I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.
We cannot NOT communicate. – Ray Birdwhistell
Everything we do communicates something. It has been estimated that between 67-94% of our communication is nonverbal. What is non-verbal communication, you ask? It is everything except the words. It could be a grunt, a smile, a sigh, our smell, our jewelry, our clothes, whistling, the way we comb our hair, tattoos, the way we cook our food, piercings or the lack thereof, our posture, the nuances and history of a relationship, a stare at our son, a gaze at a pretty girl, the way we walk, our mode of transportation, hand gestures, or making googly eyes and funny sounds at a baby. We may say something, but our true intentions frequently will leak through our nonverbal behavior.
The tone, the attitude behind the words when you ask your son to do something, communicates a whole lot more than the words that you verbally say. It is the attitude that he will respond to, not merely the words. Everything communicates. That is why the “C” in the title of this article is so large. Everything communicates something. We cannot NOT communicate.
Even a dead person communicates. They communicate deadness.
It is what is not being said that we pay attention to; this is why sarcasm is so dangerous. With sarcasm, there is a contradiction between the verbal and the nonverbal. Sarcasm is typically cutting. In fact, the word means, “to tear flesh.” For children, sarcasm can be very confusing.
If you were to attend a communication seminar on learning “Effective Communication Skills,” you might come away with skills such as: having good eye contact, sitting on the edge of your chair, nodding and other non-verbal behavior to indicate you are listening. You might also learn about the importance of reflective listening. All these skills are important, however, do you suppose it would be possible to perform all these behaviors and not really listen in a caring way? And, if a person didn’t really care, do you think other people will be able to tell?
Of course they can.
“There is something deeper than behavior that others can sense – something that, when wrong, undercuts the effectiveness of even the most outwardly ‘correct’ behavior.” i This thing that is deeper than behavior is something philosophers have been talking about for centuries. Carl Rogers called it “Way of Being.”ii
Martin Buber explains that there are two fundamental ways of being, two ways of seeing another person. The first way is as a ”Thou,” a person with hopes and dreams and struggles similar to your own. The other way of seeing a person is as an “It.” This is where one objectifies a person. “If I see them at all, I see them as less than I am – less relevant, less important, and less real.” iii This is then also about you and your perspective. There is always a good chance that a person does not see things the way they really are; that person may be missing something. We must be willing to honestly look at ourselves and see what part of the problem is our own. “Might I be provoking the other person without even knowing it?”
When we talk to our teenagers, we sometimes ask them questions. We must understand that they do not merely answer our questions; they are answering a relationship. Our conversations don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen in the context of a historical relationship. They are answering a person, and with that person, comes an accumulation and history of their interactions. They answer according to the quality of their recent and remote relationship.
For example, you might ask your daughter, “Would you take the dog for a walk?” She could respond in a variety of ways. She could ignore you. She could say, “of course.” She could tell you to eat rocks, or yell out while leaving, “maybe later.” On the other hand, if your daughter’s best friend (having a different relationship) said, “Let’s take the dog for a walk?” Your daughter may happily agree to take the dog for a walk. The relationship determines the interaction.
In his book ”7 Habits of Highly Effective People,”iv Stephen Covey speaks of an emotional bank account we each have with our children. We must have enough positive interactions, thus building the relationship in our “emotional bank account,” before we can safely make a withdrawal (correction/discipline) without damaging the relationship. After all, we do not want to bankrupt the relationship. When the emotional bank account is healthy, your child can take correction, knowing that it is coming from a place of love.
The quality of the relationship determines our ability to be effective parents and our teenager’s willingness to allow us to influence them.
The moment a parent has a nasty verbal exchange with their teenager is not the time to try to immediately solve the problem. There are too many hot emotions for anyone to think clearly. If the relationship is generally good, waiting for a few hours, or perhaps a day to address the problem is wise. Time allows the parents and teenager space to see the situation clearly without the corrupting influence of these distorted and self-justifying thoughts and emotions.
If the relationship has been rocky, time is needed for the relationship to heal. Part of healing process is deliberately working on developing trust again; another topic for another day.
Tim Lowe is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapy and Substance Used Disorder Counselor at the Provo Center for Couples and Families. He has worked with adolescent and young adults and their parents as a wilderness therapist for 15 years and in residential treatment for 13 years.