How to Talk So People Will Listen

There are very specific and effective ways to construct a communication so that it goes well and that both parties in the conversation feel respected and understood. Even if there is not "full agreement" in the end, positive communication skills help move a conversation along effectively and work toward building a solid foundation of respect and a platform for increasingly meaningful exchanges in the future.
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How to Talk So People Will ListenScience has taught us that the "way" we talk to people about making changes in their lives has a huge impact on whether they will be open to our feedback or closed off. This is true for therapists talking to clients, doctors talking to patients, and family members talking to a loved one they are concerned about.

Luckily, there are very specific and effective ways to construct a communication so that it goes well and that both parties in the conversation feel respected and understood. Even if there is not "full agreement" in the end, positive communication skills help move a conversation along effectively and work toward building a solid foundation of respect and a platform for increasingly meaningful exchanges in the future.

These skills not only help to improve conversations about serious issues like substance use or destructive behaviors (like spending, gambling, eating too much), they also help with the little conversations required for smooth family functioning (like communication about chores getting done).

People get thrown by the phrase "positive communication skills," as they think we mean be happy or positive all the time. The goal is to be effective and to build up connection, even when discussing difficult, emotionally charged issues. In other words, positive communication is about you feeling good about how you handled your end of things and that you maintained and met your values and goals in the conversation. So, first, let's review the seven guidelines to positive communication (1):

  1. Be Brief This has two meanings... keep it short and keep it on topic. When upset or angry, everyone can have a tendency to bring up lots of old issues in an effort to prove their current point. Stay focused on the topic of the moment ("I want you to pick up your laundry") and resist tossing in a variety of other topics ("and you are always running late and forgot to take out the garbage"). Communications work best when they are very focused.
  2. Be Positive Again, this does not mean, "be nice and happy all the time." It means stay away from accusations, name-calling, negative statements, and the like. These communications will just steer you off course and away from your goal. Even more importantly, ask for what you do want instead of what you don't want ("I would like you to use the hamper" vs. "don't leave a mess on the floor"). It can be helpful to just notice whether you are framing things as a negative admonishment compared to a positive request or statement. This is a difficult one, and one that takes a fair bit of practice to get right, but it makes a world of difference.
  3. Be Specific Address specific behaviors, specific incidents, and ask for something that is specific and measurable. The more clear you can be, the more likely you are to get what you want.
  4. Label Your Feelings Letting the other person in to know what you're feeling can help break down some of the walls that are between you ("I feel stressed when I come home and the house is a mess").
  5. Offer an Understanding Statement "I can understand that you might feel . . ." One of the main goals in a communication is to be heard. This is a way for you to let the other person know that you hear and understand them, and helps reduce defensiveness ("I know you are rushed getting from football practice to dinner...).
  6. Accept Partial Responsibility Accepting your role in this situation. We all play some role, so it's important to find some way in which you contributed ("I know I really came down hard on you last week when I was at my wits end"). You don't have to accept all the blame, but you assuming some of the responsibility will definitely help!
  7. Offer to Help You're making a request, so show them that you're in this together! See how you can help them out ("I put a hamper in your room so you don't have to go downstairs"). If they aren't the sole party who is responsible for action, they might be more likely to agree to change.
So, how do you put this all together? Carefully and with a lot of practice! It is often very helpful to start by writing sentences, it doesn't matter what order they are in, and see if you can hit all of the points in this ("be brief" and "be positive" are really more global guidelines than specific points, but the other five can be specific sentences).

Once you have written them all out and you feel comfortable that you've hit everything, put it in an order that makes sense and read it through out loud. Sometimes hearing what you've written, even if you're the one doing the reading, will give you a better sense of how it will sound to someone else. While you're reading, pay special attention to any spots that feel awkward, or make you feel defensive. Those are spots that you may want to iron out and rewrite.

After you've read and edited your communication, it's time to practice! Practice, you say? Yes! Communication, like anything else that you do on a daily basis, becomes routine after a while. It's hard to change a communication rut or pattern. And, communicating using these skills may be very different than what you are used to. So, read your communication to yourself in a mirror. Ask a friend or family member to listen to it and give you feedback. Repeat it in your head while you're commuting to work. Really get familiar with it and feel comfortable with the communication before you try it live.

Finally, pick a time when tension is low, when both you and the person you're talking with are feeling calm and comfortable. You may even want to read your communication to them (instead of trying to recite it from memory). Showing them that you wrote it all out and are reading it will let them know you are really trying hard to have conversations go differently. Additionally, when the pressure is on, you don't want to forget half of your communication or slip into old communication patterns by mistake.

Afterward, take a minute to review how it went. If you were able to stick to your plan (or mostly stick to it), give yourself a pat on the back! It's no small feat to try something different like this, and you've done well! If you didn't or weren't able to stick to it, what happened? Was there something in the planning? Was there something that you didn't expect? How can you try it differently the next time? Use this experience to help make your next attempt even more successful.

A few extra communication tips:
  • Avoid words like "but" and "however." They tend to nullify anything you said before them, and can derail a good point that you're trying to make. Try using more inclusive words like "and" or "at the same time."
  • You know the saying, "strike while the iron is hot?" In communication, it's "strike while the iron is cold!" When temperatures are high, it can be hard to stay calm and keep with your communication plan. Try to pick a time when everyone is calm.
  • Just because a communication doesn't go the way you want (maybe they said no to your request, or you both ended up returning to some old behavior patterns), you can still walk away feeling successful. Try to think about what your goals are and what success might look like, even if the communication doesn't go perfectly.
  • If the other person isn't using positive communication and starts to yell or go off topic, you can bring the conversation back by being a "broken record" and just coming right back to your points. The more you stick to what you came to do, the more likely you are to feel successful in the end.

As you make the shift to using positive communication skills you might feel awkward and even a little stilted and silly. Trust us, you will get better with practice and most people are so reinforced by the improved outcome of their conversations that they can't help themselves. They want to use the skills all the time because they work! You might even find that they are helpful in the grocery checkout line!

1- Adapted from: Smith, J., & Myers, R. (2004). Motivating substance abusers to enter treatment: working with family members. New York: Guilford Press.

Dr. Carrie Wilkens is the co-founder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change ( Dr. Wilkens specializes in motivational treatments and group psychotherapy, and has worked with traumatized populations in both individual and group modalities. Dr. Wilkens is a co-author of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change (, a compassionate and science-based family guide for navigating the addiction treatment world, understanding motivation, and training in the use of CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) skills. These practical skills include self-care, positive reinforcement, positive communication, and staying connected in a constructive, positive way to help your loved one.

You can follow Dr. Wilkens on twitter (@CWilkensPhD) and you can follow the Center for Motivation and Change on twitter (@_TheCMC) or on Facebook (

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