Common Communication Pitfalls

We’ve all experienced that moment: Open mouth. Insert foot. “Why did I SAY that?!”. Most of the time, we recognize when we’ve said something hurtful, harsh, or untrue. We are especially vulnerable to such moments when difficult emotions overtake us, such as if we’re feeling frustrated, exasperated, tired, overwhelmed, embarrassed, or angry. The first step in working toward avoiding such moments is to be aware of our typical patterns of communication and identify common pitfalls.

Are you an ADVICE GIVER? “You know what worked for me was to…”

You have good intentions: You want solve the problem and makes things “better” for the recipient of your advice. However, the message your advice really sends is, “You don’t know how to come up with your own answers or solve your own problems.” It may leave the other person feeling resentful, annoyed, or incompetent. Instead of giving advice, try just listening and supporting as the other person shares potential solutions. Remember that every situation is unique, and what was best for you may not fit someone else’s needs.

Are you a PLACATER? “Don’t worry, it will be okay…”

Once again, your intentions are good: You want to comfort someone, and you probably hate to see anyone hurting. The message you may be sending: “You don’t have the right to feel upset, and it’s making me uncomfortable to witness your distress.” The recipient may feel devalued, dismissed, discouraged, offended, confused, or ignored. Consider what it would be like to just be present for someone when they are upset, to sit quietly with them while they cry or vent in anger, and to offer empathy and sympathy. The most important thing is to make sure the other person feels HEARD.

Are you a KNOW-IT-ALL? “Everyone knows that this kind of thing means…”

You’re trying to show the other person that YOU are the best resource he or she has for handling any problem that may arise, and maybe your own insecurities are at play. The message you are likely sending to others: “You know nothing. I can’t believe how little you know, since I know so much.” You may leave the recipient feeling defensive, embarrassed, resentful, or ashamed, and they are not likely to consider you a good resource, let alone a good person with whom to share their troubles. Take a moment to step back and consider the other person’s perspective, and remember that every situation is different. No one knows everything, and those who believe they have the solutions to everyone else’s struggles are likely lacking a great deal of self-awareness and compassion for individual problems. Recognize that you do not have to have all of the answers in order to be a good listener.

Are you a DISTRACTER? “Don’t worry about that right now…”

You may be trying to comfort or protect the recipient from having to struggle with the problem or experience distress by changing the topic, but the message you’re sending is, “I don’t think you can handle it.” The other person may feel confused, discouraged, ignored, or insignificant. Consider whether it is truly their discomfort that you are fighting against, or your own. It can be a very powerless sensation to witness someone else’s suffering and not be able to fix it, but human beings are resilient and built to solve problems. If someone has a significant concern on their mind, chances are that distraction will be a fruitless effort on your part, and your best bet is to offer support as they think aloud about how to resolve the issue.

Are you a JUDGER? “Why would you do…”

You want to help the other person recognize the mistake that he or she made, but you may actually be sending the message, “You’re so stupid, you make terrible decisions.” The recipient may feel criticized, blamed, humiliated, embarrassed, defensive, or incompetent. Keep in mind that “Why…” questions often come off as accusing, even if that is not your intention. No one is going to feel empowered to solve the next conflict that comes along if they do not feel like the people around them believe in their ability to make appropriate decisions. Consider reframing your statements into something like, “It sounds like you regret your decision. Do you want to talk about it?”

Are you a MORALIZER? “The right thing to do in this situation is…”

You want to show someone the “proper” way to handle the issue, yet the message you’re sending is, “Your values are not as good as mine, and I’ll show you what they should be.” The recipient may be left feeling condemned, judged, hurt, or resentful. Instead of assuming that you know the right or best way to solve someone else’s problems, take the time to listen to what they are saying, and reflect on how it feels for them to be in conflict. Most people WANT to do the right thing, and sometimes the ideal solution is not possible – most solutions are not black and white, but instead fall into a gray area.

Are you a SARCASTICIZER? “Oh, yeah, that’s the biggest problem anyone has ever had…”

You want to show the person how wrong they are to be so upset about a particular problem by putting it into a new perspective, usually one that suggests, “You are ridiculous for being so affected by this.” Sarcasm often leads the recipient feeling devalued, disrespected, judged, embarrassed, or put down. Any time that someone is genuinely experiencing emotional distress, remember that their emotions are valid, no matter how you might feel in the same situation or what you believe about the relative nature of their problem. We cannot turn our emotions on and off, and it is hurtful to invalidate someone else’s feelings simply because they are not consistent with your own perspective. Listen to what the person is saying, and reflect their emotional struggle using support and kind words.

Healthy and effective communication takes practice and a continual willingness to consider the perspectives of others. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you handled a situation poorly when you know you’ve hurt or offended someone who came to you for support – in fact, it takes a great deal of courage to acknowledge the mistake. In most cases, this may garner respect from the other person and make your relationship stronger. All in all, the best thing to remember about communication is what we learned as kids: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.



This blog was adapted from the work of M. Popkin, PhD & E. Einstein, MA, LMFT (2007).

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.