In last month’s blog entry I shared my thoughts on the nature of communication – what it is, how it is “put together”, and how it works. I identified a model of communication that relies on exchanging information by speaking with clarity and listening with curiosity and empathy, and I identified some of the pitfalls that often doom parent-teen communication. I also pointed out the importance of “knowing your audience” and of timing. Remember the musical instrument analogy? Now that we are familiar with the “instrument” we are ready to start practicing.
As the initiator of the conversation, it is helpful to do some pre-planning, particularly if the topic of the conversation is a bit contentious or prickly.
Be clear and concise. Before starting the conversation, take a moment to think about what you really want to say. Is what you are planning to say what you actually mean? Will it open the door to a conversation or put the other person on the defensive? If there is an emotion attached to the statement be sure to communicate the emotion as your own. Use “I” language and steer away from accusatory la gauge at all cost. Here’s an example: “I feel angry when you leave your clothes on the floor of your bedroom.”
State why it is important to you. Establishing that the topic of discussion has some value and meaning to you will help open lines of communication. Be sure to explicitly state the “why” rather than just saying that it is important. Continuing with my example I might say: “It is important to me because the dirty clothes and clean clothes end up mixed together and, as a result, our household ends up wasting time and money doing extra laundry unnecessarily.”
Involve the other person in coming up with a solution or answer by asking a question. For example, “Could you please help me come up with a better solution?”
As the receiver of the message, your job is to remain open & curious and to listen with empathy. What do I mean by that? Listen because you want to understand the other person’s perspective. Listen in an attempt to find common ground. Listen because you care about the person you are speaking with.
Check for understanding. Repeat back a summary of what you have heard, paraphrasing as necessary and wait for clarification. Continuing with the example above, it might sound something like this: “You feel angry when I leave my clothes on the floor because it means that family resources are wasted doing extra laundry and you would like me to help you come up with a better solution.”
Express empathy. “I am sorry that you have been feeling angry. I can see why the clothes on the floor would make you feel that way.” Notice that this is not an apology. It is a sincere acknowledgement of the other persons feelings.
Provide an answer to the question while maintaining connection. “I would like to find a solution that works for both of us. Maybe if I had a larger hamper in my room and a closet with ample space to put things I could do a better job of keeping things off the floor. Could you help me with that?
The conversation can then continue using the same techniques but with the speaker and listener naturally switching roles until a mutually agreeable solution is reached. At that point, be sure to summarize the agreement to make sure that all parties are on the same page.
The example above may seem a bit simplistic and somewhat forced, but the basic skills and techniques work! The reasons for that are quite simple: 1) all of us want to be heard and want to feel validated; 2) emotions often color the way we view situations (and people) so acknowledging the emotion while separating it from the issue at hand can be very helpful; 3) communication and conflict resolution are both two-way processes in which no one side holds all the answers. My example also presumes that the speaker and listener are both familiar with the same communication framework & skill set. While this is helpful, it is not necessary.You will find that if you adopt these techniques and apply them in any conversation the shape of the conversation and the quality of communication will improve.
Tip #1: Start Small & Simple: Begin practicing your new-found communication skills by engaging in a conversation about a relatively benign topic or question. Steer away from difficult or contentious topics…at least at first.
Tip #2: Come up with a physical reminder to help you remain open and engaged. It could be a physical gesture, a rubber band around your wrist, a particular posture, a stress ball or fidget.
Tip #3: Let the person you are speaking with know that you are trying something new and practicing a new skill. Allow them to give you feedback at the end of the conversation and learn from it. Most critiques, even the most exaggerated, often contain a kernel of truth.
The most important piece of advice is: practice, practice, practice! As will any new skill, effective communication requires practice and repetition before it can become a habit. Be prepared to make mistakes and be prepared to learn from them. Share this blog with other members of your family and encourage them to try it out as well.