Effective Communication With Your Teen

A mom and a teen son are sitting at the table eating and talking
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Good communication with teens is vital during conflict. When we asked 5,000 adults what they wished their parents had done differently during times of conflict, they gave these three responses most often:

  1. They wished their parents had listened more.
  2. They wished they could have talked about feelings more.
  3. They wished they had talked to their parents more.

It's interesting that all three of those involve aspects of communication. And as this list suggests, good communication during parent-teen conflict begins with listening and not with searching for solutions.

Emotional Communication: Listen with Your Heart

Do you want to know one particularly nasty myth that keeps many people from experiencing the tremendous benefits of effective communication? Somewhere along the way, they have come to believe that real communication occurs when they understand the other person's words. They equate effective communication with accurately parroting back the words and phrases they hear.

But, in fact, good communication is more than that. True communica­tion usually does not occur until each partner understands the feelings that underlie the spoken words. People generally feel more understood, cared for, and connected when the communication first focuses on their emotions and feelings rather than merely on their words or thoughts.

Consider this the magic of effective communication. Our goal must go beyond understanding the spoken words to grasping the emotional nugget underlying the words. It's far more important to discover and address the emotions beneath the situation than to parrot the words we hear. Ask your­self, "What is the emotional impact of these words?" not merely, "What exact words did I just hear?"

Suppose a teen says, "I hate my school. Everyone ignores me and I want to be home schooled."

What did she mean? Consider carefully her two sentences. The teen used no "feeling" words but all "thinking" words. So if you reply, "So what you're saying is that you don't want to go to your school any longer and you'd rather be home schooled," you've completely missed the point. You've accurately reflected to her the words she just spoke, but you remain completely in the dark about her real concern — you remain in the "head" and we want you to move to the "heart."

But what if you listen for the emotions beneath the words by listening with your heart? What if you said, "Are you saying that you feel ignored by the teach­ers and the other students, that you don't matter?" Presto! This time, you've "got it." You listened beyond your daughter's words to her heart, to her real concern. You've tapped into her emotional message — her fear of being ignored.

A lot of us (especially men) struggle with this skill. Men tend to think in a linear way: cut to the chase, get to the bottom line. We want to solve a problem and complete a task, not deal with emotions. We want to figure out how to "fix it." Without listening for and responding to the emotions, however, all of the problem solving in the world won't get us to the real problem.

Effective communication comes down to listening and speaking with your heart. When people feel understood emotionally, they feel cared for. This is very different from listening to someone from the head — that is, looking merely for the content of the person's words, without paying attention to the feelings. The goal of effective communication is to understand the emotional message of the speaker. You have to ask yourself, What is this person feeling?

It is one thing to hear these emotions and say, "Boy, I can really tell you are upset." But it is another thing to allow these emotions to penetrate your heart, to allow yourself to feel the pain or the sadness. The key is not merely to understand these feelings but also to allow the feelings to touch you. This is one of the primary ways that people feel cared for and loved.

Effective Communication Saves Time

Does this sound like a lot of work? Do you think it makes more sense just to make a decision, without really understanding what the other person is feel­ing? Be careful! Just making a quick decision will not solve your problem. When people don't feel understood and cared for, they may "agree" to some decision, but they won't get on board with it. Relationally, it doesn't feel to them like a satisfying or effective solution. And in the end, you'll have to talk about these things all over again.

Does it seem as if identifying the emotional nugget will take far more time than other methods of communication? A lot of guys think so! But in fact, it actually saves tremendous amounts of time.

Guys, take note: Effective communication is ultimately more efficient and takes less time than other methods. A lot of men feel frustrated when their loved ones seem to go on and on. They don't understand that the reason they go on and on is that they don't feel emotionally understood. If these fathers took the time to actually uncover their teen's emotional concern or fear, the con­versation would move on and they wouldn't have to hear the same thing a dozen times, from six different angles. When guys finally "get" this, the lightbulb goes on for them. They get excited about their ability to condense the conversation.

"All I have to do is help her see that I truly understand her feelings?" they ask, amazed and delighted.

Yep. That's it. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Guys, hear us: If your daughter repeats the same thing over and over, we can almost guarantee that she does not believe you understand her heart. You could say at that point, "I noticed that you are repeating yourself, and that causes me to question whether you believe I am understanding you. Am I missing something?"

Is this method easy? Not in one sense — it's probably very different from what you've done to this point in your life. But practice makes perfect! And over time, it gets much more efficient. At first, we admit, it feels awkward and you may be clumsy at it. But as you get more practice, it gets easier. In fact, this is the most streamlined form of communication that we know.

So learn to listen with your heart. Put your problem-solving urges on hold for a while. Problem-solving skills remain extremely valuable, of course, but they are much more effective after you understand the emotions involved. So save time! Get efficient! And look for the emotional nugget.

Effective communication makes room for people to feel what they are feeling, and to know that their feeling — their heart, the place where they are emotionally — is not only okay with me, it's welcome, and I am going to care about it.

Taken from The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships: Discover the Key to Your Teen's Heart published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1998 and 2005 by Gary Smalley and Greg Smalley, Psy.D. All rights reserved.

Next in this Series: Unhealthy Ways to Argue

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