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Spotlight on Ethical Communication

Communication is something we all do – all the time, in many ways, with self and others, effectively or not so effectively, playfully and seriously, kindly and harshly, and in ways that do or do not have much effect.
Most of us probably know, or think we know, what communication is, but it is a complex issue.

Communication might be defined as imparting, conveying or exchanging information, feelings, or ideas by means of mutually understood words and symbols. Given that definition, it is clear that our words, gestures, tattoos, clothes, facial expressions, posture, vocal tone, and behavior can all serve as vehicles to communicate our values, thoughts, and feelings, as well as to transmit information.

This article is too short to address all those aspects of communication. Therefore, it will be limited to discussing verbal (written and spoken) communication only. We’ll look, specifically, at the mechanics and purpose(s) of communication, the blocks to communication, the meaning of “Ethical Communication,” and the tools to help ensure that our communication is ethical.


There are five elements of communication, and they are:

  • Source – In this article, it’s me, with an intent to be understood
  • Message – The message is Ethical Communication
  • Channel – The channel is written (vs. spoken) word
  • Target – That’s you, and hopefully you have an intent to understand what’s being communicated
  • Feedback – You may leave a comment, e-mail me, or speak about this article with friends

In spoken communication, when we have an intent to understand, we must truly listen to what is being said, and not just be planning our retort. It’s interesting that “silent” and “listen” both have six letters, in fact the same six letters; perhaps there’s a connection between them.


There are far too many reasons for or purposes of communication – some positive and some negative – to list here, but a partial list includes:


  • To inform
  • To instruct
  • To inspire
  • To correct
  • To provide tools
  • To facilitate decision-making
  • To empower
  • To assure or comfort


  • To shame
  • To show off
  • To manipulate
  • To deflect, distract, dismiss
  • To threaten
  • To gossip

I’m sure you get the idea, and can probably think of many others, as well.

Blocks to Communication

A limited sampling of the blocks to communication include:

  • Using words that have no meaning to the listener:

“Given our pathophysiologic, phenomenologic, and therapeutic understanding of your mental illness, the exacerbation of your substance use disorder, and your multiple post acute withdrawal syndrome-related relapses, our initial interventional Plan of Care…” You lost the client by word three – does the speaker really want to be understood?

  • Using words that have different meanings to different listeners:

Some people hear the word “crack” and think of the plumber with low-riding jeans who bent over and revealed crack, while others think of crystallized cocaine, a pipe, and a torch-Jay WestbrookWhen a father tells a teenage daughter, “be home early,” he means by 11 pm, but she strolls in at 5 am saying, “well, this is early, really early.” Or that same dad tells his son he can have a few friends over; dad meant three or four, while his son heard 20 or 30.

Some people hear the word “crack” and think of the plumber with low-riding jeans who bent over and revealed crack, while others think of crystallized cocaine, a pipe, and a torch – I’m not sure which is worse!

And all of the words we use to mean trendy and fashionable – words like “hip, cool, hot, bad, bomb, dope, smooth, slick“ etc. have a secondary or original meaning.

  • Not acknowledging feelings prior to discussing facts:

“I can’t imagine how _____X_____ this must be for you.”
where X = the observed feeling: “I can’t imagine how terrifying this must be for you” or “I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be for you.”

Honors both magnitude and uniqueness of the feeling, and results in the listener feeling visible, validated, and able to focus on the factual aspects of the conversation

  • Not using defense lowering statements:

Starting difficult conversations with statements like, “I could be wrong, but is it possible that…” or “You get to make your own choice, though I do have a concern, and that concern is…” This sends a message to the listener that it is safe to listen, because you’ve already given them “permission” to discard what you say if they don’t like it or don’t believe it will work for them.

  • Ignoring directional focus:

If I tell one of my patients with profound cancer pain, “I’m going to do everything I can to reduce your pain,” the last word they heard was “pain,” and that’s what they focus on. If, instead, I say, “I’m going to do everything I can to get you comfortable,” the last word they heard was “comfortable,” and that’s what they focus on.

In carefully choosing our words, we can help move people’s focus not only from “pain” to “comfort,” but from “terrifying” to “courageous,” or from ”suffering” or “traumatic” to “compassionate.”

Finally, this works not only in speaking with others, but in the messages we deliver to ourselves. Instead of chronicling all of the reasons something we know very little about won’t work for us, we might send a questioning message of “how can I make this work for me?”

  • Making assumptions about another’s meaning or intent:

Of course, being assumptive and/or misperceiving words spoken, or unspoken, can also compromise understanding and communication. I remember speaking with an enraged young man, who was just over one year clean and sober; he said, “I can’t believe my father doesn’t trust me enough to speak with me about his terminal diagnosis.”

On the same day, the young man’s father said to me, “I just don’t think I can speak to my son about my terminal diagnosis without completely breaking down, and I’d be too embarrassed to do that in front of him.”
Misperceptions, due to assumption, miscommunication or absent communication, are important, because they drive both feelings and behaviors, and do so over long periods of time.

Ethical Communication

Ethical Communication is a type of communication that goes far beyond the five simple “mechanics” identified above. It is both honest and balanced in its presentation. It encompasses the eight positive elements listed above under “Purpose,” and none of the six negative ones.

Ethical Communication, at the least, is understandable, respectful, non-manipulative, non-stigmatizing, non-agendized, non-leading, reciprocal, and responsive. It gets “run through” a set of filters that can powerfully transform mindless and/or unethical communication into Ethical Communication. Here are some of those more important filters:

1) If my X were listening, would I speak this way?

-where X = God, child, dog, mother, boss, spouse, etc.

2) I may not have caused this problem or situation; I can’t control it; and I can’t cure it, but is there anything in the words, tone, or attitude I’m about to share that will contribute to the problem?

3) Am I remembering that suffering can look like tears, but can also look like anger, contempt, “fine,” dismissiveness, sulking, bullying, isolation, etc., and am I greeting that suffering with compassion?

4) Am I remembering to pause – restraint of tongue and pen – and bring God into my words?

5) Am I asking if my words match the “THINK” acronym?

-T = True – are my words true

-H = Helpful – are my words helpful

-I = Integrity – integrity between “Ethical” and my words

-N = Necessary – does this need to be said, and said now

-K = Kind – are these specific words kind

6) As I consider my words, I can ask:

-does this build harmony or divisiveness?

-is this shaming and limiting or empowering

-is this both true and balanced?

-does this need to be said?

-is there a kinder way to say this?

-is this a message of depth and weight?

-do these words reflect graciousness, humility, generosity, mercy and compassion?

There is a courage required, in reaching for generosity, graciousness, humility, mercy, and compassion, for in that reaching, we become vulnerable. There is a risk associated with not reaching for generosity, graciousness, humility, mercy, and compassion; it is the risk of hardening, separating, isolating, and disconnecting.

Finally, it is so important to remember to employ these Ethical Communication filters to the words we speak to ourselves. We are often our worst critic, our least compassionate “friend,” and speak to ourselves in ways we would never allow another person to speak to us. These tools can change that, if they are used.


I hope this article has provided an understandable introduction to Ethical Communication, and useful tools to transform your words from just Communication to Ethical Communication. I’d love to see your feedback in the Comments section below.

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