By Jude Bijou
Were your parents good communicators? Do your words or tone feel threatening to your family members? Are you often unable to get your message across? Do you struggle to say what you mean?
You aren’t alone if you find good communication difficult. We just weren’t taught about how regardless of whether we’re talking to our spouse, children or neighbors. Four communication violations create all the verbal misunderstandings and ensuing hurt, alienation and confusion. Communicating effectively with our children and others boils down to following four simple rules.
By following the rules and refraining from their violations, anyone can communicate about any topic simply and lovingly. Besides setting a good example, you’ll be lovingly instructing and reminding your children about the importance of developing good communication.
1. The First Rule is “talk about yourself.” This is our true domain. Share what you feel, think, want and need. Two examples are “I felt really hurt when you called me stupid.” or “We need to leave the house at 8:00 a.m. sharp if you’re going to get to school and I’m going to get to work on time. I would really like for all of us to be part of the team to make this happen.” The subject needs to be you, so it’s not “I feel like you are rude and disrespectful.” Talking about yourself brings understanding and love, as you reveal information about you.
The First Violation is to tell other people about themselves (without permission). This is called “you-ing.” Examples include blaming, sarcasm, teasing, attacking, giving unsolicited advice and finger-pointing. Notice the difference between “Why can’t you help with the dishes?” and “I need some help right now.” “You-ing” others isn’t effective, and only creates alienation and shuts down any chance for genuine communication.
2. The Second Rule is to stay specific. That’s what we do in medicine, engineering, math and computers; and is what we must do when communicating with each other. When you speak in concrete terms, children can understand what you’re saying – the specific topic, request and the why.
The Second Violation is over-generalizing. This can take the form of sweeping conclusions, abstractions and labels, and using words like “always” and “never,” or bringing in other topics barely related to the subject at hand. This is confusing, as you don’t hear the real concern.
Check out the contrast between “You’re so mean.” and “I’m mad that I have to clean my room before I can go out and play.” Or “Your room is always a mess. Why are you so lazy?” and “It’s important to me that the house is in order, including your room.”
3. The Third Rule is kindness. Speaking with words and a tone that convey kindness fosters love. Appreciations, praise, gratitude and focusing on the positive are all expressions of kindness. Heap them on. Children (and adults too) flourish when we compliment them on the good.
The Third Violation is being unkind. Focusing on what’s not working and on what you don’t like doesn’t further a conversation; it produces anger, negativity and feelings of separation. A prime example is “Why don’t you listen when I ask for your help?” versus “I appreciate that you took out the garbage and helped with clearing the table tonight.”
4. The Fourth Rule is listening. That means you must focus your full attention on the person who is speaking and seek to understand what he or she is saying, rather than multi-tasking or planning your cleverly worded response. To be truly listened to without judgment builds self-esteem and promotes connection.
The Fourth Violation is not listening. It’s so easy not to listen to your child because you either know what they are going to say or are in a hurry. But you’re teaching them not to listen to you. By listening respectfully to your child you are teaching them that they need to extend you the same courtesy. Automatic interruptions, offering solutions, debating and making wise-cracks don’t acknowledge your child’s need to communicate but instead delivers the message “I’m more important than you.” We all need to remember to listen 50 percent of the time!
These violations are so ingrained that changing these habits can feel nearly impossible. With a little consistent practice, you can get the hang of it. Make learning fun and non-threatening for everybody. Write out the rules and violations, discuss them so everyone is clear and post some place conspicuous. Decide on a nonthreatening signal when there is a rule violation. (It should be a neutral word such as “broccoli” or “Bahamas.”)
The main idea is to stop when you notice others or yourself making a violation and help the speaker with a “do-over” to communicate constructively using the four rules. It’s hard at first, but if everyone is on board and you make a game, it gets easier to speak effectively. The goals are for every family member to become a master communicator and experience more love.
Jude Bijou is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT), educator and author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life (Rivera Press, 2011). For more information, visit: http://www.attitudereconstruction.com/