In Kidpower, we have found that knowing something is not the same as being able to do it. This is why we encourage Positive Practice, so that people are successful in using skills in contexts that are relevant to their lives. It’s also why we address issues that get in the way, such as emotional triggers.
Here are five important communication strategies that I have found to be immensely useful in addressing concerns with people important to me – when I remember to use them.
1. Think Before You Speak
Staying mindful about what you say and do can prevent a host of communication problems. If you are feeling so upset that you lash out at someone in a disrespectful way, this can cause damage to the relationship – in the same way that a rock will cause damage if it is thrown through a window. A clean apology with no explanations or justifications will often repair the damage – but it causes less stress and hurt for everyone if you can avoid the damage in the first place.
Think about the purpose of your communication. What do you hope to accomplish with your words or actions? Are your comments about something you are responsible for doing, such as parenting or managing someone or about an activity you are doing together with the other person? Or, is it an opinion about something that is not your business, maybe even something that the other person has already asked you to stop discussing?
One of my teachers used to tell me to remember the words of the nineteenth-century guru Sai Baba, “Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve on the silence?”
Remember that it is unkind to let discomfort or being too busy stop you from saying important things to people who are important to you.
Also, think about the structure of your communication. Use “I” messages where you take responsibility for your own feelings; state the behavior you are concerned about in specific, non-attacking terms; and make a specific, respectful statement about what you want to see happen instead.
2. Make the Space for the Right Moment
Our lives are too busy. Potentially upsetting communications delivered on the run can backfire. Poor times to communicate about difficult things are: while you are driving; when you are running out the door; when you were resting at the end of a long day; in the middle of a nice dinner; or in front of children.
At the same time, important communications about concerns need to be delivered sooner rather than later, and waiting for the right time can be destructive. Unaddressed problems can cause major damage if you don’t deal with them, haul them out later, or discuss them with others instead of addressing them directly with the individual involved.
This means that you need to make the space by insisting on stopping yourself and the other person long enough to be in a calm, private place so that you can talk without distractions and without being overheard, especially by children. If possible, find a neutral place where you won’t be interrupted, such as on a walk or at a coffee shop. Remember to turn your cell phones off.
Make an appointment to talk on the phone during a calm time if getting together in person is impractical, but don’t try to solve problems in communication by e-mail. Direct personal communication is interactive and, although seeing each other is better, being able to hear each other’s voices can make all the difference in the world.
Many conflicts can be prevented if you anticipate potential areas of disagreement and make a plan ahead of time with the other person.
3. Respect the Other Person’s Point of View
People are different, and seeing things differently is normal. Communicating respect for another person’s point of view does not mean that you are agreeing with it. For example, you might say, “I really respect your point of view, but this is an area where we are going to need to agree to disagree, because I believe differently than you do.”
People also often remember things differently. Without a video camera recording every moment, we don’t have an objective way to determine what actually happened. So you can say, “My understanding is that you feel frustrated and upset because you remember me saying that you didn’t need to get this done today. I am really sorry that you feel frustrated and upset. I have a different memory about what happened, but your feelings are important to me. Let’s see what we can do to avoid this kind of miscommunication in the future.”
When necessary, you can set boundaries about behavior while acknowledging someone’s right to be upset about these boundaries. For example, “I understand that you feel embarrassed that I reminded you to make sure that you come here not smelling of smoke or perfume. I really don’t want to embarrass you, and I’m sorry. I’d appreciate any feedback you can give me about how I could have brought up this concern in a more respectful way.”
When people feel that you respect their perspectives and feelings, they are more likely to treat your feelings and perspective with respect.
4. Acknowledge Your Share in Causing the Problem
Most people have a deep need to be right and to save face. They can hear information about what they need to change much more easily if it is given in a context where the other person is acknowledging what he or she might have done to contribute to the problem.
For example, I often am in a hurry and have many ideas connected together. If I have failed to separate instructions and to take the time to let the other person write them down and repeat back to me what he or she needs to do – or to write them down in a clear, specific way myself – then I need to acknowledge my role in the misunderstanding.
5. Keep Your Heart Connection
When you are important to someone, you have a lot of power and need to use that power wisely. This means that, no matter how much someone’s behavior has frustrated or upset you, you need to separate the behavior from your caring and compassion. None of us are perfect, and all of us make mistakes of different kinds.
Most people are vulnerable and keep needing to hear you say, “I care about you even if I am unhappy about what you did.”
In Kidpower, we have children practice setting boundaries about unwanted touch or games by acting out telling someone they care about to stop. We then have the other person say, “I thought you loved me. I thought you were my friend. If you cared about me, you’d do what I want.”
Children often act like they have been given a piece of gold when they learn to say, “I do love you. I am your friend. I care about you a lot. AND I still want you to stop!”