The Right Way to Communicate During Conflict

By Focus on the Family
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You'll be amazed at how easily some arguments are solved after you both feel understood and valued.

As you can see, withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, and negative beliefs foster anger and destroy both the parent’s and the teen’s love if continued over time. That’s why we need to be aware of these patterns and replace them with the right way — the best way we’ve found — to communicate during times of conflict.

Using Drive-thru Talking to Resolve Family Conflicts

The rules for drive-thru talking are simple, but they must be followed to keep the discussion honoring. One person agrees to start “inside the fast food restaurant” (the “employee”), and the other starts the discussion “outside in the car by the menu” (the “customer”). The employee says something like, “Welcome to the Smalley home. Can I take your order?”

The customer then expresses his feelings or his needs in the current conflict. He can’t bring up anything from the past or start a new argument. (We can deal with only one argument at a time.) And the customer needs to offer only small amounts of information at a time. Making large statements or blending two ideas together can cause the employee to forget or miss something important.

The employee’s job is to repeat what is said by the customer, making sure he understands the “order” clearly, and he isn’t allowed to evaluate anything that’s said. (Have you ever heard a McDonald’s worker say after you order a super-sized meal, “Sir, I can see you in my mirror, and . . . well . . . are you sure you want the Big Mac? May I recommend the McLean?” Absolutely not! You’d drive away furious and never visit again.)

Drive-thru talking is successful because it helps your teenager feel safe to express his or her needs and feelings. Safety develops when your child trusts that your goal is to listen and understand, not to defend and challenge. That’s why, in the employee role, we do not evaluate, edit, or defend ourselves. Instead, we simply listen and repeat. (It’s better if you repeat using your own words.)

How can you be sure drive-thru talking will really work with your teenager? If you enter into it with a spirit of honor by listening and repeating, you will provide your child with a tremendously safe environment in which to discuss feelings. Sit back and let God do the rest. Remember, we call this method drive-thru talking because fast-food chains have spent millions of dollars testing their ordering methods. If they can satisfy millions of drive-thru customers every day, why don’t we use their knowledge to keep our “family customers” happy and satisfied? We can!

The amazing part of this method is how fast anger is dissipated. When someone is listening to you with great concern and valuing who you are, the anger just seems to drain away.

Once each person feels heard, understood, and validated, you can begin to look for solutions to the problem if necessary. You’ll be amazed, however, at how easily some arguments are solved after you both feel understood and valued.

Now that you’ve seen the drive-thru talking method in action, we suggest you start practicing it. If your teen is going to find value in this method, you need to demonstrate that it’s worth using. Remember, the best lessons learned in life are caught, not taught. To help you, we offer the following summary of drive-thru talking guidelines:

Summary of Drive-thru Talking Rules

Fast-Food Employee (listener)

  • This person’s job is to listen.
  • When receiving an order, you can only repeat back what you’ve heard. No editing, evaluating, or defending yourself. You can ask to have the order repeated if you did not understand something. However, this is only for clarity — you don’t have to agree.
  • Listen for their heart — their feelings, fears, and emotions.

Customer (speaker)

  • This person’s job is to express needs or feelings using “I” statements. No bringing up past issues, starting a new argument, or making blaming “You” statements (e.g., “You always …”).
  • Offer “bite-sized” thoughts or information so the other person can remember in order to repeat it back correctly and understand your feelings.
  • Share your heart — your feelings, fears, and emotions.

General Rules

  • Repeating statements in the employee role does not mean you agree with what’s being said. Instead, the goal is to listen and validate the other person’s feelings and individuality.
  • When the customer feels heard and validated, you switch roles.
  • You are not looking for solutions at this time. Solutions can be sought after each person feels heard and validated.
  • Agree to take a time-out if withdrawal, escalation, invalidation, or negative beliefs creep into the conversation.
  • Above all else, strive to honor one another in all that is said and repeated!

Warning …

As a word of caution, we highly encourage you not to begin drive-thru talking on a highly sensitive or controversial subject or a deeply hurtful area from your past. Start with less-volatile conflicts like being late for dinner or maybe wearing too much makeup. As your skills increase at using this life-changing method, you may feel safer to use it with more serious and sensitive matters. Take your time. It’s not something you try and stop using because it didn’t work immediately the way you wanted. Trust us, it works if you stay with it. It has been proved for years to be the most powerful communication method available, and it definitely lowers the anger level at home (as well as at the office or at school).

Now it’s time to consider how honoring, lasting solutions can be found for parent-teen conflicts. In the next article, we explain seven powerful steps any mom or dad can take to help resolve even the most difficult disagreements with adolescents.

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.

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