The better family members can communicate with each other, the better they can deal with hard times and difficult decisions.

Families working together bring more strength to dealing with a problem than its members, as individuals, could ever hope to. Just knowing that other family members are sharing in the problem makes it easier to bear.

The more family members are involved in making a decision—the more perspectives and ideas are shared—the better a decision is likely to result. That’s if family communications are working well. If not, family discussions about matters already heavy with emotion and tension can make difficult decisions almost impossible.

Families usually have a shared verbal and non-verbal “shorthand” in conversations. Sometimes this shorthand can help communication, and sometimes it can get in the way. Speakers and the listeners alike can use special skills to make communication clearer and more effective. Two of those skills are active listening and two-way communication, which can draw more information out of speakers and convey more to listeners. Still other skills are important for communicating with relatives whose sight or hearing is impaired.

Divided By A Common Vocabulary

Over the years, families develop their own spoken and unspoken vocabularies—of verbal expressions and facial expressions, of phrases, voice intonations, gestures and even body positions—which have special meanings to family members.

Sometimes these cues help communications. They can act as a shorthand that conveys lots of information in few words. Or they can share private thoughts and feelings without the need to put them in words.

But sometimes they can also get in the way. As, for example, when family members busy with their own careers and interests fall into a rut and start taking each other for granted. Or when younger members grow up, move away and build lives of their own, they may not realize that changes in themselves and others have taken place—changes that dilute the meanings of shared words, phrases and facial expressions from years ago. To make matters worse, times of crisis may make family members revert to old patterns which may have gotten in the way of good communications before or may have been overtaken by changes in family members’ lives.

New problems require families to develop new communication skills, for speakers and listeners alike. These skills must be based on the desire to be better understood and to be more sensitive to others’ needs.

When and where the family meeting takes place affects communication. Successful communication takes place when there are no time conflicts to distract attention from an important family issue and in a quiet place where everyone can hear. The latter is especially important to older family members with sight or hearing losses.

“Just What Are You Saying?”

Too many people bury their messages under an avalanche of words. So it’s important to speak briefly, directly and consistently, if only to maintain the listeners’ attention.

Sometimes important messages get lost or mixed in with trivial ones. This usually happens when speakers have a hard time saying what’s really on their mind, particularly if what’s on their mind is a request for help. A lonely and depressed mother, for example, may phone her daughter with endless complaints of aches and pains when what she really wants is her daughter’s full attention.

How a speaker phrases statements makes a big difference in how listeners receive them. “You make me upset when you…” conveys blame and generates defensiveness, while “I feel upset when you…” keeps them listener receptive and focused on the issue at hand. Try to use statements that begin with “I” as often as possible.

Speakers also need to pay attention to their non-verbal communications. Angry facial expressions and tones of voice, or even silence, can overwhelm the words being spoken, while a gentle touch, a soothing tone of voice or an open body stance can welcome a listener to join in the exchange of ideas. So can making sure that everyone has the chance to weigh in with his or her thoughts on the issue.

Listening With More Than Your Ears

We hear with our ears, but we need to listen with our minds.

A good listener will focus attention on the speaker; if other concerns are distracting or preoccupying you, maybe you should ask to postpone the conversation until those concerns are taken care of.

When you come to the family meeting, come rested. And bring an open mind.

A good listener makes it easier for other speakers to speak:

  • By treating others with dignity while keeping communications channels open.
  • By listening for feelings as well as words.
  • By taking the effort to do beyond the words and non-verbal cues and dig out the underlying message.
  • By creating a climate that lets others feel they can safely express their thoughts and feelings.
  • By not planning the next speech while hearing the speaker’s present one.
  • And by letting others speak freely while seeking a better understanding.

Talking With Our Bodies And Listening With Our Eyes

Most people express themselves in body language as well as verbally.

Reading relatives’ body language helps you understand how they feel as well as what they say. Avoiding eye contact, for example, may signal depression or low self-esteem; in a care recipient, it might be a sign of physical or emotional abuse. Sitting with arms folded across the chest could indicate defensiveness. But in a care receiver that, or clutching at the body, could also indicate pain. And turning away or crossing arms or legs may be a relative’s way of telling you how angry or unhappy they are with you.

Relatives read your body language, too, so it pays to make sure it sends out messages of reassurance. Sitting is less intimidating than standing. A smile and an open posture help put someone at ease, while a gentle touch can show your kindness and support.

Special Communication Techniques

Active Listening

Active listening can help open up a person who can’t think through or express a problem. As an active listener, you don’t say any of your own thoughts aloud. Instead, by mirroring the speaker’s thoughts, you help him or her get ready to talk:

  • Speaker: “Boy, am I mad!”
    • Listener: “You’re very angry.”
  • Speaker: “Yes, Mother calls me five times a day to complain.”
    • Listener: “Mom’s complaining every day.”
  • Speaker: “And I’m getting sick of it.”
    • Listener: “You’re tired of all the complaining.”
  • Speaker: “That’s right, and I’m not going to listen to it anymore.”

An Active Listener never agrees or disagrees with what the speaker says; instead, as a mirror, the listener reflects back what the speaker is saying. At best, this helps the speaker work out some answers and come to some conclusions. At worst, it leaves the speaker with the same problems but shows that you really care about his or her thoughts and feelings.

It’s only natural for people to reach and act on conclusions they make from what they see and hear, but it can hurt the Active Listening process. Especially when you try Active Listening to open someone up to conversation, it’s essential to avoid this kind of “mind reading.” So if someone’s very quiet and expressionless, for example, saying “You’re depressed today because of what happened with…” is not a good approach; it builds up resistance by telling the other person what they think and why. “You seem quiet today” or “Would you like to talk about anything?” are more neutral, and therefore better, approaches.

Active listening doesn’t force anyone else to talk. It never gets to the heart of the matter quickly. But it does encourage other people to share as much as they’re willing to.

Finally, if you use Active Listening, use it in small doses. Never keep going when you see it bothers the other person. If you don’t push, then bit-by-bit a sharing conversation could eventually take place.

Two-Way Communication

Even in a closely-knit family, people don’t always think alike. Sometimes speaker and listeners are working from different sets of assumptions. Sometimes the speaker’s or listeners’ feelings color what’s being said or how it’s heard. Two-way Communication can overcome these barriers. By encouraging listeners to ask questions, and the speaker to answer them, it helps everyone to reach the same understanding. Because welcoming and answering listeners’ questions makes sure that what they heard was what the speaker really meant to say.