Sunday, August 26, 2012

Learn How to Do Win-Win Problem-solving and Teach Your Kids

     Unlike biological families, many step-people struggle with post-divorce hostilities, distrust, and ongoing disputes over child custody, visitation, discipline, and financial support.  Typical step and biological parents discover major clashes over parenting values, rituals, customs, and priorities, which cause normal loyalty conflicts in and between their several related homes—for years.

            There are also typically more minor children in related step-homes than individual biological homes, which means more sibling battles and more frequent needs for adult mediation and problem-solving. And finally, without significant, real recovery from unhealed childhood wounds in the adults, most people are ineffective verbal communicators, especially in conflicts. This is so because of a combination of excess distrust, shame, defensiveness, fear (or explosions) of strong emotions, a compulsive need to control, low self-awareness, and ineffective caregiver modeling.

            Simply put, you just don’t know how to problem-solve together. Until you have learned about and tried better options, you automatically use manipulative mind-reading, aggression, repression, double messages, withdrawing, threats, assumptions, and many other ineffective ways of trying to get your needs met via communication. They usually backfire and generate even more conflict.

            Make no mistake about it, normal multi-home stepfamilies are complex, high-conflict groups co-managed by adults who are likely, to some degree, to be emotionally and relationship- handicapped, plus untrained in effective talking, listening, asserting, and problem-solving. You and your partner can build your ability to communicate effectively, if you decide to.

            You may think this doesn’t apply to you and say, “We agree on just about everything. We never fight.” Like it or not, this is probably a red light. You have a major disadvantage in that you haven’t had a fair chance to try out your conflict-resolving skills. Make no mistake about it, these abilities will be called upon, often, once the politeness and tolerance of dating fades and mundane, stepfamily living situations surface.

            Never arguing or apologizing, often withdrawing, and quickly or never giving in are common symptoms of old, unhealed emotional wounds. From old habit and long practice, you will do anything to keep the peace. Never fighting also blocks your minor kids from learning how to handle interpersonal conflicts effectively. Whether you realize it or not, they are watching you.
I know you believe you understand what you think I said. But I’m not sure
you realize that what you heard was not what I meant.”

            Sound familiar? To fill our daily needs we often depend on the ability to verbally communicate with others, yet few of us have studied how to do this well. On a verbal effectiveness scale of one to 10, most of us average three to five with the people who matter the most to us.

            You are about to meet a cluster of related ideas that form a concept about effective verbal communication. While each idea adds to the whole, some are extra important. The * symbol flags these special points.

            For our purposes, the word “communication” means “the dynamic interplay of mutual reactions between two or more people in emotional, spiritual, or sensory contact.” In other words, anything you do—or do not do—that causes a physical, emotional, spiritual, and/or mental change in another is what we call “interpersonal communication.” In these exchanges, each partner simultaneously sends, receives, and decodes meanings from up to four kinds of messages at once. For most of us, this complex process is largely unconscious until we focus on it.

            Think about this: we can’t not communicate. Why? Well, silence, and the lack of a look, touch, or note, cause meanings just as speech, touch, and eye contact do. If someone says, “s/he didn’t say anything” or “I got no response,” you know that there probably were meanings assumed—like, “You don’t care much about me right now.” That may or may not be what the silence was intended to mean, but that is often how the absence of verbal, visual, and/or physical communication is decoded.

            Most of us do not know what we don’t know about our communications skills, values, and habits. We learned to listen and talk from our families, teachers, heroes, and friends. Few of them knew what you are about to learn here. So we are often unaware of our communication process or of the many choices we have. Just as our hands reach to automatically tie bows, typewrite, or play an instrument, we talk and listen from habit—even if the results do not please us. Taking a “speech” class may grow diction, public speaking skill, or debating abilities, but probably will not cover the effective communication skills we are going to cover here. Sadly, few schools seem to.

            These skills work between people and within you. We each experience self-talk much of the time: a group of inner voices (i.e., thoughts, hunches, intuitions, images, feelings, and visions.) These are inner-personal communications. They are so familiar to us that they often go unnoticed. The next time you feel conflicted about something, without judgment observe the dialog (or shouting match) between two or more voices inside you. For example:

            Voice 1:  I wonder how Bob is recovering; I’ll call him today.”
            Voice 2:  “But you know he’ll talk your ear off and then never asks about you. Talking to Bob gets boring and it hurts every time. Don’t call Bob.”
            Voice 3:  But friends should call! I’ll feel guilty if I don’t.”
            Voice 4:  “Listen, this is too hard and confusing. C’mon, let’s get a donut.”
            Voice 5:  Wait! You’re 20 pounds overweight as it is. Don’t eat that junk! Have an apple!”

            Sound familiar? The communication skills of process awareness, metatalk, empathic listening, assertion, and problem-solving will work between your inner voices just as well as with other people. Just think. What would your life be like with more inner harmony?

            In a little while, we are going to target five communications skills. Be aware that just reading about them will not build your ability to communicate effectively. Trying the five skills is the only way you will experience their power and usefulness. It has taken years to develop your present talking and listening patterns. It will take time for these new skills to become comfortable habits, as well. Let yourself feel alien, awkward, and even phony for a time—without guilt! You couldn’t play the piano the first time with concert ability. As with any skill, these take practice, feedback, and patience before they become familiar and fully effective.

            If possible, practice with a partner. Having someone to share these experiences and offer feedback will speed learning and make it more fun. If you are not ready to explore this with your stepfamily adult quite yet, you can always ask trusted others for clear feedback on your communication behaviors. And you always have your inner partners.

            Two of the most helpful learning attitudes are: “Progress, not perfection” and “The road to success is always under construction.” Take them to heart.

            As the skills start to work for you, avoid preaching about or selling them to insecure or uninterested partners. Doing so can seem to send a message that you are “one-up,” which usually breeds resentment, defensiveness, and resistance. However, modeling these skills often catches the interest of others, over time.

            Your first reaction to these new skills can be that they seem “phony” or “gimmicky,” and that people trying them are “pulling something” over on their partners. Sure, these skills can be used to manipulate rather than communicate. But doing so eventually erodes trust and respect. If your steady goals are “I want to hear you clearly and I want both of us to get more of what we need here,” these skills will enhance all of your relationships, starting with yourself.

            A tape or video recorder can not only help you to learn these new skills, but also to become aware of your present communication habits. They can also help you avoid the endless “you said ... no I didn’t” cycles that erupt when insecure people don’t get clear feedback. But be aware that recorders can also scare and distract uneasy partners from communicating freely. Be also warned, if these devices are used to trap, beat, or shame, then your relationships and self-esteem will suffer.

            * When your (sincere) attitude about your partner is “Your needs now are just as valid and important as mine,” then these five skills you are about to learn will work. You cannot fake it. Any other attitude will automatically be sent by your voice tone, body, and face, and will dilute or reverse the usefulness and impact of these skills.

            These skills are also interdependent. “Assertiveness” requires that you master “awareness,” “metatalk,” and “empathic listening.” “Problem-solving” works only if the other four abilities are well developed. Highly effective communicators know all five skills thoroughly and switch among them fluidly as circumstances change.

            You do not need these skills all the time. The goal is to grow automatic competence with them when important situations come up, and you or your partner(s) decide at any moment what qualifies as important.

            Teaching these five skills to any young people in your life by modeling and instruction is one of the most potent and priceless gifts you can bestow. The skills will benefit and serve a lifetime, and will empower generations to come.

Excerpt from THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.

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