As a family therapist in Washington DC and nearby Bethesda, I work with families on communication daily. Last week, I wrote about how our expectations as parents can influence our process of raising children. This week, I want to focus on our process of communication within our families.
John Gottman [The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships] breaks down the process of communicating; he describes how we are always communicating, even when we are doing nothing. Gottman outlines our basic bids for interaction and how we either 1) turn toward, 2) turn against, or 3) turn away from others when we are in the process of communicating with them. “Turning toward” is when we respond in a positive way towards the other person. “Turning against” is when we become argumentative or defensive. “Turning away” is when we ignore the other person’s bid for communication and connection.
Let’s dually consider, Siegal & Hartzell’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out; How a Deeper Self-Understanding can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive where he outlines emotional attunement and contingent communication. Siegal explains attunement as, “the parent’s aligning of her internal state with that of the child. This process often involves the sharing and coordination of nonverbal signals (eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and touch, bodily posture, timing, and intensity of response) along with being attuned to what his happening with your child emotionally. Hartzell explains contingent communication as when
“the receiver of the message listens with an open mind and with all his or her senses. Her reaction is dependent on what was actually communicated, not on a predetermined and rigid mental model of what was expected. This exchange occurs in the present moment without preoccupation with internal events of the past. Contingent communication is full of possibility for connecting because instead of responding in a rote manner, a parent responds to the signals actually sent by the child.”
In order to do this, we want to be present and “with” the other person with whom we are communicating. Most of us can become preoccupied, or distracted in our daily communications. Thus, we either turn inward or turn away rather than staying emotionally attuned and open enough to be able to consistently turn toward our family member.
At times, we may need to take a step back and give ourselves time and space before we can fully engage in the communication process with those that we love.
It is hard work to remain mindful in our communication processes. We have to watch our tone when we make requests of our children (i.e. asking them to clean their room), and we have to monitor how are are doing with attempting to stay open and responsive so that we don’t retreat inward or away. Changing how we communicate with each other can send a ripple effect through our whole family. Think about throwing a stone in a lake and watching the waves radiate out. Better communication can set the stage for more positive and reciprocal behavior from your children and within your family.