Living in close quarters: Skills for enhanced communication

Key elements of effective communication

Authored by the Merrill Center for Family WealthTM


“One cannot not communicate”

Paul Watzlawic, psychologist, family therapist and communication theorist famously coined the expression “One cannot not communicate.” We start communicating from the moment we perceive each other. Indeed, every kind of interaction is a form a communication. If this is the case, we owe it to ourselves to brush up on our communication skills, just like we would any other skill that holds extreme importance. This is especially true as the pandemic has forced us to both shelter in place and maintain social distance.

While dynamics are shifting in the workplace and at home, communication is especially crucial. Living in close quarters, communicating through masks and standing far apart all put a premium on great communication skills. The Merrill Center for Family Wealth™ has developed tools inspired by our experience and the work of others– skills of both listening and communicating that are designed to create more open conversation, diffuse tension and arrive at more creative and beneficial solutions and outcomes.

We outline below a short summary of communication basics – the traps of poor communication and tenants of good communication. Each section seeks to empower readers to be more self-aware in how they communicate and adds actionable suggestions to improve this essential life skill.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Neurology of Reactivity

There are two main centers in our brain that govern our emotions – each serves a distinct purpose in how we react to our surroundings. The amygdala is a small almond shaped structure that evolved to help ensure our survival. When a threat is perceived it initiates a ‘fight or flight’ response and sends signals to our nervous system, which releases a chain of chemical reactions within our body to deal with the threat. Sometimes referred to as the ‘lizard brain’ this part of our brain enacts primal, instinctive responses. Fast forward to the modern era and we see how this can create challenges for us. The same emotional reactions that guaranteed our survival respond now to far less serious and even trivial threats. We get upset in traffic or when trapped in customer service menu options. When we are ‘emotionally hijacked’ by our amygdala we make rash decisions, jump to conclusions, ignore facts and fail to think clearly. We react as though we are zebras being chased by a lion. Modern life simply generates stress.

The center that counterbalances the amygdala is our more recently evolved pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain can be thought of as the ‘rational’ mind and relates more to logic than emotion. Our pre-frontal cortex works to regulate our amygdala responses and create greater executive function. Awareness that we are, in real time, reacting from our amygdala can help us create better outcomes.1 The techniques of active communication allow us to maximize the use of prefrontal cortex and better regulate our amygdala responses.

Active Communication

Communication is comprised of at least three elements – content, tone, and request.2 All communication has content. This is the idea, concept or information person A seeks to communicate to person B. All content comes with “tone” which is the emotional impulse behind the content. We don’t speak without some impulse or motive to do so and the tone reflects that motive. We might have a positive emotional tone, a negative one or, sometimes, a neutral one. However subtle, tone always exists and it can be the trickiest part of communication. Tone can be conveyed through features like inflection, word choice and body language. Our tone might reinforce the content we are communicating (congruent tone) or undercut it (incongruent tone). The tone often conveys the way the words should be interpreted or understood. A great deal of miscommunication occurs when tone is either incongruent or misunderstood. Sometimes the tone is obvious to ourselves and to others, sometimes only to ourselves and most often, unrecognized or unacknowledged by both. The third element is either an implicit or explicit request that is being made of the listener.

The most effective communication will be explicit about each of these elements. Active communication occurs when the speaker clearly and effectively:

1) conveys the content,
2) identifies the tone and
3) makes the request explicit and the listener effectively feeds back, or at least accurately perceives, all three elements.

In broken communication, the listener will be left to guess one of these components and in problematic communication that breakdown creates some level of conflict or misunderstanding. The only way to fill in gaps is to identify and clarify the missing element. It becomes the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener to be as explicit as possible in clarifying the three basic elements of communication.

To illustrate, here are some examples of statements that are explicit about content, tone and request:

  • I am a bit down because I can’t spend time with friends right now. Do you have a couple of minutes to listen while I process this?
  • I am excited about my upcoming trip. Can I tell you about it?
  • I am feeling completely overwhelmed by a project that is due. Could you give me a couple of hours so that I can try to make real progress?

Communication, as we can understand from the above, is multi-layered. The content, tone, and request framework is one simple approach to teaching and understanding good communication skills. Imagine the nuances and added complexities that arise when the number of people increases, degrees of emotional intelligence or emotional vocabulary differ, or cultural differences come into play. In the next section, we look at systems theory of communication and highlight some of the most persistent traps of bad communication.

The Killers of Good Communication

In groups (and particularly in families) communication becomes more complex. When we speak of family communication, we are looking at a system, or a family unit. There are few core tenants to systems thinking that include the following: no single individual, or family member, orchestrates the interactional patterns; all behaviors make sense in the context of the system (every system has evolved to obtain the results it is getting); no single person controls or is responsible for the system; and personal characteristics are significantly dependent upon the system they are in.3 Some patterns that emerge in families that are destructive to effective communication include:

  • Triangulation and cross generational coalitions: Triangulation occurs when tension or focus is shifted away from the original point between two parties by involving a third party. It occurs most often when a person plays one person against another for advantage. A classic example is when a child is told no by one parent and goes to the other parent in hopes of a better outcome. Another example is the classic drama triangle where a rescuer attempts to step in to mediate a conflict between two others. Triangulation becomes evident when the parties can overtly describe another party as playing a role in their tension.3
  • Scapegoating: Scapegoating is a form of projection in which someone carries more blame for a situation to deflect attention from the real problem. Uncomfortable feelings such as shame, anger, or guilt are displaced and redirected onto another, often a more vulnerable person or group. A classic example is a child who takes on the displaced energy of a fractured marriage.
  • Double-bind communication: In double-bind communication an overt message is undercut by secondary, incongruent information (usually based on what we described above as tone). For example, a greeting where the words are warm, but the tone is cold is an example of double-bind communication. A cold, distant hug is another example. No matter how the receiver interprets the overall communication, the giver of the hug has preserved deniability of what was intended while still preserving the edge. The recipient is left with either pretending not to perceive the tone or be branded as over-reactive. Family members in particular know how to “push each other’s buttons” with double-bind communication and are keenly sensitive to when it occurs.
  • Unclear boundaries: Boundaries reflect the nature of openness within a particular system. Unclear or overreaching requests are the typical way in which boundary violations occur. Being explicit about the request can help in the negotiation of mutually agreed upon boundaries. Boundaries are not in and of themselves bad, and successful boundaries are ones that balance between closeness (we-ness) and separation (individuality). For relationships to weather the test of time, boundaries must constantly be renegotiated to adjust to the person’s evolving needs. The more flexible couples are in negotiating the rules, the more successful they will be in adjusting to life transitions.

Communication Styles when Resolving Differences4

Self-awareness is one of the more crucial lessons learned when negotiating for wants and needs. A large part of communication is helping people reach agreements that facilitate healthy relationships. When people can’t agree, conflict can ensue. In these cases it is good to understand one’s own reactions to conflict and how to best approach coming to agreements. The DYNAD (The Dynamic Negotiation Approach Diagnostic) is one tool that helps shed light on these different styles of negotiation and conflict resolution. Using a series of questions, the tool maps out your default style during the ‘calm’ and the ‘storm’ – pre-conflict and when things boil up. It shows that over the course of the negotiation it can be equally important to adjust and shift from default styles to achieve a better outcome and to make strides to become a more effective negotiator. When it comes to resolving differences, there is a delicate dance between assertiveness, the ability to meet our own needs, and empathy, the ability to understand another’s point of view without judgment. Understanding others’ approaches to conflict can help to clear away misunderstandings. For example, if one person is competitive and one person is avoidant, knowing those tendencies can help them resolve differences more effectively. The various styles and a link to the DYNAD are in the appendix.

Keys to De-Escalation5

Good communication is not free of conflict. Rather, good communication is reflected by how well individuals address conflict and de-escalate it. At the heart of many conflicts is the push and pull along a spectrum of control – asserting control and giving it up. One way to ease conflict is to create a path for parties to gain back a sense of control, and one solution to achieve that is through temporary agreements. By labeling them temporary and flexible, parties are likely to approach the solution with much more openness. Temporary agreements give parties a peace of mind and can almost immediately de-escalate conflict. Complex conflicts are not often solved all at once, but rather come in small changes that cascade to have overarching effects. Hostage negotiators are masters of de-escalation and rely on a series of simple tools and small wins to great positive outcomes. Techniques they rely on include:

  • Mirroring: Reflecting back the final two or three words of what a person has just said as a question. If a person says “I am feeling unlike myself because of sheltering in place.” You would say “unlike yourself?” This simply invites them to continue talking. The response may be something like “Yes, I feel really cooped up and like my routines have changed.” “Routines have changed?” “Well, I can’t go to the office and really miss my friends.” And so on.
  • Acknowledgement: Acknowledging feelings becomes important. Use the phrase “it seems like” or “it sounds like” to identify an emotion. Never put yourself into the statement. “It seems like you are frustrated” is okay, “It seems to me like you are frustrated” is not. The first statement is about them, the second is about you. The first deescalates. The second potentially escalates.
  • Slow and soothing speech: Slipping into a “late night FM DJ voice” begins to change the tone of the person you are speaking with. If you are calm and measured, the other individual(s) will likely slow down and calm themselves. A close companion to this is simply using silence, particularly after mirroring or acknowledgement.
  • Calibrated questions: Asking how or what questions that take your view into account can help shift from blame to problem solving. “How do you think we could resolve this in a way that works for both of us?” “What can I realistically do here?”


As you navigate these times with others it can be helpful to keep in mind that everyone is stressed. If you can slow down and clarify what is being said (content), the emotion behind it (tone) and what is being asked of you (request), you will likely find that you will be a significantly better listener and will be seen as supportive. If you can be clear in what you say about these three elements, you will likely find that the chance of misunderstanding will decrease, and that you will likely achieve what you need from others. Being mindful in applying de-escalation tools, such as asking calibrated questions and using acknowledgement, as the situation requires, can help to further bolster your efforts and lay the groundwork for enhanced communication.

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1Sopolsky, Robert, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004).

2This model is derived from several sources, most notably Rogers, Carl, Active Listening (2015), Rosenberg, Marshall, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003) and Satir, Virginia, The New People Making (1988).

3Gerhert, Diane, Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy (2016).

4Schneider, Andrea Kupfer and Brown, Jennifer Gerarda; summary by Vernick, Adam, Negotiation Barometry: A Dynamic Measure of Conflict Management Style (2013).

5Barker, Eric, 6 Hostage Negotiation Techniques That Will Get You What You Want (2014).