Common Breakdowns in CommunicationYou’re trying to have a discussion with someone, or maybe you and someone else are having an argument. You find yourself getting frustrated, that you are not being heard, that you and the other person are just going around in circles. “Why won’t they just listen to me? They aren’t listening to what I’m actually saying!” You may even think to yourself, “Wait, I know I’m mad at them, but I can’t remember how this argument even started.” These scenarios are perfect examples of when communication is breaking down between two people. While communication seems to be the most important factor for all relationships to run smoothly, it also seems to be the most difficult skill for people in marriages, relationships, friendships, etc to keep up. According to Virginia Satir, a famous conjoint family therapist, there are four “stances” that cause a breakdown in communication.


When someone plays the role of a placater, they are doing whatever they can to please the other person. They are overly agreeable, and will apologize for everything, even if it is not their fault. The person who plays this role also often believes they are not as valuable as the other people they are trying to please. This person will attempt to take all the blame for others, and hold it inside. They act nice towards others even when they do not feel good about it on the inside. This is the type of person who always hears, “You are too nice.” This person could definitely benefit from some assertiveness training.


The person who plays the role of the “Blamer” is the person who criticizes everything else the other person does. A phrase you would often hear this person say is, “If it wasn’t for you doing XYZ, this NEVER would have happened.” This is the person who could probably benefit from learning how to use I statements, and look more at the entire context, in addition to the other person’s point of view.

Being Overly Reasonable

The person who plays the role of being overly reasonable does not take emotion into account. They only focus on the situation and are purely objective. They discount any subjectivity and only reason from a logical objective point. They want others to see that they are intelligent, and can overcome any emotion with logic. However, we all know that avoiding emotions is not only impossible, but extremely unhealthy.

Being Irrelevant

The person who plays the role of being irrelevant will do anything to take the conversation away from a particular topic. They are often seen as funny, or as a “clown” and tend to crack jokes to avoid arguments or when they feel uncomfortable. They will tend to stop fulfilling this role, at least for the time being, when it is pointed out by others. They may not even be aware that they tend to change topics or make jokes when uncomfortable.

Overcoming communication breakdowns

You may find that one of these roles sounds like one you or someone else you know “plays”. We can even switch regularly between the four, or we may find that we really tend to stay in one of the roles more so than others. There are things you can do, however,  to improve your communication, and try to avoid falling into one of these roles.


Everyone thinks there’s a good listener, but most people are not as good at listening as they think they are. It’s common for people to fill in every silence or assume that they know what the other person is actually thinking when they are talking. One way to  to overcome this is to repeat back everything the person is saying WORD FOR WORD without summarizing. The next time you find yourself having an argument or discussion, after the other person states a few sentences, just say, “What I hear you saying is (insert words here). Am I hearing you correctly?” or “Is that right?” So the next time your partner asks, “Hey, could unload the dishwasher for me”, don’t assume they are getting on you about doing stuff around the house, take the assumptions out of the equation. Just think to yourself, “Okay, they are just asking me to unload the dishes, they aren’t getting on my back about getting stuff done or asking me to do all the chores around the house.” John Grohol, PsyD states…

We’re often so afraid of not being heard, we rush to keep talking. Ironically, such behavior makes it all the more likely we won’t be heard.

Watch non-verbal communication

What we say is always important, but what can be more important is the way it’s presented, the way we say the words. Learning how to read other’s non-verbal cues, can help inform you how they are taking what you are saying, and possibly where they are coming from. These are important signs to know…

  • Folding your arms sends the message that you’re closed off and defensive. If the person you’re talking to does this, there’s a chance that you’re becoming aggressive in your communication. Ask yourself, Has your tone become louder and louder as you try to explain your point? Do you find you are now yelling? Are you starting to fulfill the “blamer” role and are criticizing the other person?
  • When the other person stops making eye contact, it often means one of three things: They aren’t listening anymore, they are feeling ashamed, or they are finding it difficult to tell you something. This is when it’s important to not assume what the other person is thinking. Maybe ask the other person, what is wrong, or if they are having a difficult time telling you something; don’t just assume they are ignoring you.
  • The other person begins acting aggressively or yelling. This is often a sign they don’t feel you are listening to them. For some reason our instinct when we feel we are not being listened to is to repeat ourselves, and say it more loudly and more aggressively. Maybe this is when it’s time to check in on if you really are listening or not.

You don’t HAVE to be right

When we hold an opinion, we think that our way is right, so the other personmust be wrong. If both you and the other person feel that you HAVE to be right – both of you need to back off. Sometimes you need to come to the conclusion that maybe you both just need to agree that you both disagree, and try to respect each other’s opinion. As Dr. Grohol states, “It just comes down to your priorities — if being “right” is more important to you than your partner’s happiness, then perhaps you have not found the right partner.”

Be in the moment

Lastly – one of the best things you can do is STAY IN THE MOMENT! A topic may come up that you and the other person have discussed on numerous occasions, don’t start thinking, “oh here they go again.” Be in the moment, and give the other person a chance to say what they want to say.

It is also very easy for something that has nothing to do with your original discussion to come into the argument. Once your mad, it’s easy to start listing everything the other person has ever done to make you mad. If you can’t stay on topic, try having the discussion again at a later date once both of you have a chance to calm down.

Want to learn more?

9 Steps to Better Communication Today

5 Communication Pitfalls and Pointers for Couples

 Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

The Common Breakdowns in Communication
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