The Challenges of Communication

Communication on every level continues to be a challenge. The way we use words either builds bridges or creates walls between people. They also consciously and unconsciously indicate people's basic biases.
Every semester ...

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Communication on every level continues to be a challenge. The way we use words either builds bridges or creates walls between people. They also consciously and unconsciously indicate people's basic biases.

Every semester I do a very simple exercise with my freshmen humanities students. I put a list of six words on the board. I ask them, without a lot of forethought, to write the first word that comes to mind when they read each of my words. My list clearly has trigger words. Volunteers are then asked to share their lists.

Needless to say, the lists run the gamut from the polite expected reactions to the bizarre and extreme. The exercise underscores the basic biases we all live with. It points out how even in our every day conversations we use certain words and how the meanings we assign them say volumes about our social attitudes.

Relationships on a good day are challenging, whether they be love relationships, parent-child relationships or friendships. Sustaining positive, life-giving relationships is hard work. It demands that we have some very difficult conversations. Too often we try to avoid these difficult conversations or we engage in them poorly.

As parents, lets think about some of the difficult conversations we need to have with our teenagers. Most of us need to talk about drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, identity crisis, birth control, curfews and social boundaries. Depending on what is happening in our family, there may be the need to discuss parental relationships, divorce, separation, addiction and remarriage.

How do you approach these difficult conversations? Firstly, you need to admit that they are really hard conversations to have. Secondly, you need to do your homework. Know the facts. Be clear on the issues. Don't allow your own insecurities and prejudices to block healthy communication. Be aware of your assumptions and especially aware of the fact that some of them could be faulty.

Thirdly, communicate without blame, shame or judgment. Listen to what is being said and to what is not being said.

Think about the conflicts you have had with your teenager in the past. You are trying to have a difficult conversation. It evolves into a very heated argument. The arguing is not helping. As parents, we think our teenagers are the problem. Our teenagers think we are the problem. The listening stops. Our arguing blocks us from exploring each other's stories. There is little effort at understanding. Change and/or compromise will never happen when one tells another to do so. That reaction only inhibits the process.

However, once a person feels understood, change has a fighting chance of taking hold.

What blocks our understanding? Usually we understand basic words differently. We notice different things based on age and life experience. We prioritize things differently. We also have different interpretations of major life events. Each one of us is influenced by past experiences. These past experiences often develop into the "rules" we live by. Whether we are aware of them or not, we all follow such rules.

They tell us how the world works, how people should act or how things are supposed to be. They can also have a significant influence on the story that is told between you and your teenager in a difficult conversation. Trouble explodes when our rules collide.

That is why it is important that we constantly clarify these implicit rules, which so often we unconsciously apply.

We probably need to reframe some of our questions within these difficult conversations. For example, instead of asking yourself "how can they think that?" ask yourself, "what information do they have that I don't have?" Certainty locks us out of understanding their story. Curiosity lets us in.

Difficult conversations are not about who is right and who is wrong or about winning or losing. Rather, they are about understanding and finding a common path to resolve the conflict.

As most of us have learned the hard way, life is not black or white, it is gray. It is learning to live in the gray without feeling like you sold out or compromised that which is most important to you.

There are many dynamics that emerge when we try to have these difficult conversations. Fear is probably the most troubling. Too often our fear paralyzes and traps us. At times it causes us to misunderstand intentions and focus our attention on blame.

Jack is seventeen and a senior in a local high school. He is an average student, and is active in sports and other social activities. He is always on the run.

Recently, Jack has been involved in some social activities that have caused his parents some concern. They felt it was time to have one of those difficult conversations.

This conversation started off on the wrong foot. They confronted Jack about a behavior they believe is socially unacceptable. They think they know his intentions. They made some outrageous assumptions that Jack called them on. They blamed his friends. Jack went ballistic.

When tempers cooled and they could all revisit the conversation without judgment and blame, the parents realized they were assessing intentions incorrectly. They realized they were working with some assumptions that were false because they were afraid to ask some hard questions. More importantly, they were frightened at the prospect of hearing some answers that they possibly would not like.

As parents, we need to risk having these difficult conversations. We need to work at listening to understand. We need to share our viewpoints, our intentions and feelings, but not impose them. We need to work at mutual care taking. Dominance, bullying and one-way streets are ingredients for relational disaster. Most importantly, we must find ways to keep communication open so that we can move forward, resolve our differences and/or learn how to respectfully live with each other so that we can grow as a family.