Relationships with our family are often the most important ones, but they can also be the source of our biggest tensions.
Developing healthy, honest communication patterns can help build foundations that ensure our families – in particular partners and children – feel supported. Likewise, effective communication skills can help you to calmly express your feelings, particular when you’re concerned, stressed, or upset, or when you find yourself disagreeing with a family member. Below are some suggested ways to keep communication open and positive with your family, particularly during tough times.
When talking to others
- Check in regularly: Letting your family know they can come to you anytime to discuss anything that’s bothering them opens up the lines of communication. A simple ‘are you OK?’ or ‘how’s things?’ is something all someone needs to hear to know they are supported.
- Listen: Your family member could be helped just by knowing someone is really listening. Don’t jump in too soon with advice, as it may prevent you from truly understanding things from the other person’s perspective. Show the person you have listened and understood – you can do this by summarising what you’ve heard and asking them to confirm if you’ve got it right.
- Look for non-verbal cues in conversation: Not everyone is good at telling you what they are feeling. They may say one thing, but facial expressions and body language can convey a different story. Try and actively listen to, and watch, all verbal and nonverbal cues. Likewise, be mindful of your own body language – face the person who’s talking to show you are interested, and try not to cross your arms.
- Tackle the bigger issues: Conversations about day to day activities and interests are important, but so are ‘bigger’ conversations. Don’t be afraid to ask those you care about if anything is worrying them, or to reach out if you’re not doing well.
- Pick your moment, and delay if needed: Even though it’s important to address the deeper issues, think about when your message will be well received. Be aware that the time is not always right for big conversations. Rather than shutting someone out, you can agree on when it would be best for you both to come back to the conversation.
- Think before you react: Always take a moment to think before you respond. Particularly if someone has said something that has hurt or angered you, or you are feeling defensive. If you respond too soon, you may say something hurtful. Take a time out until you can respond in a calm and thoughtful way.
- Remember you are different: Your family members may be very different to you, and you won’t approve of all the choices they make. Make sure they know they can come to you, even when you don’t agree with them. Likewise, aim to explain your view on things, while letting them know that you understand their perspective may differ.
When you need to talk
- Be clear: If you’re sharing your thoughts and feeling with others, say what you think and feel, without being too harsh or blunt. Take the time to explain what you are going through and give clear examples. If you’re listening to someone else, ask questions of the other person to help you understand their experience.
- Avoid Blame when discussing an issue: Explain how you are feeling about other people’s actions and decisions, rather than attributing blame. Blaming or accusing someone only makes them defensive, leading them to shift blame back to you, or to shut down. Use “I” rather than “you” statements, such as “I felt sad when you forgot my birthday” rather than “You don’t care about me”.
- Communicate differently with different people: As well as differences in personalities and interests, family members all have different communication styles, and it’s important to learn how each person likes to give and receive information and support. For example, some parents find teenagers open more when the setting is less focused on them, such as on long drives or when playing sport together.
- Have fun together: Make time to get together participate in activities that you can all enjoy to strengthen your bonds and promote future positive interactions, such as exploring the local area together, or playing a board game.
It’s all trial and error: Implementing the above communication strategies may take time and practice, and not all techniques will work every time. However, taking the time to consciously initiate positive communication techniques with your family may help to foster understanding, create stronger bonds, and ensure that you are each other’s support when times get tough.
MensLine Australia has professional counsellors available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing confidential and anonymous information and support for all relationship issues.