5 Principles for Effective Family Communication

“I never said she stole my money.” If you say that sentence aloud, it means something different depending on which word you emphasize. For example, “I never said SHE stole my money” means something completely different from “I never said she stole MY money.” Communication is tricky. Even with the best intentions, we can fall flat on our faces when trying to effectively communicate with parents, spouses, children, and other family members. Here are five principles of family communication.

The 5% Rule

When we communicate during a disagreement, most people pick apart the other person’s argument, seeking comments and statements to disagree with. Then the other person usually responds in kind, creating a verbal ping-pong match of negativity featuring no common ground. The 5% Rule challenges the listener to instead identify 5% of what the other person is saying and agree with it. After you’ve chosen a small piece of what the person is saying to agree with, point it out and affirm it. Wait for the point to settle, and be sure to genuinely discuss the point of agreement before trying to assert your own opinion. Saying the equivalent of “Yes, but…” will just seem disingenuous. If you wield the 5% Rule effectively, the person you’re dialoguing with should feel heard and be more open to also hear what you have to say.

The love and respect conundrum

This principle applies specifically to husbands and wives. Men and women communicate differently and have different needs. In his book Love and Respect,Dr. Emerson Eggerichs posits that men, in general, need respect, and women, in general, need love. Of course, men need love, too, and women need respect, too. But Eggerichs research indicates that when 7,000 respondents answered the question “When you are in conflict with your spouse, do you feel unloved or disrespected?” 83% of men said they felt disrespected, and 72% of women said they felt unloved. In light of this information, “to effectively communicate a wife must learn how to communicate her feelings of being unloved in way that sounds respectful to her husband, and a husband must learn how to communicate his feelings of being disrespected in a way that sounds loving to his wife,” Eggerichs writes.

Practice precision and avoid exaggeration.

We can’t change how people understand what we say, but we can try to be as clear as possible. Before you say something important, think about how to phrase it so that it is as clear and precise as possible. Don’t leave important words or details out, even if they are difficult to discuss. Your family, especially your children, is simply not going to understand what you are not saying. Another common mistake is to say things that you do not really mean; in particular, avoid exaggerating. Usually, sentences that begin with “You always…!” or “You never…!” are good examples of exaggeration. Say what you actually mean, or you will upset and confuse the listener. Eventually, your family and other listeners will begin to distrust you if you keep saying things that are not really what you mean and what is true.

The Principle of Mirroring.

Imagine that someone handed you a book written in Icelandic and asked you to form an opposing argument. Unless you’re in the very small percentage of the population that speaks Icelandic, you’re probably not going to be able to understand the book well enough to create a counterargument. When we disagree with members of our family, we may not actually be speaking different languages, but we might as well be if we do not understand each other. Mirroring can help us ensure we understand what the person is trying to communicate. Practice saying, “What do you mean by that?” to clarify a statement and ensure that you understand. When people feel like you’re trying to understand them, they generally become less hostile anyway. Also, you can try repeating back what the other person has said using different words. That way they can correct you if you have misrepresented what they said.

Understand first; be understood second.

“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” Steven Covey wrote. Most people fail to listen to the other person, only hear parts of what is said, or hear it but see it through only their own frame of reference instead of from the other person’s perspective. In short, most people listen so that they can reply, not so that they can understand. Do not do this. Instead, seek first to understand what your child is saying to you, what your spouse is saying to you, what your mother is saying to you. That way, you can formulate a response that demonstrates understanding and clearly gets your point across.


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