IMPROVING BOTH SIDES OF THE COMMUNICATION EQUATION
These Six Skills Are Proven Ways to Make Just About Any Conversation More Positive and Productive.
By Dr. Jason Carroll and Dr. Brian Willoughby
Communication is tricky. We all know it’s an important part of our relationships, and we all know we could improve how we communicate with others. This is especially true when it comes to parenting young teenagers and how we share. Every parent has walked away from a conversation wishing they had said or done something differently. None of us will ever be perfect at communicating with our children. However, like any skill, communication can be improved over time with effort and practice. One of the most interesting things about communication between parents and children is that although we almost all recognize the importance of having healthy communication, most people don’t understand what “healthy” communication looks like. If we don’t know what it means to have healthy communication, it isn’t easy to know how to improve or practice healthy communication skills. Let’s dig into the way experts and therapists understand healthy communication to help you uncover some specific ways you might improve your communication with your child.
Communication as a Two-Sided Equation
Perhaps the most important aspect of communication to understand is that communication is always an act between two people and always involves two separate roles: talking and listening. It seems basic, right? While it might seem so, playing out these roles in a healthy way is both critical yet tricky to execute in practice. During any conversation, the two people involved must alternate between talking and listening in a way that makes both people feel understood and appreciated. When this basic dance of communication isn’t followed, conversations often end in conflict, frustration, or even annoyance.
Another way to think about this process is to think about the following equation: Healthy Communication = Good Talking + Good Listening.
Both people that are communicating must be aware of and work hard to execute their role in the process. You can’t have one without the other, which means it takes both the parent and child to use good communication skills to have a healthy and productive conversation. How can you improve communication then? By improving your skills on both sides of the “+” sign. Let’s talk about how you might improve both the talking and listening side of healthy communication.
Healthy communication is all about practice, practice, practice. The great thing about communicating with your tween is that you can practice the skills you’ll need for those conversations when you communicate with anyone!
So, let’s dig in and talk about some specific skills you can practice when you’re talking to your child, spouse, friend, coworker, or just about anyone.
Improving the Talking Side
When you’re the one talking in the conversation, there are a few things you must keep in mind that will make this half of the communication process more productive. It’s important to remember when you are communicating with a tween that the goal of each conversation is not to get your child to do or think something (this is called controlling communication and is an unhealthy pattern to get into!). Instead, your goal is to help your child understand what you are trying to say. Often this understanding changes what we talk about and how we say it. That leads us to the first skills to practice.
- Learn to give lots of clear examples. When we communicate with another person, one of the best ways we can help them understand what we are trying to say is by giving examples. Often when we use words, they can mean different things to different people. This can make understanding each other difficult. For example, if you say, “I feel like you don’t care,” it can be confusing to the other person because our internal feelings of being cared about differ from person to person. Examples help provide more information to the person we’re talking to and make sure you are conveying the correct meaning, even if you are using words differently. Practice giving clear examples as you communicate to help reinforce both the positive and negative emotions you are experiencing or feeling. As you communicate with others, make a point of giving an example or two when you really want to make sure the person understands your meaning.
- Learn to say what you mean. Sometimes we must have hard conversations with the people we love. When these topics come around, we sometimes like to beat around the bush or avoid directly talking about the concern, issue, or topic. This can make communication confusing and challenging. We do this because we hope the other person will pick up on what we have to say without directly saying it. Healthy communication is about being clear and direct. When you have something hard to say, just say it! Certainly, try to speak without attacking or blaming the other person, but be willing to talk about both the easy and hard things as you build a relationship with those around you. Next time you need to bring up a topic with another person that brings you anxiety, work on speaking directly about what your concern is or how you feel. Don’t give the other person only part of the information they need to understand your perspective.
- Learn to avoid mixed messages. A mixed message is when we say one thing, but our non-verbal body language says another. This means that the information we are sending the other person doesn’t line up. This is confusing for the person trying to understand you. Although we may know that non-verbal language may be more accurate, mixed messages are related to a range of communication difficulties in relationships. Have the courage to say what might be written all over your face to make sure your communication is consistent across all the information you are sending the person you’re talking to. Start to be aware of your non-verbals when you speak to other people. What is your body posture? What are you looking at? Pay attention to how each part of your body sends information to the other person to have a better awareness of making sure that all your information is consistent when you communicate.
Improving the Listening Side
Learning how to listen is just as important as learning what to say when you’re communicating. Remember, healthy communication is about trying to understand each other. Without strong listening skills, this understanding process would never happen. Let’s talk about a few listening skills that you can work on to improve how you listen to your tween.
- Learn to ask for help. Sometimes despite our best efforts to listen to the person we are talking to, we can still get confused about what the other person is trying to say. In these situations, make sure to ask for help! This means asking questions when you need more information, telling the other person you’re having a hard time understanding them, or asking for examples to help you understand something you’re having a hard time getting. Sometimes we worry that asking for help will make the other person think we aren’t listening, but research suggests the opposite is true. When we ask for help, we signal to the other person that we are invested in the conversation and want to understand them. Practice this skill in your conversations for the next few days. Every time you are not exactly sure what the other person meant, ask some questions to get more information to help you out.
- Learn to summarize and repeat. Active listening is the art of not just sitting back with our ears open while listening but doing something that promotes healthy communication and encourages the other person to keep talking. One of the best active listening skills to practice is summarizing and repeating. This means that when the person you are speaking to is done talking, you summarize what you think they said and repeat it to them to make sure you understand. For example, you might say, “Ok, so I think I’m hearing you say….” Or “Let me make sure I have that right, it sounds like….”. Summarizing and repeating is a great skill to have, and utilizing it will make sure you are getting the message being sent to you while also showing the person you are speaking to that you care.
- Learn to stay engaged. There are so many distractions in our lives today that it can sometimes be hard to stay in the moment. Smartphones and other modern technologies can make it especially tempting to keep only part of our attention on the person we are talking to. You might find yourself also daydreaming about your next task, something fun you get to do later in the day, or even what your next meal is going to be! When you stop giving the person you’re talking to your full attention, you are more likely to miss important information, which can lead to miscommunication. Putting energy and effort into conversations is another critical skill to practice! Practice giving each person you are talking to your full and undivided attention and catch yourself if you start to mentally slip and think about something else.
These six skills, three focused on talking and three focused on listening, are proven ways to make just about any conversation more positive and productive. The best thing about these skills is that they can improve your communication with anyone, not just with your tween. That means you can practice these skills as you talk to just about anyone during the day. Dedicate yourself to identifying the skills you feel are the weakest and make a plan to practice them every day. As you do, you’ll find yourself more prepared to improve your communication with your child.