Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
How PTSD Affects Communication
How to create, not react, when speaking and listening.
Posted January 30, 2023 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Linking communication to commitments helps you create with others, versus react to them.
- Speaking about what you observe helps focus conversations on facts, not interpretations.
- Unexpressed and unfulfilled needs may lead to communication conflicts.
- Make requests of others in ways that enable them to understand how you feel and what you need.
Nasty emails. Stern tones. Social media static. Communication conflicts can sting and leave you disempowered. How do you react when others misconstrue your words?
Create, Don't React
When people misunderstand your words, it's easy to react. Think about this next time. The words react and create are one-letter different but worlds apart. Before responding to someone who interprets your words negatively, get grounded in your commitments. This will help you create from that commitment rather than react in the heat of the moment.
My commitment to understanding optimal human development and to making a difference gives me empathy and compassion for others' conditioning, whether or not they take responsibility for their part in a conflict.
Ground yourself first in commitment, then create a bridge with your communication from that commitment to your future. This allows you to leave out petty details of a misunderstanding from your past. For example, if someone sends you a nasty email, think about your commitment to self-care. What serves that self-care? When you can lead from self-care and compassion for others, allowing people to express themselves is easier, even when it's hard for you to hear what they have to say.
To help, personally, I use nonviolent communication (NVC) training and you can, too. Marshall Rosenberg (1934 – 2015) was an American psychologist and mediator who created NVC, which has four components: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.
You can defuse triggers of reactivity with authentic and honest communication.
Stick to communication that deals with what you can observe, not interpret. To be practical, I like to ask myself, "What would a fly on the wall see?" For example, if I held up a mug for you to see, you might not describe the handle if I hid it from you. Think about your senses. What can you see, touch, hear, smell, or taste? Sticking to describing such details versus dwelling on interpretation is the first step to defusing short fuses, quelling hot tempers, and clarifying misunderstandings.
Human feelings, such as guilt, blame, and fault, can all impact and trigger communication conflict. The way to unhook yourself from conflict is to identify and accept your own feelings and listen to the feelings of another without playing the blame game. It starts, however, with how in touch with your own feelings you get. For people who struggle with complex PTSD and trauma, like me, this can be a lifelong struggle. (When I was a child, I was molested by a neighbor, and complex PTSD can separate me from my feelings from moment to moment.)
Conditioning can also impact communication. My father, a military sergeant, was half deaf from Korean War hand-to-hand combat. He spoke directly and with a commanding voice. My Bavarian mother speaks in a very direct manner, distasteful to most Americans who find the German language curt, abrupt, and challenging in its cadence.
These parents reared me and now I often speak loudly like my dad, who struggled to hear, and sternly sharp like my mom, who simply spoke with a rhythm different from most Southerners. I find myself sometimes having to ask for forgiveness when people misunderstand my communication intentions.
Don't discount your generational conditioning, too. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers (like me), Millennials, and Gen Y are all conditioned by culture and the time in which they're reared. Your generational bias may affect your ability to step outside your own perception to see another's point of view.
Remember, past trauma, family, and generational conditioning shape how you listen and speak. Move beyond your conditioning by allowing your commitment to pull you into a future of your own design, versus a prison from past knee-jerk reactions.
You have physical needs such as hunger, thirst, and sleep. You also have psychological needs such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Unfulfilled and unexpressed needs fuel many upsetting interactions and interpretations between people.
This is where direct requests can make a difference. First, get in touch with what you need and then make a request to fulfill that need. Doing so is fundamental to building strong relationships and communication with other people. If you have experienced trauma in any form, basic needs may be more difficult for you to identify. Personally, I find it helpful to speak with a trusted therapist or committed listener (someone who won't gossip about what you say and who will listen to you while keeping your larger commitments in life in context as you speak).
Requests come in all shapes and sizes. The ultimate request, though, for humans is asking for forgiveness. In Hawaii, I studied the indigenous practice Huna. An elder carrying the Huna lineage taught me Hoʻoponopono, a traditional Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. It teaches you to say, "I forgive you, please forgive me." I have used this phrase. It helps both parties in a communication conflict.
Recognize your own conditioning. By better understanding your conditioning, trauma, and the experiences of those with whom you communicate, you will begin to see they all shape how you listen and speak to each other. Take action consistent with your commitments, communicate first what you observe, make requests to fulfill your needs, and be open to receiving requests and forgiving others. I promise, your own communication conflicts will subside, too.
Now, go forgive someone and ask them to forgive you.