At the foundation of all our relationships is the ability to communicate effectively. When we are able to express our thoughts, feelings and ideas about each other, to each other, in a way that is understood by the other, we start to feel closer and more connected. In families, this need to be understood and connected is becoming increasingly important in a world fragmented with social media and pressure to succeed.
However, 'Communication Skills 101' classes are rarely taught in schools and colleges and are, in general, lacking from our list of educational priorities. As a result we have a tendency to pick up some bad habits which limit our ability to encourage communication from others. Without realizing it, we are often guilty of stifling what is exchanged in our conversations, which can lead to some dysfunction in our family and close relationships. For healthy communication in the family to be restored, it's fundamental ensure that every person is heard, understood and valued.
Often communication is the vital piece of the family dynamic which needs help. When adolescents don't feel heart or seen, they often appear to be angry or 'moody'. When one parent does not feel heard by their partner, then it's possible that resentment can built and grow. The impact of an inability to not communicate effectively is far reaching.
In my work as a family therapist in Los Angeles, I've spotted some of the following blocks to communication which seem to appear regularly. In the multifamily group I ran this week, I devised an exercise and group discussion to help gain awareness of our own tendencies to block, and to understand what it's like for the person who is being blocked.
The exercise involved a handful of staff members who demonstrated these blocks to our group of 40 people consisting of ten or eleven families. A member of the team volunteered to talk for a few minutes about what was going on in his life, while the other members of the team took the opportunity to throw in some of these blocks at him at random times during the three minutes.
We discussed as a group our tendency to engage in these blocking behaviors and processed what each of them was like for the person who was 'blocked'. Here are some of the thoughts and experiences of the person who was trying to convey his feelings.
Demonstrating Blocks To Communication
One person was challenged to talk consistently for three minutes about a recent experience - what's going on in their life right now, or a recent event.
Four other people were asked to comment only using blocks to communication from the list of blocks (above).
At the end of the three minutes, minutes the 'talker' was asked to describe their reactions to each block. These are written up in italics below.
The Talker: "I was asked to speak for a few minutes about what was going on in my life. I actually had a headache and was talking out loud about why I thought it was happening"
The blocks to communication are below, along with how each was delivered in the exercise.
When the listener places a label on the person talking, communication is blocked:
"A headache? I think you're being a bit dramatic"
Experience: "this was one of the first blocks I heard in the group and I was just not what I was expecting. It really threw me for a loop because I wondered if I was being dramatic for a second and if what I was saying was interesting to anyone".
The listener flips the conversation to another topic, or, more often, another subject:
"I have a headache too actually"
Experience "I was totally baffled in how to respond to this one, and it really threw me for a loop. It was so jarring to have the conversation flip to my colleague's headache when we were talking about mine. It was a struggle to keep talking after this.
When the listener attempts to fix the problem, it takes away from the speaker's need to felt seen and heard. It becomes about the listener's anxiety rather than the speakers experience.
"Did you take any ibuprofen?"
Experience: "In the moment, I quite liked hearing this, it felt caring coming from a colleague I am fond of. But when I tried to continue talking about it, it was hard to continue. It did not help me expand the conversation.
Clearly, no one likes being judged but in conversation this can come out in very subtle ways that limit the effectiveness of communication.
"You don't drink enough water"
Experience: "This was a pretty blunt and aggressive comment that I had to breathe deep upon hearing. I actually don't drink enough water so felt really annoyed that someone else was telling me what I already knew."
When the listener becomes the expert in the speaker's topic, it takes away from the speakers need to express and feel heard.
"You don't look after yourself, get more sleep"
Experience: "This was not as impactful as some of the other blocks, but it definitely did not help me continue talking about what was goin on with me. It limited my ability to continue talking for sure."
"It's probably nothing and will go soon"
Experience: "This one felt really patronizing, like they were stating the obvious and not really interested in me."
Putting a label on the problem is like putting the bow on the gift. It finalizes the problem and does not leave much room for exploration.
"You're dehydrated and stressed"
Experience: "The fact that they were right was actually more annoying than if they were wrong. It didn't help me to hear it in that way, and didn't help me feel like what I was talking about was interesting or valid.
The listener attempts to fix the problem with a series of questions aimed to get more information from the talker.
"How much water did you drink?
Did you eat enough breakfast?"
Experience: "This felt like a quick fire round in a game show- it was HORRIBLE! I got flustered and couldn't think fast enough - totally threw me off from what I was trying to convey.
The exercise was really eye opening for therapists who participated as well as the family/group members who discussed their observations too. The group gained some great insight into their own tendencies to block and were able to relate to experiences they've had when they have not been allowed to communicate effectively.
Do any of these blocks show up in your family? Are you guilty of one or more of the blocks above? Brining awareness to your communication patterns often goes a long way in helping to improve family communication patterns. When communication is improved, the family dynamic is impacted, often in a positive way.
If you are looking for family counseling in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles or West Hollywood, please reach out to Oliver Drakeford, MA LMFT. Oliver Drakeford is a family therapist and sees individuals and groups for adult and adolescent counseling. His therapy office is located near The Grove, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.