Effective communication can go a long way in making the most of relationships. However, while it can be such an important asset, many of us never learned some of the most effective ways to communicate while growing up.

Communication breakdowns can lead to disagreements, frustration, miscommunication, or feelings of guilt. Here are some tips for having effective, healthy communication with people in your life, whether they are friends, roommates, family members, or romantic partners.


There are four primary ways that people communicate with each other: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive. We may do all of these styles at various times, but may rely on one or more when conflicts arise. For quick definitions:

  • Passive: Allow the other person(s) to get their way even if you disagree. You may worry about conflict and minimize your own wants and needs. Over time, this can lead to building up resentment, lower feelings of self-worth, and unhealthy relationships.
  • Aggressive: Communicate either verbally or non-verbally in a manner that is loud, intimidating, or disrespectful to the other person. This may include yelling, intimidating body language, or physical violence. With this style, you put your rights and values ahead of the other person.
  • Passive-aggressive: When someone is passive aggressive, they are acting aggressive, but in a manner that is not as direct. Passive aggressive behaviors can be the most difficult to identify, as the person may just explain them away as a joke or that the person misunderstood/is overreacting. Passive aggressive behaviors are often manipulative in nature. Some examples would include making a sarcastic statement (not as a joke but with the intention of making the other person feel bad), loudly sighing out of frustration, writing notes/texts that do not address that concern but indicate that someone is frustrated (e.g. It would be REALLY great if EVERYONE could do the dishes in our apartment), or harming people’s properties.
  • Assertive: When someone is assertive, they are standing up for themselves in a way that respects both them self and the other person. This can be difficult, but can often result in the best outcome. To act assertively, the person must speak in a tone that is measured and respectful, listens to the other person during the discussion, and focuses on either common ground or a strategy for how they can be comfortable disagreeing.

It is helpful for students to reflect on their own interactions with others to try to identify which patterns that may have engaged in. It may also be helpful to reflect on how communication was modeled while growing up. There may be significant cultural factors, as well as privilege, that play a large role in these styles.

If there is one skill that can be very helpful in communicating assertively with others, it is to use ‘I’ statements when trying to communicate effectively. There is a very simple formula to an ‘I’ statement. “I felt __________(emotion) when you ______________(observable behavior).”

For example, “I felt angry when you ate my food without asking.” It is important to note that you must include only emotions and observable behaviors.

  • In the above example, ‘angry’ is the emotion. This is not an opinion of the situation, it is the emotion you experienced.
  • For the observable behavior, the example is “ate my food without asking”. For this to be correct, we can assume that the person did just that. There is no opinion here and the observable behavior is ideally something that both sides can agree occurred.
  • It can then be helpful to follow up with what you would like done in the future. “I felt angry when you ate my food without asking. In the future could you let me know if you want food or chip in when I go to the grocery store?”

Here you are asking the person how they can change their behavior. You want to ask for something reasonable and fair. It may be that you ask the person to not eat your food anymore, it is up to you.

Using an effective ‘I’ statement does not guarantee that you will be successful, but it will put you in a better position to have a desired outcome. It also can reduce defensiveness from the person you are speaking to.

There may be times when we are communicating and stop listening to the other person and just wait for them to finish talking because we know what we want to say next. This can lead to communication breakdowns.

One good strategy is to try to listen carefully to what the person says and reflect it back to them to confirm that you are hearing them. You do not have to agree with them for this to be effective, you simply need to have the ability to restate what they said.

For example, 

  • “I’m not trying to keep you awake when I watch TV at night, it’s just that it helps me fall asleep”
  • “You don’t want to keep me awake, but it is helpful for you to watch TV when you fall asleep.”

In this example, you do not need to agree with the person’s TV habits, however if you gloss over the fact that they believe that it helps them fall asleep they may not pay as much attention to your response, instead trying to help you understand why they do it.


What was your communication style and what was the other person’s?
Practice saying the statement out loud so it can feel more natural if it were to arise in the moment
Try to create statements that would restate what someone is saying