Communication skills

Strategies to improve your listening and communication skills

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When we are experiencing emotional distress it often becomes challenging to correctly articulate our emotions and to correctly interpret what another person is saying. This often tends to be even more challenging for a person living with BPD. In addition, research shows that people with BPD often find it difficult to interpret other people’s expressions accurately. For example they may perceive a neutral expression as being hostile.

These factors increase the challenges of communicating with a person living with BPD making it even more essential to learn to how to communicate and listen with empathy and understanding.

These skills will often feel awkward at first.  It's important to start small and when everyone is calm and practise, practise and more practise.

Strategies to improve your listening and communication skills

Effective listening

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process.

Listening is more than just a passive act; it's an active and complex process with several functions. The primary function of listening is to comprehend information another person wants us to know. This goes beyond hearing to involve understanding the meaning often underlying the words and the overall message.

Focus on the emotions, not the words. The feelings of the person with living with BPD often communicate much more than the words they use.

People experiencing emotional distress need validation and acknowledgement of the pain they're struggling with. Listen to the emotion they are trying to communicate without getting bogged down in attempting to reconcile the words being used even if you feel what they are saying is untrue.

Show your interest in what's being said by nodding occasionally or make affirmative noises such as ‘mmm.’ Listen with curiosity, withhold blame, criticism and judgment. To actively listen to someone is not implying that you’re agreeing with what they are staying, you’re acknowledging the emotions they are experiencing as true and valid for them.

Generally, eye contact is a sign that someone is listening attentively. However, lack of eye contact does not necessarily mean inattentiveness.

Often when we feel angry there are a multitude of other emotions hidden underneath the anger.  Like with an iceberg most of the ice is actually below the surface of the water so it can also be with anger.  The emotions that may be underlying the anger include feeling rejected, worried, hurt, nervous, tired, uncertain, shame, weak or scared.  When we can recognise another's anger as something deeper, like pain or shame, we can approach conflict more compassionately, without reacting defensively.

Barriers to effective listening

It’s quite a long list. Here’s just a couple of examples:

  • distractions (e.g., TV, mobile phones, working). If it’s not urgent and now is not a convenient time negotiate an alternative time and stick to it.
  • preoccupied - when our mind is preoccupied with our own thoughts, concerns or upcoming tasks, it becomes challenging to focus on what the speaker is saying.
  • getting angry, trying to win an argument or invalidating the other person’s feelings
  • preconceived judgments or biases can create a barrier to open-minded listening. If we've already formed an opinion about the speaker or the topic, it can affect our ability to truly understand their perspective.
  • problem solving ……….. suggesting – often the person is seeking connection and needs time to ‘get something off their chest’. Sometimes it may be helpful to ask what they really need i.e., ‘Do you need comfort or solutions tight now?’.
  • rushing to respond and offer solutions can prevent us from fully grasping the speaker's message.
  • defensive listening -if we feel attacked or criticised, we may engage in defensive listening, focusing more on preparing our response than on understanding the speaker's point of view.
  • getting ahead of the speaker and finishing their thoughts - saying, ‘Yes, but . . .,’ as if you, the listener, have already made up your mind.
  • topping the speaker's story with "that reminds me. . ." or "That's nothing, let me tell you about. . ."
  • judging or minimising their experience, e.g., "you just need to ………."
  • feeling upset ourselves

Communication skills

So when we are really listening to a person living with BPD it’s important to also take note of their verbal and non-verbal cues. Many carers describe how it’s helpful to ‘learn’ some statements to help guide you on how to respond in a way that is curious and non-judgemental and has the potential to open up the conversation. For example: 

  • “it sounds to me like…”
  • “so you’re saying…”
  • “from your point of view…”
  • “let me check I’ve understood……..”
  • “I notice that…….how is this for you”
  • “I wonder if this is how you are feeling…….. “

Sometimes saying nothing is more effective than saying the wrong thing.

Remaining calm

Remain as calm as you can.

It's OK to pause a fraction of a second to increase your capacity to respond thoughtfully.

If the other person is yelling at you, it may not be the most helpful time to try continue to have a conversation. Communicate this to the other person, verbalise a previously negotiated boundary, e.g., "I can’t think whilst I’m being yelled at. As we discussed I’ll go for a walk around the block and I’ll be happy to talk when I get back and things are calmer".

Minimise use of the word 'but'

Eliminate, as much as possible the word ‘but’ from your speech as it tends to negate or diminish what was said before it. Sometimes when we try to give positive feedback the use of the word ‘but’ in the sentence can be deflating. For example, instead of saying things like, “You’re great at maths, ‘BUT’ you’re focus is so short.’ Try saying “You’re so great at maths, ‘AND’ I know it can be hard for you to focus sometimes.” It can also be interpreted as a defensive mechanism. It might make the speaker seem resistant to the previous statement or unwilling to fully embrace the other person's perspective.

Instead of using 'but,' consider using phrases like 'and,' 'however,' or 'yet' to convey a contrast without outright negating the preceding statement. These alternatives can maintain a more open and cooperative tone.

Minimise use of the word 'should'

Using the word 'should' in communication, especially when listening, can introduce a sense of judgment, expectation or imposition. This often results in less open and collaborative conversation and often creates resistance in the listener.

Opting for more neutral or supportive language fosters a sense of mutual respect and allows for open dialogue without imposing expectations on others.


Sometimes a distraction may also be helpful to calm rising distress, e.g., sipping a hot drink, patting a pet or gardening. However, it’s essential that your focus stays on the person and your relationship not on the activity.

When we really listen to another person it has the added benefit of helping them to engage their wise/thinking mind, helping them to de-arouse, to increase their understanding and with time come up with a way to manage their own distress. A win-win for everyone.