It's Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It That Matters

We all engage in a multitude of different relationships every day, but how well do we communicate? Learning to speak so that the other person listens is a skill that is more than worth its weight in gold. Emma Willars considers how we can communicate more effectively whether with a colleague or manager, partner or children.

We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less - Diogenes

A day in our house

  • "What do you mean you haven't finished your homework? You had all weekend?!?!"
  • "Just get into the bath, there's no need for 'why?'"
  • "How can you forget I was going out tonight? You are supposed to be home by now for the kids!"

Sound familiar? As working parents, we often bring our high professional standards and target-driven work mode into our conversations with loved ones at the end of our long and tiring day. We can struggle to make the transition from busy, pressured work persona to loving, attentive parent or partner.

Be realistic

Striving to be the best parent with perfect children - or the most considerate and patient carer - can lead to unrealistic - and often unhelpful - expectations of both ourselves and our loved ones. Perfectionist tendencies put pressure on communications within the family, as you find yourself not really listening to those around you. It's just not sustainable.

Timing and tone

So what can we do about it? How you talk is as important as what you say. Avoid 'you' statements - "you always leave your coat on the floor" or "you need to put your shoes on now." Instead, try 'I' messages as a helpful way to convey your needs and feelings honestly. "I feel upset when..." or "I'd like you to put your shoes on." This assertive style of communication is much more likely to open up conversations, encourage cooperation and avoid conflict.

The timing of communication is vital too. Having regular mealtimes with your family gives you the chance to bond and get used to chatting over trivialities. Once you can chat about things that don't matter, you can feel comfortable talking over the things that do. Be truly present in times spent with partners and/or loved ones, switch off your phone and tune into what those around you are saying. Modern life is full of distraction and multi-tasking is really a myth... isn't it?

Paying attention to your tone and body language can improve communication. Be careful and make sure you address the issue, not the person. This means not attacking or blaming the other but trying to find a solution without fault. Above all, remember to listen.

...Got the t-shirt

The good news is that these skills, which we are practising daily at home, are vital in the workplace too. At My Family Care, we have the privilege of talking to hundreds of parents and carers every week via webinars, surveys and coaching interactions. Getting communication right in the workplace is essential.

One of the conversations we hear a lot is from managers who worry about asking too much or communicating too little with new parents, while individuals looking for more agile work patterns can feel uncomfortable about requesting any sort of change for fear of impact on career progression.

The trick is to get better at talking about all this. What do managers need to think about when team members have commitments as parents or carers? As an individual, how can you talk about your needs in a way that is solution-focused and proactive?

Compassionate Communication

In the 1980s, Marshall B. Rosenberg brought together experience and common sense to develop a process called 'Compassionate Communication.' It provides a useful framework for challenging conversations in all situations and can be helpful for both home and the workplace. The key message is that conflict arises through unmet needs. If we can be specific about our need, the other person is likely to be able to hear it better.

Do you sometimes fall into 'apologising' mode in your work+family conversations? This will no doubt affect the quality of the interactions. 'Compassionate Communication' can be put into practice when expressing ourselves and hearing others. There are four elements to this process: observe, express feelings, express needs, and make requests.

These elements are present in any situation in which there is conflict or misunderstanding but we don't always notice or identify them. Acknowledging feelings and needs (whether internally or out loud), as well as making clean, clear observations and requests can help us have more constructive conversations.

Assess and move forward

Why not take some time to reflect on your own work+family conversations and situations where this approach might be helpful?

Truly effective communication combines: the nonverbal, attentive listening, managing stress in the moment, assertiveness, and the capacity to recognise and understand your own emotions and those of the other person.

Stephen R. Covey expresses it well when he says, "listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply."

Emma Willars: Coaching & Consultancy Development Manager; Parent of three