Communication Skills: Key Tools for Survival, by S.S.F.

Survival Blog

Most people wouldn’t keep .22 shells on hand for their .30-06 rifle.  They likely wouldn’t waste space in their pantry, storage, garden or go-bag for foodstuffs that were not calorically or nutritionally dense compared with the space they occupied

Each serious or well-intentioned survivalist knows how precious resources, energy, space and time can be, and would likely strive for a high level of efficiency.  Being well prepared and resourceful is a cornerstone of success when it comes to survival. And yet, there is a fundamental tool that is oft overlooked- effective communication strategies.

The tools in a survivalist’s arsenal should reflect necessity.  The select items and materials one keeps on hand can ultimately mean the difference between success and failure, between abundance and poverty, and ultimately, between life and death. One of the most functional assets the strategic survivalist can have on hand is effective, constructive communication skills.

Effective communication is an important skill for all humans, and should not be undervalued. Ones ability to communicate well can positively impact and change the trajectory of many a conflict or social dilemma. Its development is useful in all types of interpersonal relationships and settings.  Crisis, conflict, courtship- it matters not where one imagines he or she might want to use these skills- we need only understand that we most certainly will.

Good communication skills are a fundamental component of human success.  When anthropologists study immediate-return foraging cultures, untouched by civilization, they often note a social dynamic which most often comes with unyielding emphasis placed on cooperation and problem solving. It has been termed “fierce egalitarianism”,  it makes sense- living in small bands, at the mercy of nature and highly dependent on one-another, humans likely developed solution-oriented communication tendencies in order to be successful in the face of the danger and uncertainty of their world.

The devolution of our disposition for solution-oriented, cooperation-directed communication skills is likely to be a relatively recent phenomenon- one associated with the development of systems of food production and storage that over time required or lead to greater divisions in labor, status, population growth and land ownership.  Agriculture cropped up years ago and the division of labor and society in ever-growing social groups has undermined the egalitarian mindset of our ancestral, tribal forebears- the emphasis of common ground- amongst the population ever since.

There is clear evidence, both currently and historically, that without the skills necessary to find resolution to conflicts which are nurturing to the group’s moral and promote cooperation and positive outcomes, the resentment, distrust and hardships which arise give way to deterioration rapidly.

Daniel Balliet, of Singapore University, conducted a meta-analysis of much of the available research on how social dilemmas are enhanced by cooperative communication. In the paper, which appeared in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Balliet looks to a number of studies to find out what strategies enhanced conflict-resolution.  He writes that while “there is no magic bullet…  the single solution that has harnessed the most support and reduced the most conflict… is [effective] communication.” (JCR, 40)

Conflict is everywhere.  As social, highly emotional creatures with many variable forays, inevitably, toes are stepped on, walls are put up, hearts are broken.  Even a decision like “what to make for dinner”, or an off-handed remark can lead to conflict.  The interlocking web of opportunity for conflict-resolution is endless.  Cultivating effective communication strategies will be as useful to you as stocking up on toilet paper or finding out which plants won’t give you a gnarly rash when you have to go without.

So, how does one begin in their quest to advance their communication skills?  The first objective in this process would be realizing that cultivating better communication skills takes time and patience- with oneself and others. Patience is a virtue, and this adage could become a mantra for to assist you in advancing your communication.

As for the how-to, fortunately, there has been much research into the field of what makes communication with others strong, and what makes it go sour.  Various researchers have come up with more or less the same basic tenets.  If understood and practiced frequently, the skills a person develops can change the course of their relationships with others fundamentally.  So, if you feel up to the task, read on for a primer on what will likely be a rewarding investment of your energy and time.

A few books stand out which shed light on the subject of bettering our communication skills.  The three that I am most familiar with, and that are very easy to digest, are “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by Fisher, Ury and Patton, “Communicating Effectively for Dummies” by Martin Brounstein, and “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.

These authors’ work is based on many years of research observing human communication, across cultures and in different scenarios, from spousal discourse to business deals.

When we think of communication, we think of speaking, generally.  Funny enough, one of the most critical facets of being an effective communicator is listening well.  We are not raised in western culture to listen well… many of us come from family dynamics where people heard what they wanted to hear, and based their responses on that.

 We have also been conditioned by the culture at large to be impatient and hasty with our responses and assumptions. These ways of relating are unlikely to produce positive outcomes… when an “agreement” is struck, and the aforementioned ways of listening were a large factor influencing it, then it is likely that one party simply acquiesced or gave up- which creates resentment and does not deepen understanding, nor does it further positive feelings amongst the participants.

So, how does one become a good listener, and ultimately a good communicator?  There’s not a special formula.  There is, however, a need to be objective, empathic, and to cultivate a sense of joint effort to find a common ground.

The authors of the book “Getting to Yes” advocate some fundamentals that are easy to understand.  It may seem trite, but they really are simple ideas. It is getting past your enculturation and habits that is the difficult part.

First, don’t bargain over positions- it is inefficient, it endangers a relationship, and it gets worse the more parties that are involved.   Positional bargaining is the most common pitfall in social dilemmas… each party in a conflict adheres rigidly to their own desires, thereby invalidating the ideas of those around them.  All elements of communication, like salt roads to Rome, lead back to the position of the party espousing their views in contrast to another’s.

It’s a no-win situation.  If listening is a key ingredient to good communication, then it follows that objectivity and flexibility would work well, too.  After all, what are we listening for if not to gain insight into the ideas of the other party?

The next concept outlined in Getting to Yes is to “Separate the People from the Problem”.   Remember that negotiators are people first, and that every negotiator has two kinds of interests: The substance and the relationship.  The relationship, however, tends to become entangled with the problem.  Since positional bargaining (where one is fixated on a particular idea or outcome, and orients all attempts at resolution toward that end) tends to put a relationship in conflict with the substance, its best to keep them separate. Deal directly with people.

How do you deal with people directly?  Seems like an easy task- many people are probably scratching their heads, because this seems like the only thing that you are doing when engaged in a discourse or argument with another person.  But without some alterations to the approach, many of us may find ourselves squabbling, yelling, and ending up sans solution, and mired in frustration and resentment.

The authors suggest we start this by changing our perceptions.  We must change the way we are viewing them, the other, and take the opportunity to influence how they are viewing us.

We start by putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes.  That’s where we try to understand their position, or why they might feel a certain way.  If you were in a survival situation, and came upon others that were looking for food, ill, or frightened, you could attempt to see things from their vantage point.  Doing so might keep you from making a rash decision.

There are many people in the survivalist community who take a “me and my own” stance when it comes to dealing with outsiders, especially in a SHTF scenario.  And, while this concept certainly has its place, this type of mentality makes it likely that if there is a person with valuable skills who comes along, information or ideas, say a doctor or engineer or perhaps just an individual with an able body and sound mind, they will be obscured to the group that cannot adequately address confrontations by utilizing empathy.  In other words, sharing a meal with an outsider who comes looking for food, as opposed to chasing them off with sticks from the get- go (and yes, this is a metaphor as well) can be a tool in and of itself.

When dealing with social dilemmas, its also important to try not to deduce their intentions from your fears.  This is a strange phenomenon, yet we all do it from time to time.  It is an aspect of communication that takes on an almost magical or paranormal quality, where we assume their intentions based on how we feel.  It’s a slippery slope, however, and best to be avoided.  Why? Because we are not (most of us, anyway) equipped with psychic, infallible capacities of deduction for the intentions of others.

Its best to get past the blame hurdle as well.  This has got to be one of the most difficult pitfalls that many of us learned- blaming others.  It feels “right”… they did or said something.  The problem is, if that is the angle we come from, the human tendency is to recoil or become defensive.  Neither produces the results we want- which is a solution, right?

There is a show on television right now that centers around a survivalist/ SHTF scenario, and it couldn’t be more perfect in its depiction of how not to communicate effectively during social dilemmas.  Secrecy, positional bargaining, even murder… its all there.  Now, while I haven’t had a television in my home for the last 10 years, I was recently at a friend’s house.  They are apparently avid fans of this show, and asked me to take in a few episodes that were being played back to back.

Its called The Walking Dead, and it airs on AMC.  The characters, catapulted from normalcy into an apocalyptic, zombie plagues nightmare, travel the countryside, trying to evade harm and zombies.  Far more then a gore-show, the greatest conflict is the drama which unfolds socially, aided by the characters’ utter lack of efficient, cooperative communication.  The characters undermine, with each new episode, the quality of their groups cohesion, by approaching interpersonal and group dilemmas with dysfunctional communication skills.

The overwhelming tendency toward blame and self-centered perspectives on conflicts that arise likely causes more zombie-related skirmishes, bites and battles then just trying to navigate a world of zombies in an of itself would portend.   The characters are utterly inept at effective communication- they bicker, yell, attempt to kill, and constantly quarrel with one-another, to no avail.  The show is entertaining- but the way that the characters communicate is baffling.
As a survivalist, it seems outrageous that petty arguments could take the attention of the characters away from… well… zombies around every turn.  Yet many a character has had a flesh-eating, roaming, gimpy corpse creep up behind them, nearly chomping a bit of shoulder, even in broad daylight.  Why?  How?  Its really simple- they’re always arguing, and their debates are littered with the worst communication patterns imaginable.

Sadly, admittedly, the communication patterns used by the characters in this show are often used by real-life people not being pursued by hoards of walking dead.  All of us fall prey from time to time, to the ineffective, messy, hindering patterns of communication that we were conditioned to believe was normal. Part of that narrative of normalcy includes not really caring to find out another’s perspective.

By discussing each other’s perceptions, we open new doors.  We shatter our old habits.  We can use it as an opportunity to act inconsistently with their perceptions.  (And example would be listening when they have stated they feel like you don’t.)    And, by making sure that they participate in the process, you give them a stake in the outcome. Now you’re working as a team.

But with all this objectivity, we don’t want to lose sight of what’s really driving much of our misunderstanding, anger and conflict.  Emotions.

Take the time to recognize and understand their emotions and your own.  Talk about them.  Acknowledge them as legitimate.  Allowing the other side to “let off steam” is a great way to diffuse tension and hear what they’ve been feeling without taking it personally.  If they have emotional outbursts, do not react to them.  This keeps the tension low, and it’s a strength in character to work towards this end.

Once you are identifying with your co-communicator, despite your differences of opinion, you can make good headway towards a solution.  If you listen actively and acknowledge what is being said, if you speak well so that you are understood, and clarify when you are not, then you will go far.  Speak for a purpose.  And all-importantly, speak about yourself, not them.

Some people may be thinking “Well, this sounds nice, but how does it look in practice?”  These strategies are used by businessman and women world-wide.  They are used amongst union members who attend mediation groups to work out settlements.  They are used by teachers, by colleagues, by spiritual communities, and by families.  In short, we know the principles, when utilized with earnest, tend to work well, because they are used so universally in settings where there is group cohesion, community health and finances at stake.

To each their own- remember that adage? A critical step when approaching conflict is to recognize that each side has multiple interests.  Their interests define the problem at hand.  Despite the presence of opposed positions, there are many shared and compatible interests mingling with the conflicting ones.

The most powerful interests are basic human needs, and for some communication scenarios, a list can be made.  By putting both parties interests and needs down on paper, it helps you to look forward, not backwards.  It acknowledges their interests and your own.  Yet, it can make it easier to mutually  identify which interests you or the other party have that may actually be part of the problem.

When you’re working towards a solution, try to avoid premature judgment, searching for the single answer, or thinking that solving their problem is “their problem”.

When we look at a situation through another’s eyes, when we detach ourselves from what we assume might be another’s thoughts, and when we focus on meeting the person where they are, as opposed to “having our way” (positional bargaining), we tend to have great success when resolving conflict.

Engaging in conflict resolution with an open mind, and a conscientious while assertive approach, makes our argument or ideas more appealing to others, and opens the door to concepts or issues we may have overlooked or had yet to grasp.  When people feel respected, they often feel more flexible- more generous with their interests.

For most of us, its not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the communication takes a turn for the worst- where things break down.  Much of our arguments and discussions go in that direction.  Even if we “come out on top” or as “right”, much of the time, a poorly communicated discourse or debate leaves parties feeling unsettled, angry, anxious or hurt.

We can engage with others in a way that validates our own feelings and interests, while simultaneously supporting a solution-oriented interaction with someone we might be at odds with. This is the substance of a healthy community, relationship and general philosophy of life.

There are many more things that can advance your communication skills, and they are best practiced regularly, in all types of scenarios or conflicts, in order to really develop them solidly.  I recommend the aforementioned books; many of us were not taught adequate ways to communicate with others, and reading up on the subject can be rewarding.

Remember- effective communication should be a fundamental tool in your arsenal for survival.  It is not enough to have the best bug-out bag, the most complete fall-out shelter, or the most serious stash of weaponry.  Even if you had not an item to your name, not a tool on your person, just knowing how to communicate well can be a valuable asset to get you out of a hairy situation.

We need to acknowledge that we are human, and that there are skillful ways in which we can influence our relationships and social encounters that can transform outcomes in a positive way, can serve as the binding glue for our community, and ultimately mean the difference between life and death for ourselves and others.


Balliet, Daniel.  Communication and Cooperation in Social Dilemmas: A Metanalytic Review,  Journal of Conflict Resolution 2010, 54:39

Ury, William. Fisher, Roger. Patton, Bruce.  Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.  Penguin Books, 1983.


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