Spillover from Conditioned Communication

Adam Neff discusses the spillover from conditioned communication and how it affects First responder families.


In our everyday interactions, communication plays a vital role in how we connect with others. It shapes our relationships, influences our understanding, and defines our experiences. At times, we can find ourselves in situations where we struggle to convey our thoughts, emotions, and needs effectively to others. Add in the conditioning from the job and communication at home becomes even more difficult.

Developing effective communication skills is more than just words, active listening, and validating feelings. It’s understanding what is going on in our brains and why we do some of the things we do when we are not heard.

Today, Adam Neff discusses why developing communication skills to increase relationship outcomes is essential, and how our experiences in emergency services impact our ability to communicate.

The Need to Connect

As humans, we are wired to seek connection and support from one another. When someone we care about is in distress, we instinctively approach them, hoping to provide comfort and assistance. However, communication can sometimes become challenging when the person in need denies their struggles with a simple “I’m fine.” In those cases, the natural response is to try to find out what their true feelings are driven by our desire to help and fix their problems. We must recognize that this instinct to fix and help others is because of conditioning from the job as first responders.

Communication and misinterpretations

When our efforts to connect are met with misunderstandings, frustration can build. We may feel unheard and misunderstood, leading to a breakdown in communication. What we may consider simple instruction or communication is misinterpreted.

We’ve all been there. We ask our spouse to take out the trash. The trash does get taken out but maybe it gets taken to the garage and not to the outside can. We ask our child to clean the room.  Your child’s room does get cleaned, but they shove everything under their bed. In both situations, the task was completed, BUT it probably was not completed to our expectations.  The communication was not effective for the receiver to be able to meet the expectation we had with the communication.

Without communicating clear expectations, it can lead to misinterpretations of what we really want. This can happen from a range of factors, including unmet needs, past experiences, and continuous behavioral patterns.

When we don’t have proper communication skills, we can resort to repeating ourselves or even raising our voices in an attempt to be heard and get what we want. The irony is that the more we try to fix the communication without being able to properly communicate, the more it can deteriorate, creating a cycle of miscommunication and frustration. This can often lead to a breakdown in connection in relationships.

Unpacking First Responder Communication

Emergency responders face unique challenges when it comes to communication. The kind of communication that is needed on the job is not necessarily the type of communication needed at home. Officers are accustomed to following orders and structured communication leaving little to no room for anything other than FACTS. While on a call, an effective and “get to the facts” style of communication is needed to obtain important information while maintaining safety. There is no time for storytelling.

The impact of this type of communication can spillover at home.  Once an officer gets off shift, there is a need to recognize that spouses and children oftentimes do not speak with a “get to the facts” mindset. They want to share details of their day and tell the entire story and not just the information needed to get to the point.

The Impact of communication patterns

Our communication patterns are deeply rooted in our upbringing and cultural conditioning. As children, we may have learned to associate someone’s pain or discomfort with our own actions and assume responsibility for their emotional state. This tendency can follow into adulthood, leading to internalizing blame when someone close to us appears upset. To end the pattern, you have to break free from the conditioning and understand that others’ emotions are not always a direct result of our actions.

The Need for Skillful Communication

Effective communication is a skill that can be cultivated and refined. By actively engaging in the process, we can become skilled communicators, trained at both expressing our own needs effectively and understanding others to strengthen our relationships.

Be Vulnerable

There is no shame in being vulnerable with your spouse. If you are having a hard day and just need a hug, be honest and let them know. They cannot read your mind and know what you need.

It is also ok to say you don’t know what you need or what is wrong. The way you feel doesn’t always have to be associated with a feeling. It could be something physiological that you can’t pinpoint, and you just feel off.

Ask Clarifying Questions

By asking clarifying questions, we can foster a deeper understanding of each other’s needs and perspectives and build on clearer communication.

Use Reflective Statements

Self-reflect and ask yourself if you are being true to yourself and your needs. Are your needs not being met and in turn affect your communication? Are you working out? Are you sleeping enough? Are you practicing healthy eating habits?

Use Active Listening Techniques

Not every conversation involves problem solving. Ask your spouse during conversation if it is a situation where they need you to listen or help solve the problem.

Value Emotions During Conversation

Emotions during conversation may not have the same effect on you as they do on the other person involved. For example, if your daughter just aced a math test and is excited, expressing or mirroring that feeling will assist with connection even if you don’t connect to the feeling.  Don’t dismiss her excitement. Value the emotion that she is experiencing.


Write down your thoughts to help you from feeling overwhelmed. The reason why journaling works is because the emotions come from the right side of our brain and our left side is the organizing structure part. Journaling is not only an art form of writing, but it also taps into the left side so we cannot get overwhelmed with our feelings. We can still say organized and somewhat controlled.

Learn to Be Ok with Taking Breaks

It’s ok to take a break during arguments. When emotions run high, logic runs low! Communicate what can we do to take a break that would be acceptable and yet get us to where we need to be.

Remember these techniques take practice. Whether you have been an officer for 10 years or 30 years, those are cumulative years of being conditioned to get straight to the facts during conversations. Effective communication will look different to everyone. It’s about finding what works for you as an individual and as a couple. Building these skills not only enhances the ability to communicate within our relationships but also helps us to navigate conflicts and emotions more effectively.

Skilled and effective communication revolves around authentic connection, understanding, and empathy. It requires us to go beyond surface-level exchanges and dive into the deeper emotions and needs of those we care about. By challenging our preconceived notions, actively listening, and embracing effective communication techniques, we can create an environment of open dialogue, fostering deeper connections and strengthening relationships. Whether we are first responders or individuals striving for better communication, prioritizing genuine understanding can lead to stronger relationships.

Adam Neff is the assistant chief of training and operations for a small fire department in southwest Missouri and has been with the fire service for 29 years. He is also a provisionally licensed professional counselor working towards full licensure and talked about at regional conferences and national conferences on this topic and mental health.

To connect with Adam: [email protected]

Facebook:  Adam Neff



Adam Davis talks about how he was able to overcome the impact his trauma had on his career and relationships and what led him to write, Unconquered.

Read More »

Spillover from Conditioned Communication

Adam Neff discusses the spillover from conditioned communication and how it affects First responder families.