The way you communicate has a big impact on your ability to get on with people and get the things that you want. Good communication skills can help you to avoid conflict and to solve problems. Open and honest communication is also important for making friends and having healthy relationships.

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Communicate effectively

The way you communicate has a big impact on your ability to get on with people and get the things that you want. Good communication skills can help you to avoid conflict and to solve problems. Open and honest communication is also important for making friends and having healthy relationships.

Styles of communication

Communication can be expressed in an aggressive, passive or assertive style.

Aggressive Communication is expressed in a forceful and hostile manner, and usually involves alienating messages such as you-statements (blaming the other person and accusing them of being wrong or at fault) and labelling. In addition, the person's tone of voice and facial expressions are unfriendly. The assumption behind aggressive communication is 'Your needs don't matter' (I win/you lose).

Passive Communication involves putting your needs last. You don't express your thoughts or feelings, or ask for what you want. When you use passive communication it feels like others are walking all over you because you don't assert your own needs. So, you bottle things up and might feel resentful. The assumption behind passive communication is 'My needs don't matter' (You win/I lose).

Assertive Communication involves clearly expressing what you think, how you feel and what you want, without demanding that you must have things your way. The basic underlying assumption is 'We both matter - lets try to work this out'.

Assertive communication increases your likelihood of getting what you want, avoiding conflict and maintaining good relationships (I win/you win). When you are assertive you can:

  • Express your own thoughts, feelings and needs
  • Make reasonable requests of other people (While accepting their right to say 'no')
  • Stand up for your own rights
  • Say 'no' to requests from others at times, without feeling guilty.

Poor communication

Poor communication often creates tension and bad feelings within relationships.

Case study

Tom is feeling angry. He is due to go for his driver's licence next week, and for the past month his dad has been promising to take him out driving, but it never seemed to eventuate. Tom feels frustrated because he needs the practice before he goes for the test.

On Thursday Tom came home from school and asked his dad if they could go for a drive. His dad said he couldn't because he had some work to do.

Well, Tom just saw red and exploded: "You don't give a damn about me. You are such a liar! You never do what you say you're going to do..."
In return his dad got all fired up, called him a 'spoilt brat' and said that he can't think about anything but himself.

This situation is a good example of how poor communication can lead to conflict and bad feelings. Let's have a look at some of the errors that led to this angry outburst.
What went wrong? The case of Tom versus his dad

Error 1: Mind-Reading

Tom expected his dad to know what he was thinking and feeling, without clearly telling him. Until the time of the argument his dad had no idea how important it was to Tom to get the extra driving practice. He thought that Tom felt confident about the test and assumed he just wanted to go for a drive for fun, which they could do anytime.

Tom on the other hand, had assumed that his father knew how important it was for him to get some more practice (Even though he never told him) and therefore interpreted his attitude as not caring.

Mind-reading goes on in most relationships and people get upset because of misunderstandings. Often we expect people to know what we think - we believe that they should be able to understand where we are coming from, even though we haven't expressed it clearly. For example, we may expect someone to know they are doing something that annoys us, even though we haven't actually told them.

So, an important aspect of good communication is to tell others what we think and want - don't assume that they already know.

In Tom's case, the situation may have turned out better if he had communicated more clearly in the first place: 'Dad, I've got my driver's licence test on Tuesday and I'm feeling nervous about it. Can we organise to go for a few drives this week? Are you going to have some time to take me? When would it suit you?'

By clearly communicating that going for a drive is very important to him Tom gives his dad a better understanding of where he's coming from. Then, scheduling a specific time strengthens the commitment and makes it easier for both of them to plan ahead.

Error 2: Avoiding Communication

Tom left it until he was very angry before he said anything. Each time his dad cancelled the planned drive Tom said nothing. Over time he stewed about it more and more, and finally he exploded. This type of situation is a bit like a pot boiling on the stove - if you don't let off a bit of steam as you go along, eventually the pressure builds up and it boils over. Whenever we're feeling upset, it is better to talk about it as soon as possible, rather than letting things build up. If we say nothing we don't get what we want and our frustration grows.

Communication problems often arise because we don't say how we feel, what we think or what we want. People often avoid communicating because they are embarrassed or concerned about upsetting the other person. Sometimes we just assume that others should know what we think. The problem is that when you don't say what you need to say, it increases the likelihood of feeling angry, resentful and frustrated. This leads to tension in relationships and, sometimes, to angry outbursts.

Error 3: Labelling

Another problem with the communication between Tom and his dad is that they both used labels to criticise each other (e.g. 'You are a liar', 'You are a spoilt brat'). When we label another person they feel under attack, and usually their first reaction is to attack back (Just like Tom's dad did).

This leads to heated arguments and conflict. Labels are an example of alienating messages (see Error 4, below), because they criticise the person rather than their behaviour. It is OK to criticise someone's behaviour (e.g. 'I think what you did was unfair'), but labelling the whole person (e.g. 'You're pathetic') is unreasonable and creates bad feelings between people.

Error 4: Alienating Messages

When we use criticism, put-downs or aggressive communication nobody wins - everybody feels bad in the end. Alienating messages make the other person feel threatened or under attack, and usually they respond by attacking back. This type of communication very often leads to angry confrontations or 'cold war' (where we stop speaking to the other person, or use minimal communication).

Some examples of alienating messages include:

You-Statements. We blame the other person and accuse them of being wrong or at fault (e.g. 'You don't give a damn about me!).

Sarcasm (e.g. 'Well, we can't all be perfect like you!'; 'You're spending all that time on the internet - you are obviously going to get A's for all your exams and you don't need to study').

Negative Comparisons (e.g. 'Sharon's mum makes an effort - she always looks so young' [i.e. unlike you!]; 'Why can't you get A's on your report, like your sister?')

Threats (e.g. 'If you don't do [what I want] then I'm going to ...e.g. leave home...never talk to you again...be rude to your boyfriend...')

Labelling (see Error 3 above).

The communication problems between Tom and his father are very common ones. Perhaps you can think of some examples in your own experience, where you or someone you know has used unhelpful communication (such as mind-reading, avoidance and alienating messages)? It is always useful to be aware of your communication so that you can avoid making these types of errors.

For more information on how to communicate effectively, check out the Communication - Getting the message across fact sheet and the More tips on effective communication.

More Tips

Here are some helpful tips on how to use these styles of communication effectively.

Use 'I'-statements

As you might have seen in the above 'you'-statements put people on the defensive and often lead to a hostile response.
On the other hand, 'I'-statements have the opposite effect. When we point the finger at ourselves (rather than the other person) and avoid blaming them, we usually get a more positive response. For example, 'I feel disappointed that you cancelled at the last minute' rather than 'You've let me down again'.

Express yourself clearly

As seen in the example above, mind-reading and assuming that others know what you want can create all sorts of problems. When you hint rather than make a clear statement, people don't always get the message. Similarly, when you ramble on rather than state your thoughts clearly, people may not get the message. So, if there is something that you need to say it is helpful to tell it as it is - don't hint.

Do it now

If there is an issue you need to raise or a situation that needs to be resolved, try to deal with it as soon as possible. The longer you leave it, the harder it gets, and the more tension builds up.
The only exception to this rule is if you feel very angry, and you can't trust yourself to stay calm when you talk about it. In this situation, it's often a good idea to have a cooling off period before you raise the issue. Doing this prevents conflict and reduces the likelihood that you will say things that you will later regret. Sometimes you may need a day or two to cool down before you say what you need to say.

Ask for clarification

Just as people can't always read your mind, sometimes it is difficult to interpret what someone else is thinking or feeling. If you are confused about the message that you are receiving, the best thing to do is check it out with the other person. Asking for clarification helps to prevent misunderstandings.

For example, a friend seems withdrawn and you suspect that they are angry with you. You say: 'You seem quiet - have I done something to upset you?' or 'Is everything OK?' Checking it out with them can help bring the issue to the surface (if there is one), then you can talk about it. On the other hand, if there is actually nothing wrong, talking about it will ease your concerns.

Acknowledge your discomfort

If you feel uncomfortable raising a particular issue, it can be helpful to let the other person know this, for example: 'Look Sam I feel really awkward about bringing this up but...' or 'Alex, I need to talk to you about something and I'm feeling nervous about it. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but if I don't say anything, I think I'll continue to feel upset.'

By honestly referring to your discomfort, you 'lower the temperature' and reduce the likelihood that the other person will become hostile or defensive.

Be aware of your body language

The way you speak - including the volume and tone of your voice, your physical gestures, and facial expressions, all have an important impact on how your message will be received. For example, if you fold your arms in front of your chest, have a stern expression on your face or speak in an accusing tone, the other person is likely to feel defensive even before they have heard what you have to say.

On the other hand, an open posture, a calm voice, and relaxed body language helps the other person to feel at ease, and your message is delivered in a non-threatening way.

Here's an acronym that might help you remember good body language:

S - Face the person Squarely
O - Open posture, no crossed arms or fidgeting
L - Lean towards the person, not too much but just enough to show interest
E - Maintain Eye contact, without staring
R - Be Relaxed, don't fidget and be comfortable

Communicate positive feelings

Developing good relationships means being able to express positive feelings at times. We often assume that people know that we like them or appreciate what they do for us, so we don't tell them. However, people aren't mind-readers, and if we don't tell them they don't always know. (And even if they do know, it's still nice to hear someone say nice things every now and then!) Communicating positive feelings towards others lets them know that we value them and helps to strengthen relationships.

Warm feelings can be expressed as a whole message. For example: 'Jo, the other day when I was upset about things at school you sat down and asked me if I was OK. It was really good to talk to you - I appreciate your concern. I just wanted to say thanks - you've been a good friend.'Alternatively, you can communicate warm feelings by making simple statements such as:
'Thanks for being there for me the other day' or 'You've been a good friend - I really appreciate it.'

Your bill of rights

You have the right to:
1. Express your opinion
2. Say 'no'
3. Make mistakes
4. Change your mind
5. Disagree with others
6. Ask for what you want
7. Be treated with respect
8. Not take responsibility for other people's problems

Over to you

Expressing positive emotions

Is there someone you value who could do with some positive feedback from you? What would you like to say to them?
Remember that good communication skills can help us to have healthy relationships with people, avoid conflict and solve problems - so they're worth working on!

Tensions often arise in relationships when you avoid saying what you need to say, or when you communicate in a threatening or hostile manner. However, using effective communication strategies such as whole messages, 'I'-statements and the tips in this fact sheet can help you to resolve problems and disagreements in a reasonable and helpful way.


This fact sheet comes from:
Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions.
By: Dr Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond
Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)

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