Strong families communicate. They take time to talk and listen to one another. They share their hopes and dreams, feelings and concerns. They take the time to listen and respond to what others have to say.
Research shows that good communication in families is vital. In one national study, strong parent-child communication was associated with fewer behavioral problems, higher ratings in school citizenship, and less depression and drug use. Communication problems-especially unresolved conflict-predict unhappiness in marriage more accurately than problems in other areas.
Here are some ideas for improving communication at home:
Hide the Remote. Sometimes we get so busy that we get out of touch. Make the time to talk. Turn off the TV and have a conversation about something. Talk about feelings and experiences while riding in the car, working in the yard, doing the dishes, or getting ready for bed. Encourage family members to share by saying things like “What was the best part of the day for you?” “Tell me more.” and “Wow! What a neat (scary, etc.) experience.”
A Talking Game. Try playing a talking game at dinnertime, during quiet time with each other, or at family parties. On small pieces of paper, write fun questions you’d like family members to answer, like “What age would you like to be?” and “If I were an animal, I would like to be . . . ” or more serious ones like “What are you most deeply afraid of? Why?” Make the questions appropriate for the ages of the family members. Place the questions in a box and have each person draw out a slip of paper and respond to the question.
Listening with the Head and Heart. This involves listening beyond words to the meanings and feelings attached to them. A good listener can better understand and respond to the needs and concerns of others. It means laying aside personal views and really trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Even if you don’t agree with another’s perspective, you can make sure you understand them before responding. Follow these guidelines to practice head-and-heart listening:
Give full attention. Put aside lectures, reactions, feelings, perceptions, and judgments; eliminate distractions; and try to see the world through his or her eyes.
Acknowledge feelings. Say things like “You must have been embarrassed” or “This is really important to you.”
Invite more discussion. Often, acknowledging a person with a simple “Oh . . . Mmm . . . I see” is enough.
Show understanding by paraphrasing. This is the process of restating or reflecting (not parroting) the essence of or feelings embedded in what the other person has said. It can be especially useful when trying to help a person get to the heart of a problem. For instance, “It sounds as though you felt really discouraged when your teacher didn’t take your opinions seriously. Is that right?”
I-Messages. Develop the habit of using I-messages when talking about your feelings. Instead of saying, “You’re so rude to read the paper over dinner instead of talking to me,” it’s better to say, “I feel hurt when you read the paper over dinner-I would really like it if we took the time to talk together.”
Here’s an activity that can help family members develop skill in expressing their feelings or concerns without insulting or fighting. Explain that I-messages are a way to express feelings without blaming other people for the way you feel. Place I-messages on slips of paper using a format like this: “I feel good about ________ because _________.” “I’m happy that ______ because ________.” “I’m sad about ______ because _____.”
Place the folded slips in a jar. Take turns drawing slips and filling in the blanks as you read the statement aloud.
The Nuts and Bolts. Be specific in your communication. Avoid general statements like “You never help around the house,” or “You’re always late for dinner.” Never and always statements are rarely true. Instead, try focusing on a specific issue and directing your comments on an action, not the person. For example, say, “I’m upset because you’ve been late for dinner three times this week, and the whole family had to wait for you.”
Communication Workshops. Marriage enrichment workshops usually deal with communication skills. Participate in one. Look for workshops in schools, community centers and churches.
“Listen Up, People.” Another option is to hold a series of family nights to build communication skills. In each meeting, every member should have a chance to be both speaker and listener. Speakers choose some other family member to be their listener. They choose a topic to talk about. Listeners do not give opinions or advice. Other family members listen and help the speaker and listener use good communication skills and stay on track.
When speakers are satisfied that their listeners understand them, they switch roles and start over. Try these topics:
Something that makes me happy.
What I like about this family.
Something that is bothering me personally, but is not a problem in the family.
A small problem I have with the family (or a particular family member).
Other problems I have with the family (or a particular family member).
What benefits I have seen as a result of this activity.
“Confused in Colorado.” Choose a Dear Abby, Ann Landers, or other advice column from your local newspaper. Read the question but not the answer. Have everyone take turns giving advice and reasons for the advice. Other family members can ask questions and disagree with someone’s advice without criticizing, insulting, or making fun of each other.
Body Talk. Pay attention to body talk. The eyes and the upper lip may give you clues about how a person is feeling. The eyes can reveal sorrow or joy. A quivering lip is a pretty good sign that the person is upset. If the lip is straight or slightly tight, the person is probably stressed.
The Power of Positive Thinking. Couples and family members who are inclined to complain may have trouble seeing the positive in one another. But marriages and families benefit when we look for positive things about one another and comment on them sincerely and often. Here are some examples from John Gottman’s book, titled Why Marriages Succeed or Fail:
“I really appreciated your cooking dinner tonight.”
“You really handled that contractor well.”
“Thanks for calling the insurance company.”
“You were really funny tonight. I just love your sense of humor.”
“One thing I like about you is your guts. You really stood up to her when she put you down. I admire that.”
For Further Reading:
Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family
by Nick and Nancy Stinnett, Joe and Alice Beam
The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties
by William J. Doherty
Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Website – Arkansas Families
Children, Youth, and Families Education and Research Network (CYFERnet) at www.cyfernet.org includes has practical, research-based information from the nation’s leading universities. Includes hundreds of articles on early childhood, school-age children, teens, parent and family, as well as community.