The Crucial Skill of Communication
by Nancy Monson
As a teacher, I watch children struggle with their communication all the time. Some children talk all the time and never stop, some don't listen at all, some are quiet and won't talk about what goes on for them, some are bossy and controlling with their peers, some just follow along and won’t say what they feel or want, some lie and hide, others want to please, and others are just plain hard to communicate with. These habits don't just go away. Look at the adults in your life: we tend to recognize that everyone has problems communicating, and that it is often at the heart of ways we feel cut off, ineffective, powerless or even confused.
Communication is an essential ingredient for self-esteem, for expressing who we are, how we feel, what we want, for experiencing and sharing our creativity and our power. And yet, there is very little in our education that teaches us how to communicate well, for who we are as an individual. In other words, we will all communicate differently, and the art of being able to both receive and relate to all kinds of people is what makes people leaders, or at least truly helpful to others. What can we do to help our children learn the fine art of communication?
First of all, communication needs to be a focus in the family. To have this be successful, two things need to happen. The first is, we need to look at our own communication. Whatever the parent’s communication style is, whatever problems are there for the parents, will be reflected in the children. My mother was very defensive, and so am I (and my siblings). My father tended to not confront things directly, and neither did his children. In order to see your children clearly, you have to first see yourself. It begins with observation and data collection. Ask the people who are closest to you: your partner, closest friends or family, co-workers, for feedback on how you communicate. Sit down with them and make the time. Just listen, ask questions, and write it down. Ask them to be honest, and be willing to hear what they say. Then, a few times a day, try and hear yourself talking. What do you notice? Tone, content, speed, mood, clarity, listening or not listening, responding quickly, cutting off, interrupting, feeling something but not saying it, being honest, pretending… what goes on. Try and write down anything you observed sometime before you go to bed. If you do this for a month, you will start to get some data that will give you a clearer picture, maybe confirm what you already know about yourself, maybe reveal some new layers.
Secondly, try and get a clearer picture of your child’s communication style and patterns. When do they seem most confident in their expression? When do they seem hesitant, resistant to talking, confused? Try and get a feel for their communication by listening and observing more, without judgement or getting so involved, or without ideas about how they SHOULD communicate. And, ask others how they see your child’s communication. One of the best people to ask can be your child’s teacher. Tell them you honestly want to know how your child communicates with peers at school. Most teachers are full of information about your children, but it’s hard to tell a parent who doesn’t want to hear it. Most teachers won’t step over the line unless you ask them to, and know you want their honesty above anything else, including hearing things that might be uncomfortable.
Modeling good communication is essential for children to learn how to communicate. Let them hear you working out problems, expressing feelings and concerns, listening to others, asking questions, apologizing, being honest, admitting mistakes, sharing your joy and successes: all of it. You can not hide conflict from children. They know whether they hear it or not. Find ways to talk to your children about what’s going on for you so that they can understand. They don’t need to be burdened, but they need to feel that they are valued enough to be talked to, and they need to try and understand. A big reason children don’t learn how to work out their problems with others is that it was never modeled and never taught.
Set up a communication system in your family that will work for all of you. Family meetings are one of the best steps. These can be held once a week or every other week, around a particular issue (like cleaning up the bedroom). There needs to be an opening ritual like lighting a candle, holding hands, a moment of silence. Then the issue is brought up (older children can also bring up issues that they have). Start with the child making a list of solutions. Don’t respond, just write it down. Listen. Then list your solutions and write them down. Then read off both lists and see what compromises can be made, where there might be solutions. This can start as young as three. They don’t have to read, just having it written down (and sometimes three year olds will say things that have nothing to do with the issue, just write it down anyhow) means they were listened to and valued. Then when a solution is found, write it out, sign it and put it on the refrigerator. This is an agreement everyone came to. This whole process really works. I have worked with families with children from three to 16 and they have said it sets up a process for real communication, working out problems, listening to one another and feeling heard and respected. It is much better than fighting, arguing, making decisions that don’t stick, and setting up rules that the children don’t feel are fair or included in.
What about a time for silence? What about being with people and not talking, sharing through just being together and not filling all the space we have with endless talking. I think if we look back at our closest time with people, I wonder how much talking was involved. Was it the words that remain, or the feelings? Sometimes few words are better than more. We need to model this too, so that children don’t place so much value on the word. A person is much more heard by their actions and by their energy than by their words.
Lastly, what is communication like in your child’s classroom? Does the teacher take the time to have mediation between children? Is there a class communication process like a council? Are problems discussed and our rules come to by all the children? In our school we spend a fair amount of time on stopping and making sure we are listening, or that someone gets to talk, and to help children learn to work out their issues and find their ways of communicating so that they are empowered to take responsibility for themselves instead of depending on an adult to work it out. It is very hard for teachers to do this in the big classrooms, and yet, communication is at the heart of learning! If you are good at this, or know someone who is, maybe you can ask the teacher if you could help out with this, set up some kind of system with her and the kids. When good communication is at the foundation of a classroom, children are much happier, more secure, willing to take risks, and they can learn easier because they are free to be themselves.
Ghandi said, "Be the change you want to be in the world." I think we all realize that there are many, many problems in the world, and that communication is an unbelievably complex undertaking in all the relationships that the world revolves around, whether it be personal, business, political, spiritual or international. If we want to ever see any changes in this, it begins with us, and then our children.
© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.
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