Keeping the Love Lines Open: Avoiding Communication Breakdown in Families

Reviewed Apr 30, 2016

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Summary

Understanding better ways to communicate will help you to solve problems and avoid hurting feelings and misunderstandings. And frequent, meaningful conversation will strengthen family ties.

Have you ever asked a loved one, “How was your day?” but failed to listen to the response? Or, made an assumption like “He knows me so well, he should be able to tell when something’s wrong.” How about legitimizing a hurtful comment by reasoning, “He should know I didn’t really mean it that way.”

Families are often lackadaisical in their efforts to share feelings, talk out problems, and pay attention to each other’s unspoken needs—particularly when busy schedules and everyday stress make finding time to do so difficult. Plus, ineffective patterns of communication can frustrate attempts to really connect with one another.

Nevertheless, ongoing communication is fundamental to strong, healthy families. Understanding the workings of family communication and better ways to communicate will help you to solve problems and avoid hurting feelings and misunderstandings. And frequent, meaningful conversation will strengthen family ties.

What the words you say really mean

Linguist Deborah Tannen emphasizes how the message of our spoken words is often very different from how what we say comes across, called the metamessage. “A key to improving relationships within the family is distinguishing the message from the metamessage, and being clear about which one you are reacting to,” writes Tannen in her book I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives.

See if you can separate the message from the metamessage in this scenario:

Having just been hired for an after-school job at a local record store, Mike couldn’t wait to reveal the good news to his family. At dinner he spoke of the interview in great detail, obviously proud and excited to share the day’s event. All was going great until his mom asked, “Is that what you wore to the interview?”

At a time when Mike was seeking approval from his parents, his mom’s question came across as a criticism of his baggy pants and rock concert T-shirt—an outfit he thought befitting a record store salesclerk. Mike’s interpretation of his mom’s question is not surprising given her seemingly frequent displeasure in his choice of clothing. Interestingly, in this case, Mike’s mom was seeking to connect with her son; to show her heartfelt interest in his success by inquiring about every detail of the interview, including what he wore.

Getting it right: effective communication pointers

If Mike’s mom had been more thoughtful in her approach, the spirit of the conversation—and occasion—wouldn’t have been dampened. Picking the right words to effectively express your intended meaning can be tricky—but worth the time and practice. Also developing skills that will help you hear the message is equally important. Consider these concepts:

  • Don’t assume that you know your family members so well that you don’t have to really listen to what’s being said. Always practice active listening, staying attentive to metamessages and unspoken needs.
  • Express your feelings and what’s really on your mind in a specific, non-blaming way.
  • Remember, family members can’t read your mind. Consider how your place in the family hierarchy may put you in a position of communication control. Careful phrasing will show that you respect and have an interest in what your loved one has to say. Doing so will incline your family member to open up.
  • Remember that while sharing information with loved ones is a way to build connectedness, doing so can serve to alienate family members who are left out or whose confidences are broken. Avoid gossip within the family circle.
  • Consider how gender differences contribute to different communication styles, and adapt your approach accordingly. For example, don’t force your teenage son into a sit-down chat. Rather, shoot some hoops together or run errands in the car—you may be surprised by the satisfying conversation that emerges when you’re “not talking.”
  • Don’t stereotype. If you view Dad as “the critic,” you may always hear his message as a put-down and miss out on something worthwhile.
  • Keep a lookout for ineffective patterns of communication. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” which will inevitably lead to “fine” or “OK,” try “Tell me about your day” or “You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
  • Before reacting badly to something said, put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Changing your perspective may shed light on intended meaning.
  • Get feedback if you’re unclear of an intended meaning. Try “Do you mean …?” or “Are you saying that …”
By Christine P. Martin
Source: I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives by Deborah Tannen. Random House, 2001; Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas F. Stone, Sheila Heen, Bruce Patton and Roger Fisher. Penguin, 1999; Lifeskills: Eight Simple Ways to Build Stronger Relationship, Communicate More Clearly and Improve Your Health by Virginia Williams, PhD, and Redford Williams, MD. Times Books, 1997.

Summary

Understanding better ways to communicate will help you to solve problems and avoid hurting feelings and misunderstandings. And frequent, meaningful conversation will strengthen family ties.

Have you ever asked a loved one, “How was your day?” but failed to listen to the response? Or, made an assumption like “He knows me so well, he should be able to tell when something’s wrong.” How about legitimizing a hurtful comment by reasoning, “He should know I didn’t really mean it that way.”

Families are often lackadaisical in their efforts to share feelings, talk out problems, and pay attention to each other’s unspoken needs—particularly when busy schedules and everyday stress make finding time to do so difficult. Plus, ineffective patterns of communication can frustrate attempts to really connect with one another.

Nevertheless, ongoing communication is fundamental to strong, healthy families. Understanding the workings of family communication and better ways to communicate will help you to solve problems and avoid hurting feelings and misunderstandings. And frequent, meaningful conversation will strengthen family ties.

What the words you say really mean

Linguist Deborah Tannen emphasizes how the message of our spoken words is often very different from how what we say comes across, called the metamessage. “A key to improving relationships within the family is distinguishing the message from the metamessage, and being clear about which one you are reacting to,” writes Tannen in her book I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives.

See if you can separate the message from the metamessage in this scenario:

Having just been hired for an after-school job at a local record store, Mike couldn’t wait to reveal the good news to his family. At dinner he spoke of the interview in great detail, obviously proud and excited to share the day’s event. All was going great until his mom asked, “Is that what you wore to the interview?”

At a time when Mike was seeking approval from his parents, his mom’s question came across as a criticism of his baggy pants and rock concert T-shirt—an outfit he thought befitting a record store salesclerk. Mike’s interpretation of his mom’s question is not surprising given her seemingly frequent displeasure in his choice of clothing. Interestingly, in this case, Mike’s mom was seeking to connect with her son; to show her heartfelt interest in his success by inquiring about every detail of the interview, including what he wore.

Getting it right: effective communication pointers

If Mike’s mom had been more thoughtful in her approach, the spirit of the conversation—and occasion—wouldn’t have been dampened. Picking the right words to effectively express your intended meaning can be tricky—but worth the time and practice. Also developing skills that will help you hear the message is equally important. Consider these concepts:

  • Don’t assume that you know your family members so well that you don’t have to really listen to what’s being said. Always practice active listening, staying attentive to metamessages and unspoken needs.
  • Express your feelings and what’s really on your mind in a specific, non-blaming way.
  • Remember, family members can’t read your mind. Consider how your place in the family hierarchy may put you in a position of communication control. Careful phrasing will show that you respect and have an interest in what your loved one has to say. Doing so will incline your family member to open up.
  • Remember that while sharing information with loved ones is a way to build connectedness, doing so can serve to alienate family members who are left out or whose confidences are broken. Avoid gossip within the family circle.
  • Consider how gender differences contribute to different communication styles, and adapt your approach accordingly. For example, don’t force your teenage son into a sit-down chat. Rather, shoot some hoops together or run errands in the car—you may be surprised by the satisfying conversation that emerges when you’re “not talking.”
  • Don’t stereotype. If you view Dad as “the critic,” you may always hear his message as a put-down and miss out on something worthwhile.
  • Keep a lookout for ineffective patterns of communication. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” which will inevitably lead to “fine” or “OK,” try “Tell me about your day” or “You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
  • Before reacting badly to something said, put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Changing your perspective may shed light on intended meaning.
  • Get feedback if you’re unclear of an intended meaning. Try “Do you mean …?” or “Are you saying that …”
By Christine P. Martin
Source: I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives by Deborah Tannen. Random House, 2001; Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas F. Stone, Sheila Heen, Bruce Patton and Roger Fisher. Penguin, 1999; Lifeskills: Eight Simple Ways to Build Stronger Relationship, Communicate More Clearly and Improve Your Health by Virginia Williams, PhD, and Redford Williams, MD. Times Books, 1997.

Summary

Understanding better ways to communicate will help you to solve problems and avoid hurting feelings and misunderstandings. And frequent, meaningful conversation will strengthen family ties.

Have you ever asked a loved one, “How was your day?” but failed to listen to the response? Or, made an assumption like “He knows me so well, he should be able to tell when something’s wrong.” How about legitimizing a hurtful comment by reasoning, “He should know I didn’t really mean it that way.”

Families are often lackadaisical in their efforts to share feelings, talk out problems, and pay attention to each other’s unspoken needs—particularly when busy schedules and everyday stress make finding time to do so difficult. Plus, ineffective patterns of communication can frustrate attempts to really connect with one another.

Nevertheless, ongoing communication is fundamental to strong, healthy families. Understanding the workings of family communication and better ways to communicate will help you to solve problems and avoid hurting feelings and misunderstandings. And frequent, meaningful conversation will strengthen family ties.

What the words you say really mean

Linguist Deborah Tannen emphasizes how the message of our spoken words is often very different from how what we say comes across, called the metamessage. “A key to improving relationships within the family is distinguishing the message from the metamessage, and being clear about which one you are reacting to,” writes Tannen in her book I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives.

See if you can separate the message from the metamessage in this scenario:

Having just been hired for an after-school job at a local record store, Mike couldn’t wait to reveal the good news to his family. At dinner he spoke of the interview in great detail, obviously proud and excited to share the day’s event. All was going great until his mom asked, “Is that what you wore to the interview?”

At a time when Mike was seeking approval from his parents, his mom’s question came across as a criticism of his baggy pants and rock concert T-shirt—an outfit he thought befitting a record store salesclerk. Mike’s interpretation of his mom’s question is not surprising given her seemingly frequent displeasure in his choice of clothing. Interestingly, in this case, Mike’s mom was seeking to connect with her son; to show her heartfelt interest in his success by inquiring about every detail of the interview, including what he wore.

Getting it right: effective communication pointers

If Mike’s mom had been more thoughtful in her approach, the spirit of the conversation—and occasion—wouldn’t have been dampened. Picking the right words to effectively express your intended meaning can be tricky—but worth the time and practice. Also developing skills that will help you hear the message is equally important. Consider these concepts:

  • Don’t assume that you know your family members so well that you don’t have to really listen to what’s being said. Always practice active listening, staying attentive to metamessages and unspoken needs.
  • Express your feelings and what’s really on your mind in a specific, non-blaming way.
  • Remember, family members can’t read your mind. Consider how your place in the family hierarchy may put you in a position of communication control. Careful phrasing will show that you respect and have an interest in what your loved one has to say. Doing so will incline your family member to open up.
  • Remember that while sharing information with loved ones is a way to build connectedness, doing so can serve to alienate family members who are left out or whose confidences are broken. Avoid gossip within the family circle.
  • Consider how gender differences contribute to different communication styles, and adapt your approach accordingly. For example, don’t force your teenage son into a sit-down chat. Rather, shoot some hoops together or run errands in the car—you may be surprised by the satisfying conversation that emerges when you’re “not talking.”
  • Don’t stereotype. If you view Dad as “the critic,” you may always hear his message as a put-down and miss out on something worthwhile.
  • Keep a lookout for ineffective patterns of communication. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” which will inevitably lead to “fine” or “OK,” try “Tell me about your day” or “You look like you’ve had a rough day.”
  • Before reacting badly to something said, put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Changing your perspective may shed light on intended meaning.
  • Get feedback if you’re unclear of an intended meaning. Try “Do you mean …?” or “Are you saying that …”
By Christine P. Martin
Source: I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives by Deborah Tannen. Random House, 2001; Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas F. Stone, Sheila Heen, Bruce Patton and Roger Fisher. Penguin, 1999; Lifeskills: Eight Simple Ways to Build Stronger Relationship, Communicate More Clearly and Improve Your Health by Virginia Williams, PhD, and Redford Williams, MD. Times Books, 1997.

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