, actually live longer because, have less stress-related illnesses, less prolonged negative conflict and so forth.

Guiding Principle: Understanding is King

There are three different levels of understanding in communication. When we are aware of which level we are operating from with our family members we then have the opportunity to practice working toward achieving the next level. The three levels of understanding, which Stephen R. Covey accurately describes, are:

Level 1:"I will evaluate you before I understand you." Many of us are used to this level. Few of us like to be on the receiving end, as it feels judgmental more than understanding, which it is.

Level 2: "I want to understand you before I evaluate you." That would be nice to hear, huh? This is certainly a much more workable level as we are able to get our point across and be listened to.

Level 3:"I would rather understand you than evaluate you." Wouldn’t that be astounding and refreshing? And why not? Just because we are not used to communicating this way doesn’t mean we can’t. Nowhere is it written in the universe that says we cannot do it. However, it does take practicing the most important relationship skill of all time: learning to simply shut up and listen. “Shutting up” doesn’t just mean not talking. Instead, it involves quieting our mind and refusing to entertain the “yeah, but…”s we frequently say silently or audibly as part of our counterargument. The more we learn how to listen truly and deeply, without judgment and “noise,” the freer we feel in our relationships and the more effective our communication becomes.

Practical Technique: Try something different and practice, practice, practice.

We have covered several key concepts. Now the task is to pick just one thing you would like to try either from what has been discussed here or elsewhere. You may want to dust off a communication skill you used to use but stopped using for whatever reason. Whatever you decided to try, be sure to allow yourself to benefit from the over-learning process that repeated and consistent practice allows. How does your family communicate?  Send your solutions to and I will post them online so others may learn from your successes.

Watch for the next column where we will look at time together as a strategy for creating greatness in your relationships.

Jonathan Sherman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Relationship Consultant specializing in creating "greatness in relationships." He is experienced in assisting people learn to improve their marriages, their parenting and themselves through skill development, life coaching, overcoming depression and anxiety, stress and anger management, and addiction recovery. He teaches on a wide range of relationship topics. He is the founder of Bardos Relationship Consulting located in the Prairie Gate Professional Building in the Ranches, Suite 200. You may reach him at 801.787.8014, or at

Communication Examples
Coming soon

How have you and your family learned to communicate more effectively? Send your ideas to and I'll post them here.

This article provided courtesy of
Bardos Relationship Consulting
801.787.8014 •