The Art & Science of Effective Communication

By Steve Harner, Psy.D.

Ask any parent who has ever seen me in consultation, and they will tell you I like to repeat myself. I will often say that there is a strategy to my work with families that is easy to grasp, but somewhat difficult to employ. If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ve probably heard me say, “observe the observableawareness is half the battle…and, your power is in your response.” blah, blah, blah. What does all that mean?

When I say, ‘observe the observable,’ I mean just that. Just comment on what you see, not what you interpret or understand or think things to be. Too often, parents try to ‘get to the point’ and fill-in-the-blanks for a child or teenager and they get it all wrong, leading to even more heartache during a tense conversation. For instance, a common parent-trap is to say something like, “you’re really angry right now and you need to settle down,” when a better way might be to observe the observable: “I noticed that you slammed the door behind Jake when he left just now, what’s up?” The first approach will almost always lead to a shut down by the child (usually storming off); the second approach may at least get a conversation going, enough so that the parent can get a sense of the real issue and open up conversation…

I, and my team, operate from a couple philosophies, one of which is that parents are their kid’s experts–that no one knows children as best as those kids parents. However, who else has studied parents as closely as their children, such that in reality, kids become their parents experts! This is where I tell parents that they need to get a paragraph ahead in their own textbooks; learn skills to be, what I call, safely unpredictable, so they can better manipulate the manipulator. All kids manipulate, it’s what they’re supposed to do, but whether it’s with a large “M” or a small “m” is what creates a sense of urgency, particularly when people reach out to child psychologists like me. Using this expertise, along with observing rather than interpreting–is often key to winning the battle (or coming to a truce) during arguments. For instance, if a dad is aware that his daughter just found out that she wasn’t invited to a party she wanted to go to, he might be (or perhaps, should be) inclined not to bring up that she didn’t empty the dishwasher immediately after Jake broke the news that she wasn’t invited to that party…

Parents will often ask me, “what do I say when things are going haywire?” Many times mom’s and dad’s are at a loss as to how to handle a situation, and will reflect back to their previous experiences whereby what they said–or did–seemed to “throw gas on the fire and got us no where.” The result of this all-to-common parenting phenomenon is usually one of two scenarios: 1) the fabled power struggle in which both sides are locked in a position, not really addressing the underlying shared interest to make things better; or 2) the all-too-common parenting ailment, that I refer to as the ‘parenting deer-in-the-headlights’ reaction in which parents don’t know what to say or do, so they do nothing, or worsesay nothing. When parents observe the observable, and use their awareness about their child and his or her current experience that may be influencing the reaction, they can better respond to conflict in a more powerful way. And, by powerful, I don’t mean power or control, I mean meaningful and authoritative. So, when a dad hears the pictures rattle on the wall by the front door, and he approaches his daughter calmly with a benign reflection on just what happen; and he is guided by the insight that Jake gets to go to the party–and she doesn’t; he will be more inclined to redirect the conversation, not to correct her for slamming the door (that’s too easy, she knows not to do that), but to offer comfort and an opportunity to problem solve ways to cope with her disappointment. For instance, “Sarah, the pictures on the wall aren’t the only thing rattled right now…I’m sorry you’re upset and I’d like to be here for you…let me know what you need, and even if you don’t know what you need, it’s ok. I’ve got to go to Starbucks later (who doesn’t need to go to Starbucks later?!) and maybe you’ll join me. I’ll be in the kitchen…”

So, some have said, “Ok, Steve, sounds good…we tried it, but now what? I did all that, now she wants to talk to me! What do I say?”

I learned early on in my career that many of our conflicts in relationships as adults do seem to have a connection to our past and how we were–or were not–listened to by our parents and early caregivers. Every parent makes mistakes and it’s what parents are supposed to do, to some extent, so that kids learn. From our youth, we’ve yearned for someone to “really get” us, to know us at such a level as to be able to address our needs even before we know we need something (Sound familiar? Like when we were infants and our parents knew the hungry cry from the ‘I’ve got something in my diaper,’ cry, and over time, our parents preempted those cries by studying us so closely that sometimes we didn’t need to cry to get our needs met…see, it really is our parents fault–just kidding of course). The troubles start young–and can be managed at young ages, as the theory goes, by corrective emotional experiences that can help us heal hurts and build better relationships.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that a profound way to heal an emotional hurt is via some form of talking–if that’s the hurt person ‘getting it out,’ or the partner ‘just listening’ and validating what’s being said (not lecturing, or telling what to do…just understanding from the other’s perspective). The good news is, there are formulas for effective communication, meant to cut-off-at-the-pass those festering childhood and teenage hurts fueled by a notion that “they don’t listen to me…”

Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt developed a form of couples therapy called Imago Relationship Therapy. I’m not a trained Imago psychologist, but I’ve read the book(s) and practiced the techniques. One such Imago technique I’ve used is to teach parents–and children and teens–how to Mirror, Validate, and Empathize with each other.

Here’s a sketch of how it works…

Mirroring

  • Saying, “I heard you say,” or, “Let me see if it get this, you’re saying…”
  • After repeating–as close to verbatim as you can, without any interpretation or intense paraphrasing, then say, “did I get that?”
  • If the child elaborates more, then also repeat as above what was added (only do this once though, as often kids will have plenty to add if you let them)

Validating

  • Validating is NOT agreeing! “I can see how you would see it that way, from your perspective_______”

Empathizing

  • These are just feelings words, not sentences (get a good list of feelings to refer to). Usually one or two feeling words are enough.
  • “That must also make you feel, ______, _______.”

( adapted from Short Term Couples Therapy by Wade Luquet. Click here.)

Many of the parents I have worked with have commented that, once they learned this technique and practice it, many conflicts didn’t seem as extreme as they once did. However, parents eventually need to give children an answer, particularly when the conflict arises around something the child is asking for and desperately wanting. Whereas the ‘fit may still hit the shan,” so to speak, when the child eventually hears, “no,” at least parents have done their best to demonstrate to the child they are trying to hear their child’s concerns and are not arbitrarily (in most cases) just saying no.

For more information about communicating with you child or teenager, please see my PowerPoint presentation slides on the Art and Science of Effective Communication with your Child or Teenager. If I can be of any further help, please do not hesitate to contact me at 703-533-3930 extension 2.

Peace,
Steve