Communicating our thoughts and feelings with kindness and understanding is essential to healthy family life. Unfortunately, we don’t always learn good communication habits. Instead, we build walls and barriers. As we identify the barriers that hinder communication among family members and as we learn to love as our Savior did, we can build bridges of communication within our families that lead to love and understanding.
As parents we often become involved in the tasks of daily living and are unwilling to stop what we’re doing to listen to our children. In so doing, we miss some of the most important opportunities to build loving relationships. Consider the following examples:
“Hey dad,” a young son says. “May I talk to you about something?”
His father replies, “What do you want? I’m late for my meeting.”
A daughter says, “Mom, I heard some girls talking today. How does the baby get inside the mother?”
Embarrassed and preoccupied, her mother answers, “Never mind about that now; I’m busy getting dinner ready.”
If the message we send our children is “Go away, don’t bother me now,” they will probably withdraw from us. Both the parents in the above examples could have taken the time to talk with their child. The father might have said something like this: “Why don’t you drive me to my meeting? We can talk on the way.” Or “I guess it won’t matter if I’m a bit late. What’s on your mind?” The mother might have said: “I’m glad you asked me. Here, help me with these potatoes and we’ll have time to talk.”
A child should be important enough that occasionally Mom or Dad will stop everything else and pay attention to him alone. These precious moments may be silent times of togetherness and unspoken understanding. Or they may be tearful times as you listen to your child describe hurts, disappointments, or joys. At times you may simply chat together, sharing the events of the day. These times open the way to deeper talks later on. There may be a time when you should do the talking, but only after you have done a lot of listening. (See Emma Lou Thayne, Ensign, Mar. 1980, p. 48.)
Such times together don’t just happen. Often they need to be planned. One daughter and her mother had been having some problems. One day they took time to visit together, the daughter doing most of the talking and the mother doing most of the listening. The door was locked. The phone rang unanswered. Their hearts opened to each other as love and understanding deepened.
Another mother and daughter planned a luncheon together. The daughter chose the place; mother paid the bill. The conversation was not momentous—mostly just small talk—but the experience was meaningful and memorable because it gave the daughter time alone with her mother.
A young boy and his dad set up a small tent in the backyard. Although the father usually preferred sleeping in his own bed, he found the night with his son an enjoyable experience. They talked about things that were important to the boy and shared thoughts and feelings.
These one-on-one experiences create a bond between parent and child that grows stronger with each experience. At times like these, even challenging questions are not difficult to ask or answer—questions about the purpose of life and the gospel, about drugs and peers, about goals and problems, about sex and chastity. If a parent and child have been talking about organic gardening or the advantages of cotton blend fabrics, it is easier to talk together about problems concerning friends and values.
Communication is always difficult when the atmosphere is wrong—when a person is tired, hungry, angry, busy, or involved with friends. It is also harder to communicate when we are surrounded by distractions that interrupt our conversation. Usually when we try to communicate in such an environment, we are feeling impatient or even angry. Something has happened that we have let bother us and we want it taken care of immediately. When such feelings rule, the spirit of cooperation cannot exist and confusion and hurt feelings often result.
In communicating, we need to set aside relaxed times when we are calm and receptive to the Spirit. “The location, setting, or circumstances should be comfortable, private, and conversation-conducive. Effective communications have been shared in a grove of trees, on the mount, by the sea, in family home evening, during a walk, in a car, during a vacation, a hospital visit, on the way to school, during the game. When the stage is set, we must be willing to let the other family member be front and center as we appropriately respond.” (Marvin J. Ashton, Ensign, May 1976, p. 52.)
In this type of atmosphere, we are more willing to listen, to respond kindly, and to solve problems constructively.
The words we use to express our thoughts or feelings can present one of the biggest barriers to effective communication. Sometimes the words we use have a different meaning to those listening than they do to us. At other times, we assume the person we are talking to will understand concepts they have not yet learned about.
Elder Paul H. Dunn tells the story of a mother who repeatedly warns her young son not to go beyond the corner of their street. Finally, after he has again gone beyond the set limits, she asks him, “Didn’t you hear me tell you not to go beyond the corner?” Her son looks up at her puzzled. “What’s a corner?”
We cannot communicate when we speak with words or ideas the other might not understand.
Elder Jacob de Jager reported that following a long seminar President Marion G. Romney asked him how he was going to teach all the inspired materials he had been given. Brother de Jager said, “I shall teach in such a way that everyone will understand.” President Romney replied, “That’s not enough; you shall teach in such a way that no one will misunderstand.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 67.)
The message we wish to communicate must first be clear in our own minds. Then, we must use the language that fits the experience and understanding level of our listener. A message given to a fifteen-year-old would be vastly different than the same message given to a four-year-old.
Many misunderstandings could be avoided if we would ask in quiet sincerity, “Do you see what I am trying to say?” Misunderstandings would also be prevented if listeners would ask, “Is this what you mean?” or “Are you saying that … ?” This kind of feedback can correct misunderstanding and help our spouse or children clarify their own feelings.
For example, a son told his father that he had decided not to go on a mission. Rather than become shocked and then give a lecture, the father sought to help the young man understand and clarify his own feelings.
“You feel you would not like to serve a mission?” he asked. This simple question let the boy know he was being listened to rather than being judged or lectured. He felt he could turn his attention from defending his position to revealing and analyzing his feelings.
“Oh, I suppose I’d like to serve, but I’m not sure a mission is for me.”
“So you think you’d like to go, but you feel you still have some questions?”
“Well, I didn’t want to tell you this, but I know I’d have a real tough time learning a foreign language.”
This father was then able to reassure his son. He assured the boy that the Lord knew what was best for him and that he would be blessed for serving wherever called. Feelings had been clarified. That father had shown he cared without judging his son.
Lack of confidentiality can inhibit a free exchange between family members. A sixteen-year-old girl heard her friend relate details of a private conversation she had shared with her mother two days earlier. The mother had told the friend’s mother. The daughter became so upset that she promised herself she would never share private information with her mother again.
Trust is essential to good communication. We build trust by maintaining confidences. Family matters should be kept within the family. Our children must know we do not reveal their secrets without permission.
One way to build this type of confidence is by keeping happy secrets as a family. One couple, for example, gathers the family around when the mother becomes pregnant. The information is “our secret” for a couple of weeks, and all the family enjoys the shared secret. Keeping some secrets together as a family tells your child that you will keep other information confidential also.
When we have a sarcastic, critical, judging, whining, blaming, or demanding attitude, we usually destroy good relationships. No one wants to be criticized, placed on the defensive, or misjudged. When we have this attitude, we often attack the individual instead of the problem.
Sometimes when children make mistakes or don’t perform as we think they should, we overreact, accusing and attacking our child. One child brought home a poor report card from school. His parents confronted him, telling him that he was “a lazy, poor student who watched too much television.” A teenage daughter hurriedly washed the family car, having too little time to do a good job. Seeing the poor result, her father reminded her of other times when she hadn’t performed well either. He said, “You always seem to work haphazardly. Can’t you do a good job at anything?” This type of communication tells children they are worthless and that it is impossible for them to change.
When we avoid interrupting, criticizing, or judging, and when we focus on problems and solutions instead of attacking the individual, family members will feel free to express ideas and feelings without fear of blame. They will discuss their problems if they know they will not be lectured or scolded.
When a child does bring home a poor report card, the parents could talk calmly with the child about it. A conference with the teacher might disclose any problems the child is having in class, then parents and child together could work to solve them.
The father of the teenage girl could have thanked her for doing the job, and then taken the time to teach her how to care for the car. Her attitude about car care would be improved if she knew her father felt she would act responsibly.
If two people can focus their attention on a common problem and work together to find a solution, they will be more successful than if they criticize each other or become sarcastic.
When a parent ignores a child, or an older child ignores a younger one, communication breaks down. Sometimes we ignore messages because we think we already know what is being said, we don’t want to hear the message, or we are too busy thinking of our response. Sometimes we don’t respect the speaker and therefore won’t listen to him. Children who are ignored turn to someone else, often someone outside the family, who will listen to them.
When we respect others, we listen to them. We do not ignore them. As we listen to our children they will feel our respect for them. Then they will know that we accept and respect their opinions. As we show that we value their judgment they will feel they have something worthwhile to share.
Each member of a family can be asked to contribute ideas and opinions at family councils and other family discussions. Sometimes a younger child may think he is ignored in family conversations. Asking him “What do you think about this?” and then using his feelings to come to a solution will show that you respect his opinion and value what he thinks and feels. Such responses as “I’m glad you brought out that idea,” or “That’s a good observation,” can also show your appreciation for a child’s ideas and suggestions.
Recognizing the barriers to communication—and understanding how they can be overcome—will help us express the love we feel within our families. And when communication is used as a vehicle for expressing love, it becomes a powerful force in uniting and strengthening families.