Effective Communication

The Power of Emotional Safety

By Helen Tang, RPC, CHt, CMA

Aside from speaking and listening, one of the most important factors in establishing effective communication is the understanding of the underlying emotions behind the communication.  Specifically, emotional safety plays an important role in determining whether a conversation will succeed or fail.

When emotional safety is present in an interaction, communication is often open, fluid, and spontaneous.  In the absence of emotional safety, people tend to feel guarded, hesitant, or even hostile when they speak with each other.  Examples where emotional safety may be compromised in everyday life would include disagreements with colleagues at work, or a heated argument with your spouse at home.

Unfortunately, people often resort to using criticism, blame, shame, or sarcasm when they feel frustrated, angry or disappointed.   As a result, an unsafe emotional environment is created which causes the recipient of such communication to act defensively.  Instead of speaking with the intention to exchange information, people become preoccupied with protecting themselves when they feel unsafe, leading to a communication breakdown.  

In the 1980’s, psychologist John Gottman created a “love lab” at the University of Seattle, as part of his research on marriage.  In this study, over 3,000 couples were studied and the success of their marriages were tracked for up to 14 years.  Surprisingly, Gottman was able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple would stay happily together or divorce after listening to the couple interact in the “love lab” for as little as five minutes. 

Over the course of his research, Gottman was able to make his predictions based on the communication patterns he observed when people were engaged in a discussion.  The patterns that he observed that made him predict divorce included: criticism, harsh start-up of a discussion, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  All of these patterns involve forms of communication that lead to an unsafe emotional environment which drastically increase an individual’s stress level.  Over time, problems begin to surface and relationships can rupture under such build-up. 

As much as John Gottman’s study focuses on the subject of marriage, the idea of creating emotional safety as a foundation for effective communication is certainly applicable in other areas as well.  How often have you witnessed the same type of negative communication patterns in professional, personal, or social settings that have left people feeling disconnected, sad, or angry? 

Becoming more aware of the impact of both what you say and how you say something is one of the first steps towards improving your communication.  After all, effective communication isn’t just about a set of superficial skills; it is also about developing the understanding of the emotions underneath the communication.

If you have comments and thoughts you would like to share about this article, please go to my blog (click here), I would love to hear from you.


Helen Tang, RPC, CHt, CMA

Registered Professional Counsellor & Couples Therapist

Office:  #303 - 15292 Croydon Drive, South Surrey, BC

Phone: 778-868-4094
Contact Form: click here
Email: Helen Tang

Providing individual & couples counselling services to the communities of White Rock, Surrey, Delta & Langley, BC




photophoto photo photo