My conversations with my oldest sister have a pattern. They always begin with me answering her 20 questions (she’s a journalist). Once the “interview” is done, then I can ask her what's new and gradually bring it down into what’s important to her these days. It’s a well-worn pattern.
The truth is that we’re all creatures of habit. Our amygdalae love it when everything is familiar and predictable. And that applies to our communications as well.
Think about the patterns of communication you have developed with different friends, family and colleagues. How would you describe the pattern? I’m guessing that some are fun, fascinating, respectful and mutually beneficial. Others are awkward, discordant and even painful, right?
Now think about conversation patterns you’ve developed with your teen/ young adult child. What descriptors would you give them?
Are they facilitating or discouraging the kind of connection you want to have?
Here are 4 conversation patterns that prevent connection with your kid. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with these types of discussion, UNLESS it’s the way it always plays out.
The Free flow
Your conversations are like volleyball games. Stories and ideas go quickly back and forth across the net. New topics are introduced on top of others and one person often starts talking before the other has finished. Most of us love this type of interchange - it feels free, lively and creative.
But when this happens consistently between you and your young adult child, it distracts both of you from going deeper. There isn’t the right kind of opening for expressing feelings and needs. Minds are happily moving from one thing to the next but tender hearts are tucked away.
The pattern that develops is one of always staying on the surface. Both you and your kid are left with a feeling of not being heard, understood or appreciated.
You can shift out of this pattern by slowing things down: “Wow. We’re really flying. This is so fun but I need to catch my breath and digest everything we’ve shared.”
Take 2 deep breaths and then ask, “Would it be ok to talk a little more about what you just said? It had me wondering…”
Your child tells you about an experience they just had or mentions something that’s difficult for them and you respond straightaway with what you know about that topic. Or they express their curiosity about something and you immediately bring up your knowledge on the subject.
The way it plays out is that you’re the teacher and they’re the student.
Of course, as parents, we are meant to share our wisdom with our kids. But when this becomes a well-worn pattern of conversation, you miss the opportunity to hear about their experience, their outlook, their curiosity or their version of the story. You miss out.
And you shut them down. Whether it’s your intention or not, your “more experienced” response sends a message that their experience is somehow “less” – less welcome, less wise. Then they’re a little less likely to bring up this kind of thing in the future (as any of us would be).
Multiply that over weeks and months and you set a pattern of inequality. A fly on the wall watching the scene would assume that your knowledge is superior. And let’s be clear, it’s not. You may have experienced the same kind of heartbreak or confusion but that was your experience, not theirs. You’ll only know about their experience if you listen.
So, to build trust and mutuality, ask a follow up question. “What happened next? What feels like the difficult part of this for you? What’s got you questioning this?”
Your kid is hurting and it’s hard to watch. You can see that they are misperceiving something and, if you just could show them that they’re mistaken in the way they are seeing it, they would feel so much better.
But your kid wants to be heard, not fixed. I’ve written about over-helping and fixing and how this causes resentment and disconnection. So, what’s another approach?
Let’s say your kid is stomping around and, when you ask what’s going on, they tell you that their friend lied to them. After hearing the details, your take is that your kid might have misconstrued what they heard. You want them to see it from another angle to give them some comfort and relief.
But if that's where you start, it’ll sound like you’re defending the friend and, from your child’s perspective, that puts you on the other side. Now they aren’t going to want to share anything more with you. Instant disconnect.
A more connective approach is to simply reflect back what they shared: “I get it. You’re upset because he lied to you. No wonder you feel angry. I’m guessing you feel betrayed too.”
And then more listening.
Your connection is in the exploration. When it’s your turn to speak, make inquiries that might shine light for them to see their own perceptions and how they arrived at them. "So, what convinced you that it was a lie?" or "What were you thinking right then?"
You don’t have to make them see what you see right now. Plant some seeds and trust they will find their own answers I their own time.
You ask your teenager to do something and they say No. You automatically switch into lawyer mode and start making your case. You explain why your request is valid. You say things like, “I did it last time... you said… I worked really hard so you should…”
Your kid is going to come up with their counterarguments - guaranteed. Because it’s completely natural for an adolescent, who is trying to feel their independence and have their viewpoints heard. Of course, they’re going to be dissention.
Over time, it's like a rut in a dirt road. Subconsciously, you both assume that your conversations are going to be adversarial and probably end in an argument. Defenses are continually on stand-by and true connection becomes increasingly difficult.
The antidote to getting your hackles up when they say No? Curiosity.
Take a breath or two and wonder. Why are they saying no? What are they feeling? What do they need? Slow down and wander into their world to learn how it is over there. You’ll likely be surprised.
We fall into patterns, my friends. It’s part of being human.
Our power is noticing them and, if they’re not taking us where we want to go, then making a shift. Setting our intentions on listening and learning. Allowing more space for our kid in our conversations. And more space in our hearts for even more light and love to flow.
I'm wishing that for you.