• 5 Tips for Building Better Family Communication

    Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.  Emma Thompson, British actress 

    “They’re so clueless.” “Why are they so closed minded?” “Will they ever get it?” 

    Family shapes us, offering tools for survival and sometimes, being the thing we feel we must survive. There are dialectical tensions within the family story.  We pursue closeness but at the same time push away from family in pursuit of space. There is strength, support, and pride in the collective identity that is family, and yet each individual voice yearns to be heard. We expect our family to offer structure and stability while also needing it to be flexible and willing to change. Indeed, family is naturally home to continuous communication struggles.  

    Each family culture has a way of communicating that includes verbal and nonverbal forms. Your family may grunt, head nod, head bob, eye roll, clap, wave their hands, back away, or lean in. Your family may speak sarcasm, use jokes, pursue banter, make jabs, or use specific rhetoric and phases unique to them. At this point you may have started to reflect on your own family experiences. Good. Continue. Now think about the tone, volume, and speed of words family members use as well. It is all part of the distinctive communication dance your family has established. Communicating with family is different from communicating with others. The difficulties in conversing with family is not a new issue or one that magically resolves itself. Improving communication takes some intentionality.  

    In this post, I offer 5 tips for improving communication within your family, to move you toward connection and healthier relationships. While technology has influenced and expanded our communication patterns, these basic suggestions can be applied across most formats. I also want to note that I have found, both professionally and personally, that family communication work often leads to boundary work. It is normal to need to have conversations about boundaries within family because as members develop and grow, relationships also need to grow and change. Our communication informs our connection.  

    Family pushes our buttons and one derailed “discussion” with a family member can stick with us for days, weeks, or more. It is likely that we each have at least one family member relationship that could use some communication growth. As you read these suggestions, keep that relationship in mind. 

    Tips for improving communication within your family:  

    1. Start with curiosity. This means slowing down your reaction to comments and behaviors. Give yourself the opportunity to observe more information and thus, more opportunity to respond in new ways.  Sometimes patterns of interactions with family members have been practiced for so long that reactions happen fast and with very little thought. Be curious about your own body sensations, about the other person’s nonverbals, and about the meaning you have attached to your triggered emotions. Try this — An intentional slow and deep breath (counting to four as air goes in, holding for four counts, and releasing air for four seconds) can be just enough time to resist an urge to react and open your senses to helpful observations. Your family member may make an aggressive remark such as:  “Spending money on all those plants is pointless and a waste.” You immediately start to breathe in oxygen and resist the impulse to defend or offend back. Then try responding with a question that addresses the information the person gave while avoiding an aggressive rebuttal.  This may sound like: “So flowers aren’t your thing, what’s something that you like to spend your money on?”  
    2.  Lead with validation.Defensiveness can often end a conversation before it has begun. The skill – yes, skill, of validation is a relationship changer. Validation is communicating that you hear and understand the other’s experience or perspective. Validation does not mean you agree with their viewpoint, values, or behaviors. Validation creates a bridge for connection, sometimes when there seems to be only distance.  Try this —Validation may sound like: “It makes sense that you are angry.” “It sounds like you did not feel heard.” “What you went through sounds difficult.”  Validation is focused on the other person (Self-validation is a power skill as well – perhaps a future blog post).
    3. Identify your contribution. When we have the courage to reflect on what role we played in the breakdown of communication, we show the other person our willingness to grow forward and stay connected. Owning our contribution helps protect us from the trappings of the “blame game” that can make us stuck in negative communication cycles. Further, though we each contribute to communication patterns, we are NOT responsible for the other person’s contribution or even that the other person understands their contribution. By modeling self-reflection, we commit to ourselves a healthier way of navigating connection.  By modeling self-reflection, we commit to ourselves a healthier way of navigating connection. Try this — “I understand that I focused on defending myself more than listening to you.” “My response to your comments was not loving or respectful. I am sorry.” 
    4. Simplify your message. Asking a family member who has a history of “not getting it” to grasp all your heart’s concerns in one healthy conversation is not realistic. Offering them a “bullet-point” take-away message can be helpful. Try this — “What I want you to hear is that I want you to treat me with respect.” “It’s most important to me that you know I am not willing to take on that responsibility any longer.” “If you hear nothing else, hear that our relationship matters to me.” 
    5. Highlight relationship commitment. Sometimes we need to pause and ask ourselves whether we are pursuing “rightness” or relationship. Striving to be right or winning can bulldoze our relationships. Reminding our family members of their value and our commitment to them can be a stand-alone tool in creating a bridge to better communication. Security of connection helps us let down our defenses. I encourage you to explore replacing your use of “but” with “and” to accomplish this task. Try this — “I am unsure how to get over this and I’m committed to keep trying.”  “I am grateful for you and I want to be heard.” “I value our relationship and I need it to change.”  

     Family relationships are complex and intimate. Expect and accept the missteps in communication. Focus on the next right response. And give yourself permission to see hope.

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