When my two brothers and I were in elementary school, our family always ate weekday dinners together. Everyone in the family had a chance to talk about problems, successes and minutia of the day. My parents insisted that if we wanted to be listened to, we had to listen to everyone else, including them. My parents created an environment conducive to sincere communication. They knew that if they wanted their children to listen to them, they needed to listen to us.
By 6 years old, your child is already copying how you communicate. If you communicate with others respectfully, and listen for understanding (not to advise or prescribe), then your child will copy that behavior.
Imagine your child coming home from day care excited to tell you what they did that day. You, busy sorting mail, prepping supper, texting or talking on the phone, ask them to wait until you are finished without telling them how long that might be. From their perspective, all they see is that everything you are doing is more important than listening to them. Their self-esteem takes a hit. If this pattern continues, it becomes the communication norm for that child.
Here’s the great news. You can change the communication norm in your family. It will take time and practice, but it is possible. And the results become apparent in short order. No matter what type of family system, the norm can shift and a new norm can be created.
Understanding what is happening
The first step parents can take to improve family communication is to rigorously look at their current communication behaviors.
Observe your communication behavior around your significant other, your parents, your siblings and your friends. Whether the communication is in person or on the phone, what are you modeling for your children? You may want to enlist a “communication helper” from outside your immediate family and let them know what you are working on. Their observations might bring to light some behaviors you wouldn’t otherwise notice.
Observe your behavior when you communicate with your kids. Don’t let your emotions about what you are discovering get in the way; you are fact-finding so you know what to work on.
Once you have spent a month observing and journaling your communication and listening behavior, discuss what you have discovered with your communication helper. Concentrate on which situations, times of day, subjects and emotions trigger you to stop listening.
Create a “Top 10 List” of behaviors you want to change. For each behavior, decide on two strategies you will use when it crops up again. In a family where there are two parents or caregivers, make sure both adults are on board and participating.
Most importantly, sit down with your children and have a conversation with them about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make it age appropriate. Ask them for their help and set ground rules for what that might look like.
Quick tips and things to think about
Often, the exact time a child wants to talk is the most inconvenient time for you, but try to have the conversation right then and there. You need to understand that your teen’s readiness to talk in a serious, deep, reflective way depends on circumstance, emotion and mood coming into some inexplicable internal alignment that may not come around again anytime soon. If you make the choice to delay the conversation, let your child know when you will come to them to have the conversation, then stick to your word.
When you are having a conversation, do so in a place where you will not be interrupted or distracted. If you have multiple children, set up times to converse with each of them. They won’t mind waiting, because they know they will have your undivided attention when it is their turn.
Figure out where you are listening from. Are you lecturing or listening? Are you solving the issue, or helping your child solve the issue by using unemotional questions to guide their thinking?
When entangled in a conflict with your teen, you might be placed in a position where you may be provoked to not listen. If this happens, take a step backward, call a time out and regain your composure.
Most important, be consistent with your new behaviors. Your child has had years of communication conditioning, and it will take persistence, consistency and owning up to your mistakes to gain their trust and co-create a new communication norm with them. JN
Leslie Shore is a communications expert and the author of “Listen to Succeed: How to Identify and Overcome Barriers to Effective Listening.”