Human beings are social creatures; we are wired to communicate with each other for survival, for companionship, and for progress. After practicing this skill for all of human history, talking to another person seems like it should be easy for us. Yet somehow we seem to struggle with it, especially when we are trying to talk about a difficult topic. You may find yourself approaching a conversation with the best of intentions, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, you are in a fight! And it’s often the same old fight that you’ve had a million times and it can be enough to make you feel like giving up on communicating at all. There has to be a better way!

In fact, there are ways to communicate that can leave everyone involved feeling heard and respected, even if you don’t end up agreeing!

Why Communication Goes Wrong

What is it about some conversations that make them so difficult? Here are a few examples:

Too Many Issues – It’s likely that you’re familiar with this situation. You are really upset that your partner/spouse/roommate left the dishes in the sink, and you go to talk to them about it. And while you’re talking to them about that, you end up mentioning the laundry that didn’t get done, and how annoying it is that they leave their shoes around the house. When you approach one topic, all sorts of other resentments bubble to the surface and come out in one fell swoop! While on the one hand it seems efficient bring this all up at once, all you’ve actually done is dilute your original point. Now, you’re arguing about who was really the one who forgot to feed the dog last week and those dishes are never going to get cleaned! An alternative strategy is to choose one topic to talk about in a conversation, and try to stay on that topic! You’ll find that it is much easier and more effective.

Too Much Heat – When you’re upset about something, it’s easy to get focused on all of your raw emotions, like anger, hurt, or confusion. While these feelings might be valid, your brain doesn’t necessarily do a great job of thinking logically when emotional. High emotions and a not-so-logical brain can lead to you saying things that you might not have otherwise said, or falling into a blaming/name-calling trap which can again, take you off course and cause the issue to remain unresolved. It might be better to step away when you are emotional and find a way to cool off and get some distance from your feelings. In other words, when there’s a lot of heat, stay out of the communication kitchen!

Lack of Clarity – When facing a difficult conversation where emotions for everyone involved may run high, it’s not uncommon to end up using words like “always” and “never.” You may find yourself saying things like, “you always let me down” or “you never do the right thing.” Unfortunately, these types of all or nothing statements are likely to make the other person get defensive, or argumentative, or to just dismiss what you’re saying outright. The more specific you can get, the better!

S.U.R.F. – The Future of Communication!

If these common ways that communication goes wrong are familiar to you, don’t despair! It just means you are human and that you might want to consider working on some new skills so that your efforts to communicate go better for you and the person you are trying to talk to!

One way is to remember S.U.R.F. an easy acronym that stands for Be Specific, Offer and Understanding Statement, Accept Partial Responsibility, and Label Your Feelings. You don’t have to use these strategies in any particular order in a communication, you just want to try and have them all in there!

First, be specific! Use specific examples of what you’re referring to, and if making a request, try to ask for something specific (and by specific, we also mean measurable, so you can tell whether it has been done and how often it has been done). If you are specific in your observations or requests, you can reduce confusion, defensiveness, and increase the likelihood that the person you are talking to will understand you.

Next, offering an understanding statement where you respect and recognize where the other person is coming from can help them feel heard and understood. Be careful that you do not end up telling them how to feel, and if they come back and disagree with your assessment (“No, I don’t feel angry, I just feel sad!”), don’t disagree with them! Listen to them and use that as a springboard for the rest of the conversation!

Accepting partial responsibility is about accountability and fairness. When you accept your role in a situation, it goes a long way to getting the other person to be willing to own their part. Remember though, only accept your role! Not the whole thing, not nothing … just your role!

Finally, tell them know how you feel about. A little vulnerability goes a long way!

S.U.R.F. is a powerful tool (and a great acronym!) to help you communicate in a more effective and positive manner. Start practicing these communication strategies today, and you’ll quickly see how your conversations improve.