Anyone who has a teenager knows that they speak a different language. In fact, they often seem like they’re a different species all together. They don’t seem to act like their younger versions of themselves – and you wonder how they’ll survive to be older with the coping strategies they’re using. However, these same teenagers were once precious babies. So how is it that the transformation happened, and how do you develop some rapport so that you can keep the lines of communication open to this alien race? That’s the question that How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk seeks to answer.
In the Cards
Before I get into the meat of the book, I need to pause and say that Terri and I believe in conversation. We believe in hard conversations (see Crucial Conversations). We believe in happy conversations. One of the things that she saw was parents (or guardians) and children in a hospital not talking to one another. That’s why we created the Kin-to-Kid Connection Child Safety Cards. It was our way of encouraging conversations by creating opportunities to play games together. We moved from there to trying to help prevent kids from ending up in the hospital in the first place; however, the genesis was the need for conversations between parents and kids.
Plethora of Poor Responses
We’ve all had a bad day and tried to share with a friend, only to be shutdown or rejected. At least to us, their response felt like a rejection. They didn’t seem to want to accept our world as our world. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.) There are, according to How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, eight different categories of responses, seven of which are bad:
- Denial of Feelings – Essentially, you don’t or shouldn’t feel what you feel. The response leaves you deflated and feeling that even your feelings are wrong. (Hint: feelings aren’t wrong, only actions can be.)
- Philosophical Response – “Life can be like that.” The empty response does nothing to connect with the other person and trivializes their having brought it up.
- Advice – “You know what I think you should do?” can turn people off. They may have been coming only to connect, and advice attempts to solve their problem. Even for those seeking a resolution, a simple answer can seem trite or like they’re stupid for not thinking about the solution. (See Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus for more on empathetic listening vs. problem solving.)
- [Judgmental] Questions – “Why did you do that?” While questions can be a valuable tool for validating and improving understanding, they can also be a weapon of shame and judgement. (See Parent Effectiveness Training and Motivational Interviewing for ways to effectively use questions and His Needs, Her Needs for disrespectful judgement.) The book describes these as only questions, but the examples are all examples of judgmental questions.
- Defense of the Other Person – It’s as if the person you’re talking to, the person you shared with, instantly starts taking the other person’s side of the story. They say that they can’t identify with you – but rather identify with the other person in your story. Here, they’ve actively rejected your bid for connection and instead have seemingly gone to side with the other person. (See The Science of Trust for more on bids for connection.)
- Pity – “Oh you poor thing.” No one wants to be pitied. People want connection and understanding, not pity. By pitying someone, you’re saying that they’re somehow less than you are.
- Amateur Psychoanalysis – This is a sleight of hand trick. The response encourages the person to question their feelings – but by suggesting that they might be projecting their feelings about one person onto another. The problem is the response can lead the person sharing to feel as if they’ve been tricked.
- An Empathetic Response – The response creates a connection and says, “I understand this about you.” Even if the response isn’t exactly correct, the person seeking connection will typically correct and adjust the understanding. Out of the eight types of responses, this is the only one that builds connection and affirms the relationship.
In a book about talking to your children, why is understanding these eight responses so important? In our parent-child, relationship the one-up/one-down power differential is appropriate and necessary, but it also creates the tendency to use more forceful approaches in conversations. It takes more work to ensure that we are not just directing our children but are trying to connect with them as well. Too often we fall into a quick and convenient trap that we’re in a hurry and don’t have time to really talk things through with our children, and that can lead to challenges.
Teaching About Feelings
Certainly, parents are expected to educate their children. They’re expected to help them be prepared to enter kindergarten and help them learn in school. The explicit knowledge they gain through their childhood is designed to give them the foundation for study in their chosen career. However, there’s more to teaching and learning than multiplication tables. There are many things that require tacit knowledge – having experienced something – rather than just having learned it. (See Lost Knowledge for more on tacit knowledge.)
Understanding oneself is perhaps the greatest gift that any parent can help their child to achieving. (See Beyond Boundaries for more on what an integrated self-image is.) Developing this integrated image is, in part, recognizing our internal incongruencies – our good and evil natures that are both within us. In part, an integrated self-image is an awareness and acceptance of our feelings. Here, the book suggests four things:
- Listen with Full Attention – In our hectic world, it’s too easy to be watching TV or playing on our phones while listening. This sends a subtle message that what the person is talking about isn’t worth our whole attention – and by extension, neither are they.
- Acknowledge Their Feelings in a Word – While sharing, we as humans use a great deal of resources to measure the response of the person we’re sharing with. Simple, one-word responses (or utterances) helps the other person understand that we’re still “with them.” (See Mindreading for more on how we assess other people’s mental state.)
- Give Their Feelings a Name – I’ve purchased a collection of literally tens of thousands of feeling words. It’s a rich collection of every word in the English language used to describe how someone feels. However, all too frequently, we settle for the fast food version of feeling words: happy, sad, or angry. By giving feelings names, a person can start to identify when they feel the same – or similar – feelings the next time.
- Give Them Their Wishes in Fantasy – It’s hard to believe that just the idea of having something you want can fulfil the need. However, because of the Zeigarnik effect, incomplete thoughts are held more strongly. (See The Science of Trust for more on the Zeigarnik effect.) By allowing people the opportunity to fully experience their wish – only as a fantasy – you relieve the pressure to maintain that thought.
Though we all seek validation in many ways, there is probably no greater area where we seek validation than in our feelings. When someone is sharing their feelings, they’ve being vulnerable and are trying to connect. When we validate those feelings, we create a deeper connection.
Understanding, Accepting, and Agreeing
An important aspect of any part of relating to your children is to help them understand the difference between understanding, accepting, and agreeing. This distinction isn’t hard for me, but for many of our children, it has been. Understanding is awareness of the other person’s perspective and values and how they came to them. Accepting is acknowledging the other person’s point of view is OK – at least for them. Agreement is agreeing with those perspectives and values.
Children wrongly assume – wrongly – that you must agree with each other. What is needed and required is understanding, not necessarily agreement. When you have understanding and can accept the other person’s point of view, you can talk through conflicts and reach resolutions.
Accepting the world as it is – and understanding that we can’t change other people – makes interactions easier, because there are fewer attempts at coercive control. (See Choice Theory and Compelled to Control for more on control.)
A multi-purpose tool in the toolbox of talking and listening is play. Play is a necessary evolutionary tool for teaching important life skills. (See Play for more.) Humor and jokes create important social connections. (See Inside Jokes for more.) Play – or humor – can lighten the mood and remove the tone of seriousness that can sometimes pervade a conversation. This can often serve as a lubricant to make difficult conversations easier. (See Crucial Conversations for more on difficult conversations.)
Creating Separation and Autonomy
Job #1 for every parent is to help their children to be independent. The job is to encourage their autonomy and, ultimately, help them to separate from the parent. (See Drive for more on the power and necessity of autonomy.) While this may be painful to some people, it’s a necessary part of life – just like dying is a part of life. We don’t have to like death, but we do have to accept that it’s a part of the package. Here the book suggests six strategies:
- Let children make choices – Rather than saying you must do X then Y, you offer the choice between X or Y first. This may seem like giving the child power, but in truth, they’re still going to do everything, it’s just a matter of order.
- Show respect for a child’s struggle – As parents, we have the curse of knowledge; we already know the answers. However, children need the struggle to be able to learn. (See The Art of Explanation for the curse of knowledge and How We Learn for necessary difficulty – i.e. the need to struggle.)
- Don’t ask too many questions – By asking too many questions, we disrupt and minimize the learning process and can negatively impact emotion. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on too many questions.)
- Don’t rush to answer questions – Feedback is a curious thing in education. Feedback is nearly essential for learning. Feedback that occurs too fast prevents learning. Learning to give feedback and answer questions when necessary (and not before) is a powerful tool for helping children learn.
- Encourage children to use sources outside the home – Knowing how to find answers and work through problems is key. If every answer comes from the fount of mom or dad, they’ll never learn how to learn on their own.
- Don’t take away hope – I firmly believe that hope is the most powerful thing in the universe. Without hope, there’s no reason to try. You have learned helplessness. Hope is the engine that allows us to continue forward (see The Psychology of Hope for more).
Whether we’re talking about a child that we’re trying to help grow or the person who has an unhealthy attachment to us, these are good techniques to create separation.
Parents and Kids or Person to Person
In the end, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is as much about how any two people should relate as it is about parents and children. It’s solid practical advice for the things to do in your relationship with your children to help put them on positive footing for life. So won’t you learn How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk?