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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.

Style 2: Expressives–Social and Spirited

Who are "expressives"? They are all about being accepted in relationships. They're talkative and speak quickly, with big gestures. They make great motivators, and enthusiasm is their trademark. They tend to prefer looking at the big picture, and they can easily get sidetracked or bored. They feel most comfortable in groups and are performers. They may enjoy a "healthy" difference of opinion from time to time, and they love change and challenges. Expressives are most interested in “who” is involved—the people are most important to them.

When communicating with an "expressive" person, expect a fast-paced conversation with open body language. Have patience when she strays off the point. Stay in the big picture, and don't give too many details. Don't take it personally if she sets up a "spirited discussion"; expressives enjoy debate and don't see it as problematic. If change is afoot, show enthusiasm for it. Expressives thrive on praise and compliments—even as adults, so don’t just shower praise on your children, if your spouse is an expressive, he may need an “attaboy” too!

Style 3: Thinkers–Analytical and Systematic

Who are "thinkers"? They feel grounded when they have data and facts. Often perfectionists, they have a strong drive to achieve results. Less talk, more results, could be their motto. They dislike errors or being unprepared. They want to approach family decisions logically and with little emotion. They may not say much until they have come to a conclusion. Thinkers ask, "How are we going to do this?"

How to communicate with a thinker? Thinkers respond to well-planned conversations. They are not spontaneous. When involving them in important family conversations, schedule a later time so they can prepare themselves. When you talk, provide thinkers facts and information. Have a clear goal that involves resolution and an agreed-upon plan of action. Keep your voice low and your gestures calm and low-key. Don't expect thinkers to express emotion as you converse. Their rational appearance doesn't mean they don't have feelings; it's just their communication style.

Style 4: Directors–Bold and Straightforward

Who are "directors"? They are honest and plain-spoken. They are confident drivers and go-getters. Decisive, directors have strong opinions and see things as right or wrong. They are organized, goal-oriented, and can be competitive. Directors are the superheroes who tally up accomplishments and have a hard time understanding why other people don't. Others often perceive directors as blunt and pushy, since they have no problem telling someone what to do. They frequently take on leadership roles in the family, coordinating family schedules and events. They ask, "What needs to be done?"

How to communicate with a "director"? Let her take charge; allow your "director" her views. Communicate as directly with her as she does with you. Try to be brief, so as not to "waste" the director's time; set mutual goals with directors. Set boundaries, but give directors the autonomy to do things their way. If the director in your family intimidates or frustrates you, try adjusting your body language when you communicate in person: Take a solid stance with feet apart, and make eye contact. Ask for the director's respect, and remember that you are her equal.

After reviewing the four basic communication styles, ask yourself these questions:

Does one or more of these styles describe you? We are all a composite of styles, but one style usually dominates. How do you see yourself? Does your family have the same perception of your style? Check in with your family to make sure.

Do communication styles lend themselves to particular misinterpretations? For example, a relater may see a thinker as uncaring or unfeeling. A director might seem bossy to you when to her, she's simply sharing her idea. You may be a detail-oriented thinker, when your spouse is an expressive and turns off when you go into detail. Don't take these responses personally.

Do you use different communication styles with different people? Your roles in the family may change your style in various relationships. Do you notice that with your daughter you are more directive, but with your daughter-in-law you are more expressive? Are you a thinker with your husband, but a relater with your children? You may naturally adapt your style to be more effective depending on with whom you are communicating. If you are a touchy-feely relater, and your spouse is a seemingly cold thinker, you two will communicate better if you both respect each others' styles and adjust your styles so that your partner can receive your messages as you intended.

Tips for effective family communication:

Know your own communication style and those of your family members. Learn how to adapt when interacting with loved ones who have different styles.

Listen. Epictetus, a Greek Philosopher (55–circa 135) said, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." If only my sister listened twice as much as she spoke! Some people are natural listeners, but for most of us, listening is a learned skill. To improve your skills, practice reflective listening:

1. Listen.

2. Paraphrase what you heard, and repeat it to your loved one.

3. Check to see if the message you received is accurate.

• Notice nonverbal cues or "body language." If you are sitting back in your chair with your arms crossed and looking around the room while your daughter is telling you about her day, she’ll get the message that you don’t care.

• Minimize the drama. Notice your feelings, but avoid reacting emotionally—stop, breathe, and reflect. When you are angry, avoid communicating in any form. It may be a conversation some family members will never let you forget.

• Use "I" statements, such as "I feel (this way) when you (say or do this); because I (have this reason) next time will you please (do this)."

• Make no judgments: Stick to the facts. If you really want to have open communication with family members, they need to feel you won't be critical or tell them what they "should" do.

Here's to building strong family bonds in the New Year by practicing effective communication!