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Book Summary: People Skills – How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts

People Skills (1979) is a guidebook to learning effective communication skills. It illuminates the conversational roadblocks that impede good communication and damage relationships – and offers alternative methods for listening, asserting, and handling conflict.


Self-Help, Relationships, Communication, Business, Careers, Business Development, Entrepreneurship, Words, Language, Grammar, Social Psychology, Interactions, Social Skills, Psychology, Non-fiction, Leadership, Personal Development, Social, Management, Personal Growth, Counseling, Self-Improvement

Who is it for?

  • Anyone interested in improving communication at home or at work
  • People who aspire to become better listeners
  • Those striving to be assertive rather than submissive or aggressive

What’s in it for me? Improve your personal and professional relationships with time-tested communication techniques.

Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship. Whether it’s with friends, colleagues, family, or romantic partners, people experience deeper satisfaction as a result of effective communication.

And yet most people aren’t great communicators. We’ve learned and developed communication habits and patterns that create interpersonal gaps and inhibit our ability to truly understand and connect with others.

The good news is that you’re not doomed to repeat the communication habits that aren’t serving you. These summaries will explore how you can actively change for the better by replacing dysfunctional habits with new and effective communication skills.

Book Summary: People Skills - How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • how to identify and eliminate conversational roadblocks;
  • how to practice reflective listening;
  • constructive ways to confront others;
  • how to reduce defensiveness in others; and
  • a process to resolve conflicts collaboratively.

Before learning new communication skills, correct poor conversational habits.

From an early age, most of us are taught flawed ways of relating to those around us – things like being superficial, hiding our feelings, and manipulating others to get what we want. These tendencies are habitual and learned, usually from well-intentioned people who were also given inadequate communication tools. And that means they can be unlearned and replaced – once we identify them.

Think about a time you’ve entered into an interpersonal exchange, determined to make it a successful one – and then found yourself disappointed afterward. Maybe you told yourself you’d be kind and gentle with your parents before a holiday visit. But as soon as they started criticizing you, you took the bait and argued for an hour.

If you’ve had an experience like this, you’re not alone. Most people yearn for better communication than they typically achieve. Yet, an estimated 90 percent of the time, they spoil conversations with 12 common communication roadblocks. These tend to make people either more compliant or argumentative; they also undermine the self-esteem of all parties involved and thwart the self-determination of the person who’s sharing their problem.

There are three major roadblock categories. First up? Judging. You judge when you criticize, name-call, or diagnose the person you’re talking to – in other words, when you play armchair psychologist and analyze their behavior. Judging others also includes praising. Praise may seem innocent, but it can be used to control, manipulate, outmaneuver, or sweet-talk.

The second category is sending solutions. There are various ways you send solutions to other people. One is by ordering – that means calling the other person’s judgment into question. Another is by threatening, which emphasizes the punishment that will result if the solution you want isn’t implemented. Both can diminish your self-esteem when you employ them.

Another way of sending solutions is excessive or inappropriate questioning, which is impersonal and tends to invite a defensive response. Then, there’s advising – which may seem innocuous but can be insulting, as it calls the other person’s intelligence into question. Plus, although it’s tempting to offer advice, the truth is that only the person expressing their problem can truly understand the full emotional and logistical scope of it, no matter how much they explain to the other person. The goal when someone has a problem is to help them solve it themselves.

The third major roadblock category is avoiding the other’s concern. You do this when you divert the conversation to what you want to talk about, keep the other person at an emotional distance with logical responses, or offer reassurance. That last one, reassurance, may come as a surprise – but reassuring someone can be a way to emotionally withdraw from the other person while appearing to be helpful.

Listening is more than just hearing – it’s about active involvement with the speaker.

Did you know that you spend more time listening than doing anything else? A study showed that people with different occupations spent 70 percent of their waking hours communicating. And, of that time, listening accounted for 45 percent!

However, society doesn’t prioritize listening skills. In fact, people grow up receiving antilistening advice like, “Don’t pay any attention to them.” Parents demonstrate inattentiveness and offer roadblock-laden responses to problems – behaviors they inherited from their own parents. Furthermore, experts say that people can only listen effectively from one-third to two-thirds of the time – yet most schools structure classes so that students spend significantly more time listening than practicing any other communication skill.

As a result, people tune out, ignore, misunderstand, or forget what they’ve just heard – and perhaps most tragically, they often neglect to listen for deeper meaning. After a lifetime of antilistening training, improving can seem tough, so the author recommends a simplified approach – focusing on small clusters of skills and gaining proficiency in just a few at a time.

There are three clusters: attending, following, and reflecting. Attending is a way of nonverbally communicating that you sense the importance of what the speaker is saying and that you’re committed to trying your best to understand them. Practice attending by assuming a relaxed-but-alert posture of involvement, in which you face the speaker squarely, leaning forward just slightly. Keep your arms and legs uncrossed to avoid communicating defensiveness, and maintain an appropriate distance of about three feet. Eye contact is also essential; when your eyes flit around the room, it suggests indifference.

The second cluster, following, is about staying out of the speaker’s way so you can find out how they view the situation. This means paying attention to nonverbal cues that suggest they have something on their mind, as well as sending noncoercive invitations to talk, or door openers. A door opener could be describing the other person’s demeanor back to them. Or, since attending is part of initiating a door opener, it could also include a posture of involvement and eye contact. For example, if a friend’s been sighing and looking down a lot, you might say, “You seem disappointed today. Would you like to talk about it?” If they don’t, let it go – the empathetic listener respects others’ privacy and honors their separateness.

If they do take you up on your invitation, use minimal encouragement to facilitate their self-exploration. Without agreeing or disagreeing, say things like, “Tell me more,” “I see,” and “Really?” Don’t follow up with closed questions, which only invite a specific, short response. Instead, use open questions, like “What’s on your mind?” These give the other person space to express their thoughts.

Reflective listening communicates acceptance and understanding.

Say you’re having one of those days when everything seems to go wrong. The car won’t start, you’re late for an important meeting, and then you spill coffee on your white shirt. You come home, and now you’ve accidentally burnt the lasagna. Your partner says, “When will you learn how to cook?” How do you feel?

Now imagine that instead of ridiculing your cooking, your partner says, “Wow, you’ve had a rough day – first the car, then the meeting, now the lasagna.” How would you feel then? Grateful for the nonjudgmental response? Validated because they’ve accurately summarized your experience? This is an example of the third listening skill cluster: reflective listening.

You practice reflective listening when you exhibit the following listening skills: paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, reflecting meaning, and summative reflection.

Paraphrasing is when the listener relays the essence of the speaker’s content in their own words. A paraphrase is concise, cuts through the clutter, and focuses on the speaker’s central message.

For example, let’s say Maria says to her friend Sara, “I don’t know if I should have children or not. Paul and I are still paying off our student loans; I can’t imagine saving up for a down payment anytime soon. What if by the time we can buy a house, I can’t get pregnant? It’s so unfair that our parents didn’t have to worry about debt like we do.”

If Sara chose to paraphrase Maria’s problem, she might say something like, “You want to be financially stable before you have children, but our generation has the odds stacked against us.”

Reflecting feelings, on the other hand, is when the listener relays the emotional crux of the speaker’s message. The speaker may be experiencing a lot of emotions, but as they talk, the listener tries to determine the principal one. This helps the speaker realize their true feelings about the problem – which can assist them in moving toward a solution. If Sara chose to reflect Maria’s feelings, she might add that Maria seemed worried and frustrated.

Reflecting meaning is when the listener combines the feelings and facts they’ve gleaned from the speaker’s message and provides a succinct response. If Sara were to practice reflecting meaning, she might say, “You’re worried about not being as financially stable as you’d like to be before having children, and you’re frustrated that our generation has the odds stacked against us.”

Finally, a summative reflection is when you briefly restate the main themes and feelings of a longer conversation. The listener ties together the most important fragments of the conversation, allowing the speaker to zoom out and understand themselves more clearly.

Practice healthy confrontation by sending three-part assertion messages.

Being able to listen effectively is hugely important, but it isn’t everything. Vital relationships are sustained through a complementary balance of listening and another form of communication – asserting.

If effective listening can be described as offering understanding and acceptance to another person, asserting is when you disclose your own needs, emotions, and desires.

Assertion encompasses both defending your personal space and impacting other people and society in nondestructive ways. Every individual has a personal space: a physical, psychological, and values-oriented territory which is theirs to defend. At the same time, they have a psychological need to impact the world. This is the nonaggressive, nourishing way in which people reach out to one another, establish relationships, and give and receive love.

Another way of looking at assertion is to see it in the middle of a continuum between submission and aggression. A person who mostly acts submissively tends to avoid conflict, while a person who mostly acts aggressively seeks and secures their wants and needs at the expense of others.

Both submission and aggression interfere with your ability to forge intimate relationships. The submissive person’s repressed emotions breed resentment toward the people they’ve sacrificed for; submission can also lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, migraines, chronic fatigue, hypertension, and more. Aggressive behavior sows fear and distrust, and the aggressive person tends to make enemies and alienate themselves.

The better option? Assertion. Assertion allows people to take responsibility for their own lives and stop leaning on dysfunctional behavior in an attempt to get their needs met. Assertion also helps people realize and meet one another’s needs, which promotes intimacy and leads to fulfilling relationships. Unsurprisingly, assertive people tend to feel good about themselves.

To begin practicing assertive communication, start sending three-part assertion messages. The first part of this kind of message should include an objective, specific, nonjudgmental description of the behavior you’re asking the other person to change. So instead of saying “when you don’t pull your weight around the house,” you could try, “when you don’t clean up after yourself in the kitchen.”

The second part is sharing your feelings – for example, “I feel annoyed.” Finally, clarify exactly how the other person’s behavior affects you. That might sound something like “because it makes more work for me before I start cooking.”

Beginners should only send a three-part assertion message if their message meets the following criteria: it’s highly likely to be effective; there’s a low risk of violating the other person’s space; there’s a low probability it will diminish the other’s self-esteem; and the other person is unlikely to respond so defensively that it will damage the relationship. The author also recommends that beginners write down their assertion messages before delivering them verbally.

While it’s unethical to try and change another person’s behavior, when someone is violating your space, you have the right to confront them. Defending yourself in this way is not manipulative, nor is it controlling – it’s establishing reasonable boundaries.

When people respond defensively, use the six-step assertion process.

Even if you’ve written and delivered your assertion message with the utmost respect, the other person will probably be defensive. But this is a normal human tendency. After all, it’s uncomfortable to learn that you’ve negatively affected someone’s life.

Also consider that defensiveness tends to trigger defensiveness. That means you might unexpectedly find yourself feeling hostile – but try not to act on that feeling. It’s easy for an attempted assertion to turn into a defensive back-and-forth between two people. When that happens, the asserter’s needs often remain unmet, and both people’s self-esteem suffers.

The skill of sending effective assertion messages, then, isn’t just in delivering the message. It also includes dealing with defensive responses. The author found that a six-step assertion process tends to yield more successful results than merely sending an assertion message.

The first step is to write out the assertion message in advance, making sure it’s brief, appropriate, and non-blaming. Ask yourself whether you’ve built a base of trust with the other person. This may not always be the case – but an assertion message sent before establishing trust is more likely to adversely affect motivation. At the beginning of assertion training, it’s important to choose situations in which you’re likely to be successful. Then you can work your way up to more difficult assertions.

When it’s time to send the message, don’t engage in small talk – step two is to get right down to business. Your body language should demonstrate seriousness, but also respect, for the other person.

Once you’ve sent your concise, respectful assertion message – stop. That’s step three. Give the other person a moment of silence to think about what you said. Let them express their defensiveness.

Next, it’s time for step four: practice reflective listening. When defensiveness is reflected with respect, it typically subsides. You may discover that the other person has a strong need that conflicts with yours. In that case, you can switch to collaborative problem-solving, which we’ll look at in the next chapter.

After you’ve gone through the first four steps, you’re ready for step five: cycling through the process again. It typically takes three to ten cycles before the other person truly understands and is willing to find a way to meet your needs. Effective assertion requires a balanced rhythm of asserting and reflecting. This shifting between roles is the most demanding communication skill the author teaches. If the other person reacts defensively and you strike back instead of listening, the interaction becomes aggressive rather than assertive. Likewise, if you get stuck in a listening role and fail to reassert, the interaction becomes submissive.

Finally, step six is to focus on the solution by making sure the other person’s proposal meets your needs – and by speaking up if it doesn’t. If you’re satisfied with the solution, paraphrase it back to the other person. Then arrange a future time to check in and make sure it’s working.

Resolve conflicts productively by centering emotions and using collaborative problem-solving.

Even for the most skilled communicators, conflict is unavoidable. In the best-case scenario, it’s disruptive; in the worst case, it’s highly destructive. But some forms of conflict can also be beneficial to a relationship’s growth.

So how can you approach conflict in a way that minimizes potential damage? Before diving into details, it’s important to note that there are two major types of conflict: nonrealistic and realistic.

Nonrealistic conflict is unlikely to be productive. It’s rooted in issues like ignorance, historical tradition and prejudice, and needless competition. Therefore, your objective when faced with a nonrealistic conflict is to prevent it from escalating. Manage this by using fewer roadblocks, practicing reflective listening and assertion, and cultivating acceptance for other people.

A realistic conflict, on the other hand, can be resolved constructively. It arises when two parties have opposing needs or values. Realistic conflicts can be broken down further as conflicts of emotions, conflicts of values, and conflicts of needs. When you’re dealing with a conflict of emotions or values, you can utilize the three-step conflict-resolution method.

First, treat the other person with respect. Then, listen until you can empathize with them – which becomes possible as you reflect feelings, content, and meaning. Finally, briefly state your own views, needs, and feelings.

The conflict-resolution method helps diffuse tension and allows both parties to release pent-up emotions, which usually subside quickly. One or both persons may change their minds, and even if they “agree to disagree,” their emotional bond is often strengthened.

Now, if you’re dealing with a conflict of needs, you’ll want to use the collaborative problem-solving method. Collaborative problem-solving requires use of all the communication skills you’ve learned thus far: listening skills, assertion skills, and, finally, the conflict-resolution method.

Let’s consider a situation in which everyone in a household wants to use the car to attend separate activities on the same day. With collaborative problem-solving, once everyone discovers their conflicting needs, they can work together to devise a solution acceptable to all. This involves six steps.

First, the group redefines the problem in terms of needs, not solutions. In this case, the problem isn’t that everyone needs the car – it’s that everyone needs some form of transportation. Second, everyone brainstorms to find novel alternatives, suspending critical judgment and going for quantity over quality.

Third, they select the solution that will best meet everyone’s needs. Each person chooses their favored solution, and they all see which choices coincide. Fourth, the group plans who will do what – when and where – and they write it all out. Next, they implement the plan. Last, they evaluate the process and then, at a future date, discuss how well the solution turned out. If the problem-solving method doesn’t work the first time, they cycle through it again – making sure to avoid roadblocks!

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries is that:

While conversational roadblocks aren’t always negative, most of us overuse them – thwarting our attempts to connect with others. You can improve your communication by avoiding roadblocks and building better habits like reflective listening and assertion. These two complementary skills are necessary when resolving larger interpersonal conflicts and engaging in collaborative problem-solving.

And here’s some actionable advice to use right now:

Fine-tune your emotional sensitivity in conversation.

The next time you practice reflective listening, be aware of the speaker’s feelings. Do this by focusing on the feeling words they use, observing their body language, and asking yourself, “If I were having that experience, what would I be feeling?”

When you reflect feelings back to the speaker, carefully consider the feeling words that you use. Try to be as accurate and specific as possible. For example, if you infer that the other person is sad, ask yourself why, or in what way? Maybe they’re “heartbroken” or “crushed” – or they feel “left out.”

About the author

Robert Bolton, PhD, is the founder of Ridge Training, a firm that specializes in improving relationships and performance in business, health care, and education.

Robert Bolton, Ph.D., is president of Ridge Consultants in Cazenovia, New York, a firm that specializes in improving human performance in industry, health care, education, and government. His staff has taught communication skills to thousands of managers, salespersons, first-line supervisors, secretaries, customer-relations personnel, teachers, members of the clergy, health-care workers, couples, and others. He is the author of People Skills, People Styles at Work, and Listen Up or Lose Out.

Table of Contents


PART ONE: Introduction

CHAPTER ONE: Skills for Bridging the Interpersonal Gap

  • Communication: Humanity’s Supreme Achievement
  • The Ineffectiveness of Most Communication
  • The Ache of Loneliness
  • So Much Lost Love
  • A Key to Success at Work
  • A Life-or-Death Matter
  • You Can Change
  • You Will Change!
  • Managing Your Resistance to Learning
  • Five Sets of Skills
  • Summary

CHAPTER TWO: Barriers to Communication

  • Common Communication Spoilers
  • Why Roadblocks Are High-Risk Responses
  • Judging: the Major Roadblock
  • Roadblock
  • Sending Solutions Can Be a Problem!
  • Avoiding the Other’s Concerns
  • Roadblock Number Thirteen
  • Summary

PART TWO: Listening Skills

CHAPTER THREE: Listening Is More Than Merely Hearing

  • The Importance of Listening
  • Listening Defined
  • Listening Skill Clusters
  • Attending Skills
  • Following Skills
  • Summary

CHAPTER FOUR: Four Skills of Reflective Listening

  • Reflective Responses Provide a Mirror to the Speaker
  • Paraphrasing
  • Reflecting Feelings
  • Reflecting Meanings
  • Summary

CHAPTER FIVE: Why Reflective Responses Work

  • Style and Structure in Listening
  • Six Peculiarities of Human Communication
  • Skepticism Is Best Dissolved by Action
  • Summary

CHAPTER SIX: Reading Body language

  • The Importance of Body Language
  • Nonverbals: The Language of Feelings
  • The “Leakage” of Masked Feelings
  • Guidelines for Reading Body Language
  • Reflect the Feelings Back to the Sender
  • A Clear But Confusing Language
  • Summary

CHAPTER SEVEN: Improving Your Reflecting Skills

  • Guidelines for Improved Listening
  • Beyond Reflective Listening
  • When to Listen Reflectively
  • When Not to Listen Reflectively
  • The Good News and the Bad News
  • Summary

PART THREE: Assertion Skills

CHAPTER EIGHT: Three Approaches to Relationships

  • Listening and Assertion: The Yin and Yang of Communication
  • Methods for Developing Assertiveness
  • The Need to Protect One’s Personal Space
  • Impacting
  • The Submission-Assertion-Aggression Continuum
  • Payoffs and Penalties of Three Ways of Relating
  • Choose for Yourself
  • Summary

CHAPTER NINE: Developing Three-Part Assertion Messages

  • Verbal Assertion: The Third Option
  • Three-Part Assertion Messages
  • Effective and Ineffective Ways of Confrontation
  • Writing Three-Part Assertion Messages
  • A Voyage of Self-Discovery and Growth
  • Summary

CHAPTER TEN: Handling the Push-Push Back Phenomenon

  • Surprise Attack
  • The Human Tendency to Be Defensive
  • The Upward Spiral of Increasing Defensiveness
  • A Six-Step Assertion Process
  • Summary

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Increasing Your Assertive Options

  • Many Varieties of Assertive Behavior
  • “Natural” Assertions
  • Self-Disclosure
  • Descriptive Recognition
  • Relationship Assertions
  • Selective Inattention
  • Withdrawal
  • The Spectrum Response
  • Options
  • Natural and Logical Consequences
  • Stop the Action; Accept the Feelings
  • Say “No!,”
  • Modify the Environment
  • The Danger of Going Overboard
  • The Aura of Assertiveness
  • Summary

PART FOUR: Conflict Management Skills

CHAPTER TWELVE: Conflict Prevention and Control

  • Conflict Is Unavoidable
  • Conflict Is Disruptive and/or Destructive
  • The Benefits of Conflict
  • Realistic and Nonrealistic Conflict
  • Personal Conflict Prevention and Control Methods
  • Group/Organizational Prevention and Control Methods
  • The Dangers of Conflict Prevention and Control
  • Summary

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Handling the Emotional Components of Conflict

  • Focus on the Emotions First
  • The Conflict Resolution Method
  • The Conflict Resolution Method in Action
  • Four Ways to Use the Conflict Resolution Method
  • Preparation for the Encounter
  • Evaluating the Conflict
  • Expected Outcomes of the Conflict Resolution Method
  • Summary

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Collaborative Problem Solving: Seeking an Elegant Solution

  • Three Kinds of Conflict
  • Alternatives to Collaborative Problem Solving
  • Seeking an Elegant Solution Through Collaborative Problem Solving
  • Six Steps of the Collaborative Problem-Solving Method
  • What This Problem-Solving Method Communicates
  • Collaborative Problem-Solving in Action
  • Handling the Crucial Preliminaries
  • What Do I Do When Collaborative Problem Solving Doesn’t Work?
  • Applications of Collaborative Problem Solving
  • Summary

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Three Essentials for Effective Communication

  • In Communication, Skills Alone Are Insufficient
  • Genuineness
  • Non-possessive Love
  • Empathy
  • Implementation of the Core Attitudes

AFTERWORD: Four Steps to Improved Communication

  • A Quantified Commitment to Use the Skills
  • Select Appropriate Situations
  • Undaunted by Occasional Failure
  • Prepare Others for the Change
  • Skill Training




Improve your personal and professional relationships instantly with this timeless guide to communication, listening skills, body language, and conflict resolution.

Maybe a wall of silent resentment has shut you off from someone you love. Maybe you listen to an argument in which neither party seems to hear the other. Or maybe your mind drifts to other matters when people talk to you. People Skills is a communication skills handbook that can help you eliminate these and other communication problems. Author Robert Bolton describes the twelve most common communication barriers, showing how these “roadblocks” damage relationships by increasing defensiveness, aggressiveness, or dependency. He explains how to acquire the ability to listen, assert yourself, resolve conflicts, and work out problems with others. These are skills that will help you communicate calmly, even in stressful emotionally charged situations.

People Skills will show you:

  • How to get your needs met using simple assertion techniques
  • How body language often speaks louder than words
  • How to use silence as a valuable communication tool
  • How to de-escalate family disputes, lovers’ quarrels, and other heated arguments

Both thought-provoking and practical, People Skills is filled with workable ideas that you can use to improve your communication in meaningful ways, every day.

Read an Excerpt


Skills for Bridging the Interpersonal Gap

I wish I had some way to make a bridge from man to man…Man is all we’ve got.

Cross Daman in Richard Wright’s Outsider


When one person communicates to another through the medium of language something takes place between them that is found nowhere else in nature. This ability to turn meaningless grunts into spoken and written words constitutes humanity’s most important distinction. Language has made possible the development of those characteristics that differentiate Homo sapiens from all other creatures. No wonder the German philosopher Karl Jaspers claims, “Man’s supreme achievement in the world is communication from personality to personality.”


Although interpersonal communication is humanity’s greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well. One of the ironies of modern civilization is that, though mechanical means of communication have been developed beyond the wildest flight of the imagination, people often find it difficult to communicate face-to-face. In this age of technological marvels we can bounce messages off the moon and land space probes on Mars, but we find it difficult to relate to those we love.

I have become increasingly aware of the inadequacy of most communication. In our society it is rare for persons to share what really matters — the tender, shy, reluctant feelings, the sensitive, fragile, intense disclosures. It is equally rare for persons to listen intently enough to really understand what another is saying. Sometimes people fix their gaze on a friend who is talking and allow their minds to wander off to other matters. Sometimes, while the friend speaks, they pretend to listen but are merely marking time, formulating what they will say as soon as they discover a way to begin talking. Nathan Miller caustically remarked that “conversation in the United States is a competitive exercise in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the listener.”

Ineffective communication causes an interpersonal gap that is experienced in all facets of life and in all sectors of society. Loneliness, family problems, vocational incompetence and dissatisfaction, psychological stress, physical illness, and even death result when communication breaks down. In addition to the personal frustration and the heartache resulting from it, the interpersonal gap is now one of the major social problems of our troubled society.


Many people today yearn for warm, positive, meaningful relatedness to others, but seem unable to experience it. The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan put it this way:

The deepest problem of people is loneliness, isolation, and difficulty of self-esteem in our society. Whereas the problem in Freud’s early decades was sexual repression, and the chief problem in the early thirties, when Karen Homey wrote, was disguised hostility, today it is loneliness.

There are two kinds of aloneness. Solitude can be a creative, joyous, full aloneness. But loneliness is a painful, dead, empty aloneness. Loneliness is being acutely aware of one’s isolation and alienation from others. As David Riesman pointed out, when one is not vitally in touch with oneself or others, loneliness can occur even in the midst of a crowd.

“Loneliness” — the sound of the word conveys some of the heartache associated with it. Try saying the word aloud several times in a sorrowful voice: “Loneliness…loneliness…loneliness…” The very word has a melancholy ring to it. It represents much pain for many people.

Several reasons have been given for the increased ache of loneliness in modern times. Materialism (finding one’s solace in things rather than in people), the mobility of people, uprootedness of families and the bureaucratic structure of organizations — these are just a few. I am convinced that another major cause of this interpersonal gap, and the one that may be easiest to rectify, is inadequate methods of interpersonal communication.


Unfortunately, the most intense loneliness today is often found in the family where communication is breaking down or is in a shambles. Marriage, the most complicated of human relationships, cannot flourish without effective communication. Couples hoping to establish an enriching marriage often lack the needed relational skills and end up living parallel lives in a marriage without intimacy. The often-quoted words of the poet T. S. Eliot describe what may be a typical family:

Two people who know they do not understand each other, Breeding children whom they do not understand And who will never understand them.

Proximity without intimacy is inevitably destructive. When communication is blocked, love’s energy turns to resentment and hostility. Frequent bickering, withering sarcasm, repetitious criticism, or an icy retreat into silence and sexual unresponsiveness result. One woman, after describing her family’s dysfunctional patterns of communication said, “I live in a psychological slum, not a home.”

As most parents can attest, it is no easy thing to raise children today. Virginia Satir, a leader in the family therapy field, writes:

Parents teach in the toughest school in the world — The School for Making People. You are the board of education, the principal, the classroom teacher, and the janitor….You are expected to be experts on all subjects pertaining to life and living….There are few schools to train you for your job, and there is no general agreement on the curriculum. You have to make it up yourself. Your school has no holidays, no vacations, no unions, no automatic promotions or pay raises. You are on duty or at least on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for at least 18 years for each child you have. Besides that, you have to contend with an administration that has two leaders or bosses, whichever the case may be — and you know the traps two bosses can get into with each other. Within this context you carry on your people-making. I regard this as the hardest, most complicated, anxiety-ridden, sweat and blood producing job in the world.

Healthy communication is vitally important in raising a family. For couples who have competence in communication skills, parenthood can be one of the most rewarding and joyous experiences of their lifetime. When parents have not mastered skills for accurate, congruent communication, the resulting anguish, alienation, and loneliness for parents and children alike can be devastating.

Readers of Ann Landers’s advice column were shocked when they read that 70 percent of the people responding to her survey said they were sorry they had children. Though her sample was not a true cross-section of the population, and though Landers admitted that readers with negative feelings had a stronger compulsion to respond than those with positive feelings, there was considerable evidence to support her survey’s general results. Dr. Harcharan Sehdev, Director of the Children’s Division of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, said, “The Landers letters appear to reflect the general changing trends and opinions of family systems and the place of children in our homes and society.”

Communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. When open, clear, sensitive communication takes place, the relationship is nurtured. When communication is guarded, hostile, or ineffective, the relationship falters. When the communication flow is largely obstructed, the relationship quickly deteriorates and ultimately dies. Where communication skills are lacking, there is so much lost love — between spouses, lovers, friends, parents and children. For satisfying relationships, it is essential to discover methods that will help us to at least partially bridge the interpersonal gaps that separate us from others.


Eighty percent of the people who fail at work do so for one reason: they do not relate well to other people. One’s productivity as a supervisor or manager, nurse or secretary, mental health worker or janitor, laborer, attorney, physician, clerk, or minister is greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate well. In fact, it is difficult to think of a single job in which communication is unimportant.

A mechanical engineer mused, “I thought my engineering training was all I would need. But I spend most of my time on people problems.” A teacher commented, “I was educated to be a physics teacher. Since I’ve been in the classroom, I discovered I teach people. I spend most of my energy trying to restore order. Why didn’t my graduate program help me with this?” Communication skills are clearly keys to on-the-job success.


Most human interaction is for better or for worse. Each moment with another person can be an opportunity for discovery and growth or for the erosion of identity and the destruction of one’s personhood. Our personality development and mental and physical health are linked to the caliber of our communication. One does not become fully human without interaction with other human beings. Indeed, the philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to language as “the dwelling place of being.”

People need people. As the title of one book had it, “You can’t be human alone.” Each person matures through enhancing dialogues with others. In The Mystery of Being, Gabriel Marcel observes, “When somebody’s presence does really make itself felt, it can refresh my inner being; it reveals me to myself, it makes me feel more fully myself than I should be if I were not exposed to its impact.”

Conversely, lack of communication or frequent exposure to poor communication diminishes one’s selfhood both emotionally and physically. Many believe that mental illness is primarily a problem of inadequate communication. The psychologically sick individual has not achieved good human relationships. According to Carl Rogers, “The whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication.”

Deficient communication can affect a person’s physical health. The extent to which constructive or destructive dialogue influences bodily functions, however, comes as a surprise to many people.

Emperor Frederick, the thirteenth-century ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, wanted to know what language had been spoken at the birth of mankind in the Garden of Eden. Was it Hebrew, Greek, or Latin? He ordered an experiment in which the original circumstances would be re-created as closely as possible. A group of infants were to be isolated from hearing human speech from the moment of birth until they spoke their language. The babies were to be raised by wet nurses who were strictly charged to maintain complete silence when with the babies. All the conditions of the experiment were successfully carried out. The result? Every one of the babies died. The lack of communication is often toxic and can be lethal.

The film Second Chance provides a clinical portrayal of this type of physical deterioration in modern times. The fifteen-minute movie shows how lack of human interaction slowed the growth of twenty-two-month-old Susan so drastically that her size and weight were that of a child half her age. Susan’s deterioration was dramatically arrested when, during hospitalization, she was given loving interaction and care for over six hours a day for two months.


There is one thing certain about your methods and style of communication: they are primarily learned responses. Your most influential instructors were probably your parents, who in turn learned their approach to communication from their parents. Teachers, scout leaders, friends, and many others added their input. Through radio, television, and other sources, our culture has influenced the way you communicate.

Not many people have had models of effective communication in their home environments. The lucky few who have had such models seem to be “naturals” at communicating well. What seems natural, however, is usually the result of their good fortune at having learned to communicate effectively from early childhood. Many of us, however, were taught to communicate poorly by well-intentioned people who themselves were taught inadequate ways of relating. As far as communication is concerned, many of us are victims of victims.

We first experienced the training process at an early age. Parents or parent-substitutes rewarded some kinds of nonverbal behavior, like smiling, and they communicated displeasure over other kinds of nonverbal behavior such as “temper tantrums.” When we were still quite young, they helped us frame our first words. Then they trained us to speak in certain ways. No matter how badly you hated the annual Thanksgiving visit to your aunt’s house, you may have been told, “Thank your Aunt Edith for the lovely time you had.” When you interrupted two adults who were talking, you may have been taught, “Don’t interrupt. Say, ‘Excuse me.’ “There are many other common training phrases like “Quit complaining”…”Stop that whining”…”Don’t ever speak to your mother that way”…”Charles, stop using that horrible language.”

Relatives, babysitters, Sunday school workers, and a host of others soon joined the process. “Why, Bobby, I am surprised at you for shouting at Johnny. You are usually such a good boy.” “Raise your hand before you speak. I’ll call on you when it is your turn.” “Susan, don’t tell Terry he can’t play with your truck. You are not using it now. How can you be so selfish?” “There is no such word as ‘ain’t.'” “Mind your own business.” “Don’t contradict.”

In addition to the admonitions they gave, the important adults in our lives were modeling certain ways of behaving. Perhaps they rarely disclosed their feelings. Or they may have been sarcastic, used put-downs, or screamed out polluted anger. As children, we learned by the example of the significant others in our lives as well as from their instructions to us. Cultural norms in our society reinforce much of the training we received. Some of these norms are less rigid than they were several decades ago, but many are still firmly entrenched.

Numerous dysfunctional ways of relating that are typically learned by children in our culture are listed by Gerard Egan, a priest-psychologist:

how to remain superficial,

how to build facades,

how to play interpersonal games,

how to hide from [ourselves] and others,

how to downplay risk in human relating,

how to manipulate others (or endure being manipulated)…

how to hurt and punish others, if necessary.

Some people may object that the processes and outcomes described are inaccurate. The portrayal is undoubtedly oversimplified. How one responds to the predominant communication patterns in one’s early environment varies from individual to individual. Twin brothers growing up in a home where one parent has a volatile temper may develop very different approaches to handling anger. One twin may repress it, the other may express it belligerently. Many (and maybe most) of us, however, were trained in some very ineffective and destructive ways of relating. A vicious spiral has resulted where the communications faults of parents are visited upon their children. The spiral can be broken. You can unlearn those methods of relating that do not work well for you. This book can help you spot some of the areas that most need attention and help you learn specific skills that lead to more personal fulfillment, warmer and richer relationships, and greater effectiveness at work.

People are frequently fatalistic about their ways of communicating. They tend to think that their way of talking and listening, like the color of their eyes, is a “given” in their lives. To try to change one’s style of communication, so the argument goes, is impossible. Or it leads to phoniness. As one physician said, “Relating to people is a gift. Either you have it or you don’t. I don’t have it and there is nothing I can do about it.”

My experience and that of my colleagues in teaching communication skills to thousands of people leads us to just the opposite conclusion. We have noted major changes in our own lives and in the lives of trainees. Patterns that were acquired in childhood have been replaced by more effective responses. At any period of life, the average person of sound mind and determination can learn improved ways of communicating. The research of a number of highly regarded behavioral scientists documents the fact that adults can learn to communicate more effectively.

Of course, it is not easy to alter methods of relating. Years of habit have ingrained certain tendencies for so long that it feels unnatural to relate differently. Any “new” approach seems awkward, and people are tempted to abandon their quest. But once they gain increased awareness of how dysfunctional some of their typical responses are, many people become highly motivated to change. After they have effectively used a communication skill, they often say with excitement, “It works! It really does work!”


Change is inevitable. Erik Erikson, Robert Havighurst, and others have pointed out that people go through developmental stages from infancy to old age. It is impossible to live the evening of life in the same manner as the morning.

The world is changing, too. We speak of the everlasting hills, but in the course of time they rise and sink. We refer to the eternal stars, but they too are in flux: they have their beginnings and ends, they expand or shrink, become brighter or descend toward darkness.

Change has been an integral part of human culture from the beginning. Nicholas Murray Buffer insisted that in the Garden of Eden, Adam paused at one point to say, “Eve, we are living in a period of transition.”

In this century, the changes in cultures have been so breath-takingly rapid and all-embracing that Alvin Toffler declares we are living in a period of “future shock.” What he means is that change is avalanching down upon our heads at such a dizzying pace that we have great difficulty coping with it.

With change continually occurring within us, in other people we relate to, in the physical world, and in our culture, it is impossible to remain the same.

Even when we try to cling to old ways, they are different. As H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “When we do today what we did yesterday, we actually do something different since in the interval both we and our environment have changed.”

The law of change says, “Things do not stay the same. If they don’t get better, they get worse.” If relationships do not get stronger, they will get weaker; if they do not become closer, they will become more distant; if they do not become more productive, they will become less productive.

You not only can change the way you relate with others, you inevitably will change your way of relating. It is better to manage changes skillfully than to just let life happen to you. This book teaches skills that allow for and indeed foster the kinds of changes that are desirable.


After years of trying to improve my own ways of relating and after teaching communication skills to many others, I have an awareness of and respect for the resistance most of us have to new learnings — especially if they demand behavioral change on our part. When the change is as fundamental as basic ways of relating to loved ones and business associates, the stakes are indeed high and reworking patterns of behavior can be an act of considerable courage.

When people begin to learn new skills of communication, they often say these kinds of things to themselves:

Will these skills really work or is this lust another of those psychological fads that come and go every few years? Suppose the skills are truly effective — will I be able to learn them? I’ve never been especially good at learning new things, especially skills where I must break one set of habits and develop a new set. Gosh, when I think of the trouble I had trying to stop smoking….But suppose I do learn the skills, and they do change my relationships: how can I be sure the change will be an improvement? What I experience interpersonally right now may not be great, but things could be far worse. These skills could get me out of the frying pan and into the fire! Then, too, there is always the possibility that these skills will make me a different person. Though I’d really like to be a better me, suppose I end up as a casualty — a psychological disaster. Part of me is very leery of this whole venture.

Many of us have more resistance than we realize because much of it is buried in the subconscious.

We need to protect ourselves. Homo sapiens is a vulnerable creature in a dangerous world. However, some methods of protection arrest our development while others work positively for us. One of the key elements in learning communication skills is to discover how to protect oneself adequately while reducing unnecessary defensiveness. Guidelines in various sections of this book will help you protect yourself from needless risk while you learn to use these new skills.


Five clusters of skills critical to satisfying interpersonal relationships are taught in this book:

Listening skills: These methods enable a person to really understand what another person is saying. They include new ways of responding so that the other person feels his problems and feelings have been understood. When these methods are used appropriately, the other person often solves his problems without becoming dependent on you.

Assertion skills: These verbal and nonverbal behaviors enable you to maintain respect, satisfy your needs, and defend your rights without dominating, manipulating, abusing, or controling others.

Conflict-resolution skills: These abilities enable you to deal with the emotional turbulence that typically accompanies conflict — abilities that are likely to foster closer relationships when the strife is over.

Collaborative problem-solving skills: These constitute a way of resolving conflicting needs that satisfies all parties — it is a way of solving problems so they stay solved.

Skill selection: These guidelines enable you to decide what communication skills to use in any situation in which you find yourself.

These are the basic communication tools required for effective human relationships. They are the fundamentals.

Part of the strength of this program of communication training lies in the wide range of skills it includes. Many programs concentrate on listening skills, but do not teach people how to assert constructively. In recent years, people have been flocking to programs that help develop assertiveness, but ignore the need for attentive listening. Courses that combine listening and assertion seldom give adequate attention to methods of resolving the conflicts and solving the problems that are inevitable in all human relationships. It is even more unusual to find a communication skills program that helps you figure out when to use the skills being taught and when they are inappropriate. It is futile to use a skill well but use it in the wrong situation. Our program includes what we believe are the most fundamental skills of interpersonal communication.

What is excluded from this book, however, is as important as what is included. Many books on interpersonal communication include such a broad range of skills to be developed and theories to be explored that the reader’s energy is dissipated. Skill development requires a sharp focus — a concentration of energy. In the teaching of basic communication skills, as in so many other areas, the guideline of a famous architect holds true — “Less is more.” One of the reasons for our success in helping people communicate better has been our insistence on sticking to the fundamentals. People learn best when they are not overwhelmed with too many topics and too much detail.


Although interpersonal communication is humanity’s greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well. Low-level communication leads to loneliness and distance from friends, lovers, spouses, and children — as well as ineffectiveness at work.

Research studies indicate that, despite a tendency toward defensiveness, people of all ages can learn specific communication skills that lead to improved relationships and increased vocational competence. These more desirable ways of relating will be presented in succeeding chapters of this book.

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