Grace Under Pressure: Communicating With Parents

Heredity is what a man believes in until his son begins to behave like a delinquent. Presbyterian Life.

How you talk to parents–your tone of voice, the words you use, posture, eye movements–influences how they interpret what you say, and how agreeable they are to going along with what you say. Ultimately parents’ cooperation is the cornerstone in determining how much their children progress. Parents spend the most time with their children, they have the most interest in their welfare, and they are the people whom their children trust the most. Treatment of children’s problems can only be successful to the extent that parents are willing to participate in, and follow through on.

We’ve already talked about active listening with children; here is an overview of how you can put this technique into practise with parents:

1. Listening–not only to what parents say, but also to what they are not saying. As A. Benjamin put it, “We hear with our ears, but we listen with our eyes and mind and heart and skin and guts as well.” By listening to and acknowledging what parents say, you are telling them that you accept what they are saying, and you accept them. You give parents a sense of wanting to help them and working together with them toward the same goal.

2. Understanding and empathizing–putting yourself into a parent’s shoes. The closer you come to knowing what parents experience and feel, the better your understanding will be of what they are going through. In some cases, true understanding can only come with experience. Like my girlfriend put it, “There’s nothing anyone can ever tell you, or you can find out from a book that will prepare you for this experience”–having a baby that is. The same is true for raising a challenging child–you will never know what it’s like unless you have one yourself. For this reason you may find it hard to match your feelings of empathy with the experiences of parents–you may minimize or blow things out of proportion.

Stay away from bringing your own personal experiences into the conversation. These imply to parents that they should do what you did. Parents resist lines like “I know how you feel…” or “If I were in your place I would…” What you can do is draw on your experiences in an indirect way with comments like “Some people find it helpful to…” These neutralize parents’ anxiety and don’t sound pretentious.

3. Acknowledging–what you say to let parents know you are listening. Often you don’t have to say much: “Uh-huh,” “I see,” or simply a nod are enough. Sometimes all parents want is to get things off their mind, not necessarily for you to give them an answer.

4. Repeating–one step beyond acknowledging what parents say is repeating their comments in one of three ways: (a) using the same words as them, (b) using your own words in clarifying or interpreting what parents are saying, or (c) identifying parent’s underlying feelings or attitudes.

For example, a mother might say to you, “I’m fed up. I’ve tried everything and Meagan still refuses to do her homework.” Using the first approach, you simply would repeat what mom says–“You’re fed up,” or, “Meagan refuses to do her homework.” The second tact goes a little deeper by interpreting what mom is trying to say–“You’re really frustrated.” Lastly, you could reflect back to mom how she feels about her child’s problems–“You feel like giving up.”

5. Questioning–enables you to delve further into particular matters or find out specific pieces of information from parents. As much as possible, use questions which invite parents to talk more, and keep to a minimum questions which end in one-word answers. For instance, “Tell me about your weekend with Cecilia, will open more doors than, “Did you and Cecilia get along this weekend?” Also try not to start questions with the word “why.” “Why was Cecilia in such a bad mood this morning?” may put parents on the defensive, because it sounds like you’re blaming them for their child’s behavior.

In addition, questions are an excellent way of helping parents discover the answers to their own questions. As an example, parents may ask you for advice on how they can stop their son from hitting his younger sister. Instead of listing off alternatives, start by asking, “What have you tried already?” followed by, “What do you think went wrong?” and “Do you have any other ideas you think might work?” These kinds of questions let parents know you believe their ideas are worthwhile, and you have faith in their abilities to reach their own solutions.

I believe people gain greater satisfaction and are more willing to try out ideas they think of themselves: they have gone through some trouble in discovering it, they own it, they have more at stake if it fails. You may, in the process, have to guide them into the right avenues, or away from the dead-ends; but in the end parents should feel like they’ve found their own way.

6. Body Language–many people believe that what you don’t say speaks louder about what you mean than what you do say. Usually we don’t make conscious decisions about the expressions we wear, how we sit, or how fast we talk–we just do them. These nonverbal cues, however, make a difference as to how effectively you communicate with parents. Two ways of bringing them into awareness is by asking a colleague to come in and observe, or by making a video of your interactions with parents.

If you think this system sounds phony and looks contrived, you’re probably right. If you’re wondering if you can ever just be yourself in talking to children and parents, the answer is, “Yes,” but it will take time before active listening comes naturally to you.