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Not Just Talk

Family Communication: Illusion or Reality?

"Did you hear what I said, or did you hear what you think I said?"

We enjoy a wider variety of communication devices than any previous generation, yet getting our message through isn't any easier. Why is this so? In short, as George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

In other words, because a person thinks he's spoken, he then proceeds "as if" he has given an accurate message. In reality, many times, the message is not interpreted as intended. A series of misunderstandings on the order of "Who's On First" is set in motion.

An old joke shows how misinterpreting even one word can send a conversation on an unintended path: A woman is driving home in the rain when she sees an older woman walking by the roadside, carrying heavy shopping bags. The woman stops and offers the pedestrian a ride. In the car, the driver notices the older woman glancing furtively at a brown paper bag on the front seat. "If you are wondering what's in the bag," offers the driver, "It's a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband." The older woman sits silently for a while, nods several times, and says, "Good trade."

For communication to take place, it's necessary to have all the following elements:

• A message sender

• A method of sending the message (verbal, non-verbal, written, visual, or touch)

• A message receiver

• Feedback between sender and receiver, ensuring that messages come through correctly and that the parties reach a mutual understanding

If any of the four elements is missing, communication hasn't happened.

For example, you may send an e-mail to your mother indicating your desire to meet her for coffee at 10 Friday morning. If she doesn't read the message, there is no receiver; no communication occurs. Without getting the e-mail, Mom doesn't show up. And even if she were to read the message, there is no guarantee she'd interpret it correctly­. Mom could still go to the wrong coffee shop!

But to you, the coffee shop example might sound innocuous—not too much harm done if Mom doesn't meet you for a latte.

The problems come when families discuss hot-button issues. Too often, the simplest messages, gone awry, cause stress, grief, anger, or hurt feelings. Families create communication patterns and use methods that don't accomplish the basic goal: sending and receiving information to create mutual awareness.

It pays to make sure that what you intend to say is what your loved one understood!

Communication Styles

Working with families, I've observed that misunderstandings happen when loved ones fail to accept each other's varying communication styles. Paying attention to the ways you and your family members express yourselves improves your relationships.

Below are descriptions of four basic communication styles. Which of these fits you? Where do your family members fall? You might see overlaps, but most people fall into one of these categories.

Style 1: Relaters–Considerate and Cooperative

Who are "relaters"? They are peacemakers. They are warm, "touchy-feely," and make good listeners. They are team players, and it's important to them to use cooperative approaches. They are all about people and relationships. They want to keep everyone happy and to avoid conflict if possible. Change is upsetting to relaters. Relaters' nonverbal expression involves being physically close, open, and touching. A relater asks the question, "Why do you feel that way, want that, or do what you do?”

How to communicate with a relater? Take time; establish rapport with him. Have a relaxed pace, and share personal experiences. Avoid being aggressive or pushy, and approach conflict gently. Show you care and be supportive; relaters value empathy. Be sincere and say thank you. Sometimes we assume family members know we appreciate them, but they need to hear it just like your friends.

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