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Learning to communicate well is a very valuable and important skill. On one level, communication involves the exchange of information. On a deeper level, it involves reaching a state of mutual understanding.

Most arguments are due to a failure of two sides to understand each other deeply enough. Due to misunderstandings, we mistrust each other’s motives and points of view. Good communication promotes understanding and can help solve and prevent arguments.

Growing up is often accompanied by clashes between parents and children, especially during the teenage years. Many adolescents feel their parents are too controlling. Often they like doing things that their parents feel they're not ready for. This can create a tug of war. The parents naturally want to protect their children from harm until they are old enough to make healthy, safe and wise decisions. The teenagers naturally want to be treated more as grown ups and to be more independent.These common conflicts call for good communication skills.

How good are you at resolving problems and conflicts? How much effort do you make to prevent them from happening in the first place? Would you like to be able to communicate with your parents and others so that you may both understand each other better? Let us look at some skills that can be helpful.

Sending the message

Communication is both sending and receiving messages; in other words, talking and listening. When talking to someone about a problem, there are two ways you can express yourself. Either you can tell him that you think he is wrong, or you can tell him how the situation makes you feel.

Telling a person he or she is wrong will cause anger, hurt, and defensiveness. When this happens, communication is blocked and an argument can easily start. If you tell someone, "It's your fault!" or "You’re wrong!" the other person is likely respond by saying: "It's not my fault, it's your fault!" or "No, you're the one who's wrong!"

It is better simply to try to express how you feel about the situation in question. Of course, there is still no guarantee that things will go smoothly. However, we have a better chance of being understood by stating our feelings calmly and clearly. The next section shows how to do this.

How to send “I-messages”

There are three steps to communicating clearly in the form of what are called “I-messages”:

  1. Describe the situation or behavior that is causing a problem. Avoid name-calling, blaming and accusing, and try to avoid using the word “you.” For example: "When I'm not allowed to go camping with my friends…" sounds much better than "When you don't let me go camping with my friends…"
  2. Next, describe how you feel when this situation or behavior happens. For example: "When I'm not allowed to go camping with my friends, I feel really upset." This sounds better than "You make me so upset when you don't let me go camping with my friends."
  3. Finally, explain why you feel this way. For example: "When I'm not allowed to go camping with my friends, I feel really upset because sometimes I want to spend more time with them. They tease me about not being allowed to spend the night away from home."

If this is expressed in a calm way, you have a far better chance of getting a positive response. At least it will open up a better dialogue where both sides may understand one another better.

What if you express your feelings to your parents but they still come back with a negative answer? When this happens, it is very easy to respond angrily. Then, you're back in the fight, tossing accusations back and forth. No matter how angry you may feel, try to remain calm. You can say what you need to say without being insulting and loud. Remember—the way you say things is as important as what you say!

Jodi's story: Can you find the "I-message"?

Jodi's parents had told her she could go over to classmate Trisha's house after school with a couple of other school friends. She was talking about it excitedly with her parents over breakfast, and she mentioned that they were planning to go to the mall.

Her parents looked upset. "You said you were going to Trisha's house."

"We are," said Jodi. "Then we're going to the mall."

Jodi's parents looked even more upset. "We don't want you to go to the mall without any parents," said her dad.

Jodi got angry. Her parents were so unfair! What was she supposed to tell Trisha now that she'd already said she could go? But she took a couple of deep breaths. She tried to speak calmly, saying, "When you tell me I can't do something when you already told me I could, it's embarrassing in front of my friends and it messes up all our plans."

Her father said firmly, "We only gave you permission to go to Trisha's house, not the mall."

Jodi swallowed. This was true.

"What's so bad about the mall?" she wanted to know.

"There's been a lot of shoplifting incidents at the mall lately," explained her mother. "Last week, our neighbor's kids wound up being brought to the police station and they didn't even steal anything. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our neighbor told me the police are going to round up any kids who are hanging around there without parents until the shoplifting stops."

Even though a part of Jodi felt like saying, "Oh, we won't get in trouble!" she felt a little scared.

"How about this," she suggested. "I'll tell my friends I can't go to the mall. If they're still going, I'll just come home from school. If they're not, can I go over to Trisha's house like you said I could?"

"Yes," said her parents.

Receiving the message

Most of us are experts on how not to listen. We stamp out of the room. We ignore and interrupt. We shake our heads and block out the other person's words. However, this kind of behavior actually makes the problem worse because it says to our parents that their feelings and opinions are not worth listening to. Just as we believe we have the right to our feelings and opinions, we should respect the fact that they have a right to theirs. In paying attention, we pay them that respect. This doesn't mean we have to agree. How should we listen? There are three levels of listening:

  1. The first level is called passive listening. This means when our parents speak to us, we keep quiet, don’t interrupt, and look at them. In passive listening we simply are paying attention.
  2. The second level is called active listening. Nodding or shaking our heads and making simple responses like "Uh-huh" are examples of active listening. This encourages our parents and lets them know we are listening. Using simple phrases like "That's interesting," or "I never thought of that," and asking short questions, such as "What exactly do you mean?" or "What is next?" can encourage conversation and open lines of communication with them.
  3. The third level is called reflective listening. It is the best level of listening to promote good communication. In listening this way, we become like a mirror, reflecting back what has been said to us. For example, if your parents say, “You never want to do anything with your family. You're always away with your friends,” they may be feeling hurt and even a little jealous. You mirror it back to them, trying to get their feelings clear: "You feel I never want to do anything with my family anymore. You feel I'm deserting the family. Is there more?" You invite them to share more of their feelings. "Yes, there is more. We feel like you don't care about us at all—after all we've done for you." The problem isn't really that you spend time with your friends; the problem is that they need reassurance that you love and respect and appreciate them. You can tell them how much you love and appreciate them and think of ways to show them that more often.

What if your parents just don't understand you and you just don't understand them, even after trying to communicate well?

Of course, we may feel hurt and angry. Still, it is better to stick with the type of constructive communication we have outlined above, since defensive reactions or return accusations only make things worse. However, in such situations you may need to find someone else to talk to, such as a grandparent, an older brother or sister, a teacher or a friend.

Improving communication skills isn't easy. It takes effort, commitment and patience. You will find that when you invest that effort in building good communication skills, whether with your parents or anyone else, the quality of your relationships in life will improve. Every day you have the opportunity to develop such skills, not only with your parents but also with many kinds of people in many kinds of situations. With practice and perseverance, these skills will grow and become a natural part of your life.

Questions for reflection

1. What is an “I-message” as opposed to a “you-message”?

2. What are the 3 steps in an “I-message”?

3. How good are you at resolving problems and conflicts?

4. How much effort do you make to prevent them from happening in the first place?

5. How well are you able to understand your parents’ point of view in a conflict situation?

6. How well do you think they understand your point of view?

7. Name and explain the 3 levels of listening.

8. Do your parents ever make fun of or reject your feelings? If so, how do you react?

Exercise: “Mother/daughter dialogue”

Read the following dialogue between a mother and her daughter:

Mother: “Where do you think you are going dressed like that at ten o’clock on a school night? Do you always have to sneak around? Why can’t you act more like your older sister Marsha?” (The mother is immediately accusing).
Daughter: “Mom, you’re always on my back! I was just going to take the dog out for a walk. Why do you always assume I’m doing something wrong? Plus, you always compare me to Marsha, and I hate it!” (The daughter counters with a defense that her mother is always accusing her, and makes a generalization).
Mother: “You say you are just going to take the dog out for a walk? Am I supposed to believe that? Are you lying again? Is your boyfriend outside waiting for you?” (The mother ignores her daughter’s statement, and comes up with another attack.)
Daughter: “You’re always accusing me! I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do! You never listen to me! You really hate me, don’t you?” (The daughter contributes to the breakdown of the conversation, bringing in more generalizations.)
Mother: “You have no respect! You treat me like a prison guard. Just go to your room. Maybe you can think about your obnoxious behavior and come out with an apology. You cause me so much grief!” (Total communication breakdown.)

Now, playing the role of the daughter, try to improve the communication with the mother by using I-messages and constructive listening techniques. Construct a new dialogue with a better outcome.

Reflection exercise: “Improving your communication”

Think of a person in your life with whom you have difficulty communicating. It seems that you always are in some kind of conflict with this person. It may be one of your parents, a sibling, a friend, etc. Try to improve your communication with this person using I-messages and good listening techniques. Afterwards, reflect on the following questions:

1. Did your communication improve in any way? How?

2. If not, why?

3. Do you think if you tried again, your communication with this person could improve further?

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