‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 5, being clear in your family.
Family communication is often murky, negative, and hurtful. Much remains unsaid or half-said; and when things are said, they are likely to be delivered with a critical edge. Surprisingly often, when someone in a family speaks someone else in the family gets hurt. You can’t change this dynamic single-handedly but you can become an instrument for change.
Waiting for someone else in your family to begin communicating well won’t work. If you wait for your child to speak and reveal what’s really on her mind, she’s likely to continue keeping her fears, frustrations and problems a secret. If you wait for your mate to start the communication ball rolling, you’ll have another long wait coming. While it’s true that every family member has a duty to communicate well, still someone has to start—let that person be you.
It’s important that you say things directly, in short, simple, clear sentences. When you say things indirectly or at great length that often means that you feel that you don’t have a leg to stand on, that you are ambivalent about your message, or that you hope the family member you’re talking to won’t discover your hidden agenda. It is better to be clear before you speak, know what you want to say, trust that you have the right to communicate, and then deliver your message simply and directly.
Here are some examples of clear, direct speaking:
- “You’ve been spending a lot of extra time at work. Does that mean that we have a problem?”
- “You seem to have much less homework this year than last year. Is that the case? Or are you less motivated this year?”
- “I want to stop working and start a home business. I know that has a lot of ramifications, but I’d like us to talk about it.”
- “We’ve been having sex pretty infrequently. I wonder what’s up?”
- “You and your sister have been fighting a lot recently. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
- “I feel like we need a vacation but I know that we don’t have money put aside for that. Can we talk about whether we have any vacation options?”
Being direct isn’t the same as being blunt or mean. Always leave room for kindness in the spaces between words. By your tone, your inflection, your body language, and by the words themselves, you can communicate the fact that you have something to say but that you don’t mean to hurt, insult or criticize the other person. If you pay attention to both ideas—that you intend to be direct but that you also intend to be kind—you will grow stronger as a communicator and also invite more love into every family interaction.
A related idea is: try not to send mixed messages. Human beings do that all time, especially within their family. A mixed message is a message in which two contradictory ideas are blithely—and often bizarrely—conjoined. Here are some classic mixed messages:
- “Please get all of your homework done and get to bed early.”
- “I really want to have sex with you tonight but I’m just not in the mood.”
- “Grandpa, I’d love to visit you over spring break but I only have a week off.”
- “My job is killing me. By the way, I’ve asked to take on a couple of new assignments.”
- “Mom, I really think we should eat healthier meals, but can we have cheeseburgers and fries tonight?”
Sometimes we can tell what is illogical or contradictory about a mixed message and sometimes we can’t quite. But what we always know is that they feel wrong. The reason we send mixed messages is that the truth is inconvenient or unpleasant. The reason we find mixed messages unacceptable when we receive them is for exactly the same reason—the sender has played fast and loose with the truth. Don’t send mixed messages: be braver than that and tell the truth. Don’t accept mixed messages either: be smarter than that and demand the truth.
It is one thing to send clear messages. That is your job. But what if the message sent to you isn’t clear? Then your job is to ask for clarification. Always ask for clarification when you don’t understand the message you just received. But be careful when you ask for clarification, because our first impulse is to criticize the sender for not being clear or to lash out because we didn’t like the message received.
Our most common response—“What did you mean by that?”—is often just an attack question and not a request for clarification at all. Its translation is really, “How dare you say that!” It is therefore good to have some alternative ways to ask for clarification. All of the following are better than, “What did you mean by that?”
- “I think you’re saying ____ but I’m not positive. Am I close?”
- “There was a part there that I don’t think I understood. What did you mean when you said __________ ?”
- “I’m a little confused. I think you said _____________. But you also said _____________. Did I get that right?”
- “I think I understand what you’re saying but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Could you tell me a little more?”
Asking for clarification is an excellent communication skill that prevents small and large misunderstandings. If your daughter says, “My biology teacher is stupid,” don’t leap to the conclusion that your daughter is failing biology. Ask for clarification instead. She may only mean that in her opinion her biology teacher is stupid for giving homework on the weekend and so many pop quizzes but that she plans to get an ‘A’ in biology as her revenge. Wasn’t that good to clear up?
Be clear, don’t send or accept mixed messages, and ask for clarification when you don’t understand. Also, trust your intuition. When you have an intuition that a problem exists—that your son is in trouble, that your husband is angry with you, that your sister is in crisis—you shouldn’t ignore that feeling. Almost always that intuition is right on the money. Your intuition is a gift: trust your intuition that something is up, decide what you want to say, prepare yourself to say it, and then courageously hold that conversation.
That you become a communication wizard may not cure everything that ails your family. But it may help a lot. Often dramatic changes occur when what needs to be said gets said. Be clear about your intention to speak compassionately and forthrightly, be clear when you speak, and say exactly what you want to say and what you need to say. That clarity may work wonders!