Most people are no stranger to the criticism, “You need to communicate with me.” Families, marriages, parent-child relationships, friendships and work relationships are often riddled with communication errors.
Some people yearn for more communication while some people yearn for less. Yet, somehow, we’re all looking for the perfect medium. The first step in deciding how to be a better or more effective communicator is examining your current and historical cycles of communication.
Feedback and opinions from others can be helpful and constructive, but they can also hinder us from growth at times. As a family therapist, I ask that all family members pay close attention to their own communication styles. Sometimes, parents use phrases and criticisms that are referred to as “dispositional.” This means that the criticism is targeting someone’s perceivably unchangeable qualities. For example, if a mother says of her son, “You always lie to me,” there are many issues with that statement. Most notably, it discourages a child from feeling capable of ever being able to change their patterns and behaviors.
Criticisms that are dispositional put the receiving communicator on the defense. If the person an adult is trying to communicate with is a child under 11 years old, that child’s brain is still wired for concrete and rigid interpretations, and the child will have exceptional difficulties understanding that his mother doesn’t really mean “always lies.” Always lying, although technically not impossible, is highly unlikely. What is more likely is that the mother is having trouble knowing what to trust when hearing from her son, and her communication needs to focus on that experience.
To quickly recap, pay attention to how you’re describing your experience of another person’s behavior. Try to be more accurate with descriptors such as timing, duration and setting. For example, if a child’s lying behavior is typically more commonly related to homework and when there is something the child would rather be doing instead of homework, the focus of the conversation needs to be on that specific pattern, not the child’s character or personality traits.
When considering who communicates effectively, most experts would agree that people respond best to statements that have low levels of blame laden within them. When you’re feeling reactive, betrayed or hurt by something, it’s very hard not to assert blame. The blame to the other may be very much deserved. Within family relationships, I see parents and children replicate cycles of blaming others for emotions: “He made me sad.” “She made me mad.” “My brother makes me so frustrated.” To symbolize the ineffectiveness of these statements, I often give the metaphor of pulling from a tub of goo. When you’re ready to blame someone else for how you’re feeling, you pretend you are pulling a ball of goo out and you fling it on your family member. I then ask the family member how that would feel. Most of them would say “gross,” “annoyed,” and “irritated.” When I ask if they could think clearly with a blob of goo stuck on them, most would say “no.”
A premise we often struggle with is that effective communication with close and lasting relationships isn’t just about our point being heard. It’s also about sharing insight into how you experience things with that other person.
For example, the ineffective statement would be, “My brother made me mad” and the effective statement would be, “I’m mad right now. I want some space.” After a child above the age of 6 is requested to use independent coping skills to soothe, they should then be required to resolve conflict with their sibling. Too often, parents stand in the way of independent communication development because they end up as the referee of their child’s conflicts.
Effective communication doesn’t happen by accident. Communicators who get their point across and who share their experiences concisely are often individuals who have invested years of practice developing their communication skills. In families, it’s important to focus on building communication skills. Use these concepts to get started:
1. Focus on the behaviors as accurately and concretely as possible without attacking a person’s character.
2. Family members should be held accountable to acknowledge that their emotions are their own responsibility to learn how to regulate. Regulating and communicating emotions is critical, but we each must learn to take space when needed to reduce our blame statements and share solution-focused ways to move forward.
For help or consultation on how to resolve difficulties with your family’s cycles of conflict, call the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health to request a consultation with a family therapist.