Synergistic Parenting

Communicating is listening, sharing, and…



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Communicating is complex
Communicating is listening as much as speaking, and they must support each other. We can develop the skills of creative listening and thoughtful speaking. The words we say may be less important than the feelings in the words and our gestures and body-talk. How we respond to our children may be "open" or "closed." We will explore "business" and "personal" talking.

A recent study found that 7% of communication is words, 55% is body language and eye contact, and 38% is pitch, speed, volume, tone of voice.

If you say to a pet, "Come here," using your harshest tone of voice, your pet, going by your tone of voice, warily hesitates. An infant's only clue to what the parent says is the tone of voice and body actions.

Once your child begins to understand words, the child will try to respond to the meaning of the words. "Start by saying the words 'I feel. . .' and keep talking about yourself" and your feelings suggests Diana Richardson.

If your tone of voice clashes with the words, you confuse your child. Your child feels defensive, and doesn’t know what to do. Conflict between parent’s words and their tone of voice is confusing messages. When your young child seems confused by what you say, or ignores you, check your tone of voice and "body language."

Your body language has its own messages. Try this exercise or imagine it: stand in front of a tall mirror so you see your whole self, cross your arms, arc your back in defiance so you look belligerent, then say to the one in the mirror, "I love you." However nicely you speak, do you really believe that person in the mirror who is standing in that posture? Now relax. Drop your arms to your sides. Shrug your shoulders a few times. Take a deep breath. Try to say, "I love you" to the person in the mirror so that your body projects the words and feelings you verbalize.

So, communicating is a complex mix of:

• words we speak
• tone of voice
• body talk
• open or closed speaking
• business or personal talk
• listening attentively and thoughtfully

While words may be precise, tone of voice, body talk, attitude bring feeling and subtlety into communication. Ruffling your child's hair, a hug, a pat on the rump, or high-five communicates much more than words. The best communication is a broad, multidimensional tapestry of stance, hands, tone, words, and more! Broaden your feeling for communication.

When we command
How much of your talking to your children is commands? If you say many commands, you may confuse children. The more you command, the more your words are background noise – "She has something else for me to do." Think about how you can reduce your commands. One essential reason is that on rare occasions you want your child to respond instantly to an emergency; if you give many commands so that they become almost noise, the child cannot recognize the genuine emergency. Save your commands for emergency situations. As you read on think about the many ways to communicate that can accomplish what frequent commands often fail to do.

Words are code
Whenever we speak, we encode and decode feelings. Words are code! But encoding and decoding are especially important when we talk with our child (or our partner).

For example, your child comes to you as you prepare supper after you have had a long, hard day. Your child has not seen you for hours, and feels, "I want loving," but your child encodes that feeling into words, such as, "Will you play with me?" That is a natural expression of wanting to be close to you and have your attention. But when you hear the word "play," you decode that "play" conflicts with fixing supper, so you may say, "I’m busy." Your child may decode "I’m busy" to mean you don’t want to love him – that you don’t love her. Or you may say, "No. Go play by yourself." The child may decode those words at face value, and feels, "I’m kicked out. I’m not wanted."

Thinking about that interaction in the kitchen, we need to build the habit to do two things.

First, be honest about your own feelings. If you will be open with your feelings, you may answer, "I’m tired. Maybe later we can play," and your child easily and naturally decodes that, and will probably ask to play again later. The parent has modeled honest and open communication. We say how we feel.

Second, take time to try to decode. The best responses may be you tussle the child’s hair, or give the child a quick hug, if you decode that the child wants to feel loved. What a short interruption to what you're doing!

Take some time to analyze a recent conversation — one that went sour.

Feedback testing
You decode in the example that your child’s "play" conflicts with your fixing supper. Your child decodes "I’m busy" to mean you don’t want to love her. Fortunately, there is a tool called feedback testing. Feedback testing means you try to learn what your child feels behind the code of the moment. One feedback test uses your child’s own words, "Do you want to play by yourself, or help me fix supper?" If play is what your child wants, you give that choice. If being with you is the real want, you offer that.

Though you are busy, take a moment to think about what your child said, try to decode your child’s feelings, then test. And best of all, your child briefly has your attention, and you give your child a chance to choose. Once you get used to doing these steps, you are distracted for less than a minute. You may avoid an emotional outburst.

Reflective listening
The habit called "reflective listening" recognizes that sometimes we don’t decode our child right the first time, so, let’s check it. You "reflect" back what you think the other person felt that was encoded. Did you understood correctly? If not, ask the other person to clarify or correct you. As a result, you both understand the feelings that two persons are trying to share. Reflective listening may take a while. Sometimes it seems silly. However, it is an effective way to have clearer and more accurate sharing of feelings and desires.

If you rephrase your child’s words, you show that you are paying attention to your child. It is a way to better understand what feelings your child was encoding. With reflective listening, you can probe more deeply into what your child means. You show your interest not only in words but in their feelings that prompted their words. You are modeling ways of listening that your child may imitate.

If you are not very sure of what feelings the child expresses, you may ask, "What are you feeling that you say that?" If you are fairly sure of your child’s feelings, you may suggest a descriptive word, as, "Do I hear you feeling angry?"

This takes time. When you cannot take the time with your child, be honest and open with your child, expressing your own feelings. Later make time with that child.

Listening may be the most important skill you can develop with each child. At every age the child may want you to listen, and perhaps help the child keep talking. Explore listening.

Open or closed?
Try to remember a recent conversation with another adult, who made you want to continue the conversation. Did the other person make you feel that you wanted to respond and to express yourself? Was the conversation give-and-take, in which you both shared ideas and feelings? The two of you drew more out of each other to share by your attitudes, which you expressed in words, in tone of voice, and in body talk. This is "open" conversation. In our parenting one goal can be having more "open" talk.

When a child says, "I can’t do that." you may respond, "Don’t talk like that. You can do it." You may think that sounds supportive, but the child may feel, "I am not allowed to express why I cannot do it." A child often must be encouraged to express those feelings. An open response may be, "Why do you feel you can’t?" Or, "It sounds like you feel overwhelmed." Those words invite the child to explain.

"Closed" talk has many meanings. We may command in a way that tells the child, don’t talk back. "Closed" talk is when the child understands that you do not want to have give-and-take conversation. Perhaps we are in a hurry or distracted.

When with a child, focus your attention, your eyes, your thoughts on the child. Drink in all that the child says, then respond. Remember and review what you have just read about communicating. An open response indicates, "I am interested in your feelings and want to hear what you have to say." When you give a child this total attention even for a few moments, you show that child how much you treasure and love that child.

Business or personal
In our families we have business talk and personal conversation, and we need to think about how they differ. "Business" talk is about what has to be done for house, self, and family. Business talk is necessary for a family and house to function. It is often about what to do. Perhaps make a quick list of recent business talk in your family. Check to what degree you give reasons for your requests. How often did you "ask" and how often "tell?"

For business talk with younger children, remember their attention span and how long they remember. When they do not finish a job, you may need to ask them to do smaller parts of that job that they can remember and finish. Their failing to do something may be due to forgetting amid interests they prefer.

"Personal" talk is about feelings, dreams, and hopes, or idle chatter. It is about what gives you and each child joy and pain. Personal talk changes a house into a home. Recollect how much communicating was business and how much personal, and does the balance of business and personal reflect your love and care for each individual child? Pause to think about changes that you might like to make in the balance of business and personal talk. Think specifically about your balance of business and personal talk with each child. Perhaps the child who seems to require more business talk is really seeking more personal relating — more one-with-one time.


If you are listening alone, jot down what she really meant and was feeling, then jot how to respond. If you listen with another, talk with each other about her feeling and how to respond. Experiment with feedback testing and reflective listening. Does this help you bring together these thoughts about communicating?

If you repeat when talking with a child, check whether it is business talk. Ask yourself if it is unpleasant talk, such as, clean up or put away, which is business talk. Try first of all expressing your feelings, or suggesting the child's possible feelings, and within this framework, make your business talk a request — not a drill sergeant's command. Remembering what you read in the introduction about your supervisors and managers, reflect how your child hears and responds to your requests. If the child is young, make it more of a game, or share doing it with the young child. If the child is older, explain logically why you make the request. Remember I-statements and consciously try them when you find you are repeating what you say to your child.

Writing notes
When you find it hard to talk with a child, consider writing your thoughts in a note to your child. If you write, you can be very careful what you say and how you say it. You can re-write and scratch out. If you use a computer, you can produce a careful note that is hard to misunderstand, though a handwritten note is more personal. Notes can be short enough to fit on a post-it, or longer than a page. Some parents report that writing notes is their best way to communicate their feelings and thoughts on some subjects to their child. After the child reads the note, he or she may talk with you about what you wrote to clarify it or probe further.

How often after a conversation have you thought of just the thing you should have said? Write it down, and maybe add some thoughts, so you have a note to leave for your child. That thought may be just right for your child to understand what you two were trying to understand together.


Communicating effects so much of what you do with your child. You may want to bookmark this section, to re-read and re-consider it. Make a list of why you speak to each child, such as, commanding, telling ideas or thoughts, seeking a child’s ideas or thoughts, sharing your feelings, in order to see how much is business and how much personal. Communication is usually a two-way path. If you agree with the goals suggested here, we want our children to grow in being responsible. We need to work with our children to enable that to happen. This work is interactive. It involves give and take, listening and talking. This section has shown ways to improve our listening. We have learned rephrasing and reflective listening. As we understand each child, we can speak with that child ever more effectively.

And remember that sometimes a child wants us to listen in a focused and attentive way, to help them share feelings and thoughts, often without our offering advise.

How you approach
As you practice these skills of communicating and listening, remember that it will work effectively as you practice it as an expression of your love for your child. This is not a gimmick, but is a tool that you can develop and fine-tune to express your love for your child and strengthen your child’s trust of parents. Think of this as part of how some managers have by attitude and action led you to be a better worker and person, finding more satisfaction and fulfillment.

Perhaps the best summary of your attitude and outlook that you try to express with communicating and listening is what my Dad called the three A’s: acceptance, appreciation, affection. I would add a fourth: affirming each child.

Next time that you want a child to do something, remember what you read here, then consciously practice some of these skills. Also set aside time with each child, and having read these thoughts about communicating, practice them as you play with your child, seeking what the child wants to do, what the child is feeling, and how the two of you can enjoy each other and this time together.

If you are working alone, consider writing a journal about communication, in which you list what you tried – as decoding – and in what circumstance, how well it worked and why, and most importantly what you learned that you can use as you continue to learn better ways to communicate.

To learn more about communication, click on Resources, and look into most of those listed. Check the chapter headings and the index at the back for what we have explored here. Many of these resources have further explanations and discussion and give examples of practicing the skills discussed.

Time alone with
Perhaps the most important parenting you can do is to spend time with each child, doing what that child wants to do, more than once a month. If the child is younger, you may build with blocks or throw a ball. If the child is a teen, you may spend hours going to a movie the teen wants to see with you, followed by talking together while eating or walking — whatever your teen suggests.

Some books and speakers warn that parents and friends are two different qualities and roles, and that parents should not be friends. I think the more you get to know each child in their uniqueness, and interact with that child, you are becoming a special kind of friend. You share in the likes and dreams, the angers and fears of each child at their many different ages and stages.

Focus entirely on this child of yours, deepening your bonding to each other regularly from the cooing infant to the sometimes hard-to-communicate-with teen.

Copyright © 2007 John F. Yeaman