Cognitive Distortions Hinders Effective CommunicationCredit: artist of painting: Lajos Kolozsváry (1871-1937)

People develop thought distortions based partly on belief systems and family scripts.  Unfortunately, many of these distortions impact the manner in which people communicate with others and create barriers to effective communication.  There are ten common thought or cognitive distortions:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Mental filter
  • Disqualifying the positive
  • Jumping to Conclusions
  • Magnification (castastrophizing) and minimizing
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Should statements
  • Implied should statements
  • Personalization 

Cognitive Distortions Explained

Recognizing the patterns of these distortions can help others communicate more effectively with those who use these methods of interaction. 

All or nothing thinking – People with this distortion see things in black or white.  They see their actions as failures if they are not perfect.  At times this prevents them from attempting something new because they are afraid of failing because they will not be able to accomplish it perfectly thefirst time.  In communication with others, this distortion inhibits the person from abstract thinking or thinking “in the gray area.”

Overgeneralization – A single negative even is seen as a never-ending pattern.  People with this distortion are those who are passed over for a job and consequently believe that they will never get one.  Again, they may stop trying because “why bother.”

Labeling and mislabeling  - is an extreme form of overgeneralization.  Instead of describing an error; a negative label is attach to self or someone else. Mislabeling describes an event with highly colored and emotionally loaded language. “He’s a stupid S.O.B.”

Mental filter - One single negative detail is dwelled on so exclusively that the vision of all reality is darkened.  Perhaps something happened in the morning and therefore the whole day is ruined. 

Disqualifying the positive – Anything that is positive is rejected as “not counting.”  Using this distortion allows people to maintain a negative belief when reality contradicts it.  Someone’s positive opinion is discounted because that person doesn’t know the individual well enough; thus the negative belief stays intact.

 Jumping to Conclusions – A negative interpretation is made even though there are no definite facts to support your conclusion.  This includes:

Mind reading – conclusion is made without checking it out. “This person is trying to get something from me.”

Fortune telling – there is anticipation of how things will turn out and the person is convinced that his or her prediction is already established fact.

Magnification (castastrophizing) and minimizing -  Exaggeration of the importance of things or inappropriately shrinking things until they appear tiny and insignificant.

Emotional reasoning – assumption that what is being felt is the way things really are.  “I feel it; therefore, it must be true.”

Should statements – probably the most common of distortions.  People motivate themselves ”shoulds and should nots” (must and ought to are also should statements).  The consequence is that this creates guilt in the person; and when directed towards others, the person often transmitter often feels anger, frustration and resentment.

Implied should statements -  This is used when a change in behavior is asked of someone without actually saying so.  “Don’t you have something better to do?” (“You should leave me alone.”)

Personalization – This thought distortion is two-fold.  People feel that someone is directing their words or actions at them; or the person feels responsible for something bad happening but in reality that is not supported by the facts.  

Impact of Cognitive Distortions on Communication

All of these cognitive distortions are barriers to healthy communication between people.  These can cause messages to get cloudy and anger, resentment and frustration can become prevalent.  It is these types of distortions that can cause people to “misread” or “misinterpret” what others are saying. 

This type of communication can increase stress and impact the mental and physical health of the thought holder as well as the receiver of the muddled messages.  Some professionals hold when these distortions are eliminated, the person will have an improved mood and will not be as vulnerable to mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety.



The copyright of the article “Cognitive Distortions that Hinder Communication” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.