A common complaint in couples and families is “we don’t communicate.” Whether it is between spouses or parents and children, the typical description is, “I keep talking, begging for a response, and he just refuses to communicate with me!” There was a time when I would have accepted this statement and assumed the uncommunicative party just needed to be more communicative. Then I realized that all behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, is communication and conveys a message. So the issue is not whether or not you’re communicating, but what you are communicating and how well you are communicating it.
When people experience others as not communicating with them, it is often because the receiver is not responding in the manner that the sender desired, so the sender assumes the receiver didn’t “hear” the message. Some individuals assume that if the receiver doesn’t agree with the message, the receiver must not have heard or understood correctly. These people tend to confuse lack of agreement with misunderstanding. The confusion may be intensified if the receiver does not know how to effectively express their disagreement.
Then there are those individuals who send incomplete or hidden messages that are supposed to be decoded by the receiver who may not even realize a message has been sent. These message senders tend to subscribe to the misguided notion that if someone really loves you, they will automatically be able to read your mind.
We sabotage our communication, and ultimately our relationships, in so many ways. It is amazing how well we have learned to communicate poorly. One can only wonder what would happen if we put as much energy into learning to communicate effectively as we put into avoiding it. Some of the practices that get in the way of effective communication are:
Failure to match verbal and nonverbal cues. Communication involves more than just the words we speak (studies have actually shown that we pay the least amount of attention to the words). It includes tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. When the cues from these don’t match, the likelihood of miscommunication is significantly increased.
The filters we are listening through. Perhaps you weren’t aware that there are tiny, invisible — and yes, metaphorical — filters in our ears. They begin developing at birth and are shaped by the significant communications we participate in as children. These filters determine how we hear the messages others send. Sometimes they create static that interferes with messages so that we hear criticism, threats, doubt, mistrust, or personal attacks whether or not any was intended. Our filters tend to reflect our level of self-esteem.
Our emotional vulnerability. One of the primary reasons we feel vulnerable is that we give other people the power to determine our self worth. We forget that at the same time we are protecting ourselves from pain and disappointment, we are also robbing ourselves of the opportunity for deeply satisfying relationships with our spouses, children, relatives, and friends.
Now that we know all behavior is communication, how can we communicate more effectively with our children, and teach them to do the same? Here are a few suggestions:
Learn and model open, honest communication. Take the time and make the effort to accurately identify your feelings before speaking. Are you really mad, or are you actually hurt or disappointed? Are you really angry, or are you actually scared, embarrassed, or exhausted? You are much more likely to get the response you desire if you are honest about how you feel.
Be sure the message you are sending is the one intended. Attempt to match your words with a tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language that clarify (rather than confuse) the message you are trying to convey. Tacking on the phrase, “I love you,” after a scathing comment or while focused on a computer screen doesn’t feel like love to the receiver. For words to mean anything, actions have to match them.
Check your filters and replace accordingly. If you have faulty filters, do something about it. Clean them out and replace them with filters that allow you to listen freely and keep your sense of self-worth intact. Remember, the way others communicate with you says more about them than about you. Be sure the way you communicate with others reflects the kind of person you are, or perhaps, the kind of person you want to be.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. (Remember: listening does not mean approval, acceptance, or automatic permission. It just means you are listening.) Listen for the feelings behind the words and behavior, the feelings that are motivating the person to speak and behave in the way you are observing. Restate what you think you heard them say and check for accuracy before formulating a response. Take the time to consider what you want your words to accomplish before delivering a reply. Our communication must convince our children that we care enough to listen and respond thoughtfully.
Talk “with” rather than “at” your children. While nagging, criticizing, cajoling, threatening, lecturing, questioning, evaluating, and advising may be done with the best of intentions, these tactics tend to diminish rather than enhance communication. If we expect compliance, cooperation, honesty, and respect from our children, they are much more likely to exhibit these when we communicate clearly, consistently, honestly, and respectfully with them. I know I respond much more favorably to someone who speaks to me in this manner. How about you?
Use open-ended questions. Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day?” ask “What was good about your day?” The former requires a simple yes or no response. The latter is an invitation to become engaged in meaningful conversation.
For every complaint you have about a child, find five things you appreciate about him. Be sure you are doing as good a job expressing the latter as the former. It’s easier to comply with, “Thank you for remembering to put your dishes in the dishwasher.” “I really appreciate you getting right in on your homework.” “When you finish, would you please pick up the dirty clothes in your room and put them in the hamper? I need to do laundry,” than “Your room is a mess,” “You are such a slob,” or “Get in there and pick up your dirty clothes this minute!”
The next time you find yourself about to let them “have it” or give them a piece of your mind, ask yourself, “How would I respond to what I’m about to say?” You might want to find a different way to say it.
We can either encourage or discourage our children’s enthusiasm, curiosity, and willingness to communicate with us by the way we listen and the things we say. Since the relationship we establish with our children is the foundation for every other relationship they will ever have, the model for communication we provide has implications for their relationships with their peers, their spouses, and eventually, their children. If we can’t not communicate, why not invest the time and effort necessary to do it well? Talk may be cheap, but effective communication is priceless!
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman has degrees in Child Development, Family Studies, and Marriage and Family Therapy. Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator. To contact her, e-mail paren