Active Listening and Communication Skills
Have you ever attempted to talk with your kids and had it go less then well? Most of us at one point in time have tried to communicate our needs to others because we recognize that communication is important in reducing conflicts and resolving issues with one another. You may have found yourself wondering how a conversation left you or your child feeling sad, misunderstood, or frustrated, when your goal was to do the opposite! In therapy we teach parents, siblings and other family members how to talk and listen effectively to one another.
It's important when having discussions with others, especially ones that include a confrontation, we practice active listening. The word “confrontation” is often associated with the negative. We may think of a confrontation as an angry or aggressive way of obtaining a desired goal or even bullying others into hearing you. In fact, confrontations don't have to always be negative. A healthy confrontation in therapy could include assertively bringing an issue to another person’s attention and bettering a relationship because this confrontation helped resolve an ongoing issue. Here we will be defining 3 key terms in communication; aggressive communication, assertive communication, and active listening.
Assertiveness is necessary when working towards resolving conflict. Assertive communication means being confident and clear in statements or behaviors when expressing your ideas or actions. Aggression on the other hand is usually a conflictual and forceful way of communicating. An example of each style of communication is is used in the scenario below.
Assertive: “Hey John, I know you just got home from school and said that you are tired and I also need for you to clean your room before you go on social media because we have guests coming over soon.
Aggressive: "John you need to clean your room now because I said so!”
Each communication style is referencing the same issue , however the assertive style is much less likely to cause conflict and is still firm and clear. One key point is using “and” instead of “but” (highlighted in blue above) when discussing issues in a confrontation . It may sound strange to use however it is an important change to make when you are asking for others to hear you.
Often when we make a statement and then use the word “but” to convey our next point. The person on the other end usually stops listening once they hear "but" because they feel the first point you made is untrue. “But” also triggers the other person to become defensive immediately because “but” is often a predecessor for bad news or conflict. By using “and” it forces the brain to see the two issues as convergent rather than two divergent and incongruent issues.
“John I know you are tired BUT you need to clean your room now”.
“John I know you are tired AND you need to clean your room now”.
The first example makes it sounds as though you do not care John is tired which can be heard as invalidation of experience or emotion. When a person feels invalidated they often become upset or stop listening. The second example lets John know that you heard that he is tired (validation) and that you still expect his room be cleaned. The two issues (being tired and needing to clean) are both being supported at the same time with the use of “and”.
Another issue with aggressive communication or sometimes referred to as authoritarian parenting styles is that they can lead to anxiety and depression as it creates high expectations with little nurturing or explanations. In example 1 the highlighted portion (in red) demonstrates how there is little validation for John with no explanation why the room must be cleaned. Many parents may feel that giving your child an explanation means that you are giving in or lowering your authority. In fact adding reasoning behind your requests often makes it easier for others to follow your requests and understand your point of view. You are also teaching your child in the moment the reasoning behind your rules. You may end up teaching them a value that they will carry on into adulthood. Kids often will not value what they don't understand.
Active listening means hearing and understanding the other person while reflecting or communicating back to that person that you have heard them. You may say something like "When you do/say/think ________________I feel ________________(emotion). This way you are expressing that another person's behavior is correlated with your emotional response and is not blaming or shaming. A great way of responding to something like this satement would be " I heard you say that when I do or say ___________ you feel__________. And that makes me feel _____________ (your emotion). This type of response shows that you were actively listening to the other person while also conveying how this is correlated with an emotion you are feeling.
Therapy can be a great tool to reduce conflict within relationships as well as to learn effective communication styles that can be used both in and outside of the therapy office. Often times the therapist can acts as a supportive communicator who can teach these techniques to you and your family in the moment.