We were on the family trip of a lifetime. This trip took two whole weeks (most of it in the car) as we drove from the Mountain West to western Illinois to visit friends and historical sites. How we made it through the long hours in our minivan in the days before DVD players is an entirely different story. But one of our experiences while on this trip taught me a big lesson in effective communication in our families.
We were visiting with friends in rural Kearney, Missouri and my wife and her friend Cheryl had taken the girls into nearby Kansas City to shop. Bill and I kept our boys and were enjoying a leisurely afternoon watching the kids run through the sprinklers and eating watermelon. Our little Grant, who was about 5 at the time, was running around in a swimsuit and some water shoes when he came upon a piece of wood with a nail in it that was sticking up. I should have seen this coming, but he stopped, looked at that board and then put his little foot square down on the nail. His eyes went wide and he burst into tears. I ran over and pulled his foot off the nail and grabbed a nearby swim towel to try to stop the bleeding. He was hysterical, as one could imagine. We ran into the house to clean the fairly deep wound and we ended up at the local emergency room getting a tetanus shot, which made matters even worse.
At the end of the afternoon when all was calmed down, I asked Grant why he had deliberately stepped on the nail. His answer was a bit alarming to me. "Dad, I just did what I saw you do. Last week at home, you stepped on a nail in a piece of wood to bend it over. That's what I was trying to do, but it stabbed me instead."
Well, he was right. I was wearing thick-soled work boots and I had carefully bent the nail over with my boot. He didn't realize that work boots were different than swim shoes and that I went at the nail at an angle instead of at 90 degrees. He didn't realize it because I didn't tell him how and why I had done such a thing when I knew he was watching. In this case, a failure on my part to communicate led to pain, expense and lost time on a wonderful family vacation.
Not all family communication examples are quite so dramatic. They frequently lead, however, to misunderstanding, misjudgment, and hurt feelings.
There are a few keys to family communication that will help any father or mother better communicate with each other and with the family.
Understand the model. Successful family communication tends to follow a pattern. By better understanding the communication model, we can better prepare to communicate effectively and learn to listen with more than just our ears.
Minimize distractions. One important part of the communication model is the "noise" which seems to surround our communication efforts. Cutting down on the noise when we are communicating with family members is an important part of communicating effectively.
Make time. The best family communication happens when we set aside time to communicate. Passing in the hallway in the morning and evening is not enough. Setting aside time for one-on-one dates with our children, family nights and family getaways can enhance our opportunities to communicate effectively.
Listen actively. Leadership guru Dr. Stephen Covey included as one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People the habit of seeking first to understand and then to be understood. Actively listening is about listening with all of our senses and making sure that we understand the other person's views and thoughts before formulating our own. Active listening requires watching for body language, plumbing the depths of meaning and being empathetic.
Get on their level. Physical cues and body language are really important when communicating with our children.
Keeping an open stance, kneeling or sitting down if necessary and keeping language in terms that they can understand enhances effective communication. And making sure that our physical interactions are appropriate to the situation can also help create an atmosphere where communication can flourish.
Show respect. It is important to show respect for the other person in our communication by being positive, even when needing to discipline. As fathers, we should praise in public and reprove in private. It is important for fathers to stay in a respectful tone and communicate with "I" messages rather than "you" messages.
Find win/win. Covey also talks about the concept of "win/win or no deal" in his Seven Habits. In our communications, we need to find win/wins where both parties in the communication effort come out on the winning end. Compromise is important, except when it comes to basic principles. But often how we apply those principles in real life can be an opportunity to teach and be flexible.
Control emotions. A temper tantrum does more to harm communication than almost anything. Sometimes dads and kids need a "time out" to get in control and manage their angry feelings.
Good communication takes focus and serious effort. Working on our communication skills and patterns can help us be better fathers and build stronger family relationships.