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April 15, 2010

Families and Communication

Patricia A. Kelly

They say that children raised in front of video games will grow up missing the skill of reading body language. They say this will hinder their ability to pick up social cues, and, thus, their ability to communicate effectively.


After a month immersed in the dramas of more than one family, I’m beginning to think this could be a good thing.


Communication, for a verbal someone, should be simple. I tell you what I think or want, and you respond in kind. When you speak, I hear what you say.


Fortunately and unfortunately, that’s not the way it goes.


Reading body language can be very helpful in dealing with both animals and people. You can generally tell, for example, if a dog is menacing, by its stance. As a child, I always knew by my mom’s body language whether I really had to stop jumping on the bed right away or whether I could push it a little further. I even had a discussion, as a preschooler, with my brother, about how to tell how really serious she was.


The unfortunate aspect of reading body language is that we often give meaning to the expressions of others that they don’t intend. I mean, really, what if Mom’s arched eyebrow is a sign that a fly has tickled her forehead, rather than an indication of disapproval and lack of love. Maybe, if you just saw what you saw and heard what you heard instead of interpreting so much, you could grow up with high self esteem instead of imagining that your admittedly weird parents didn’t love you.


Of course, we do the same with words. I once had a “charming” ex-husband who invariably replied to my polite evening request that he take the trash out with an expression that included an expletive. Did I ever get that his behavior was all about him rather than all about us? No, of course I didn’t, but it was.


I’ve spent the past three weeks caring for my daughter after what, so far, appears to be life-renewing surgery. I’ve been very closely involved with my family on a daily basis. For us, this has been a very emotional time because she was in severe pain for two years, with a very poor prognosis, and now the pain that was destroying her life appears to be gone, thanks to one of the four surgeons in the United States who performs surgery for her condition.


So, we’ve run the gamut of emotion, from financial stress, to fear, to cautious joy.


I’ve had the chance to be reminded that different people react differently to stress, fear and pain than others. My son-in-law jokes through his stress-clenched teeth. My daughter sometimes wonders if he’s taking things seriously enough, but I can often tell that he’s having a hard time.


I have an advantage, through personal and professional training, in the communication business. In my career as an emergency nurse, I needed to judge quickly whether someone was really ill, or if someone was likely to become violent. I developed my body language reading skills in the trenches, and my success rate, though excellent, is still way below 100%.


A friend of mine has been experiencing a big family drama recently, too.


I listen to his stories, which include his giving meaning to the words of his family members that they may – or may not – intend, and to their doing the same with him. I keep saying, “You are the one who created that meaning. You are the one who defines him as this, based upon his words. You don’t really know what the implications are for him.”


In a verbal society, it would be so cool if one just heard what was said and answered to that, rather than piling a lifetime of opinions upon each verbal exchange. If we could just let each assertion or expression be what it was, without attaching meaning, we would carry a much smaller burden around with us. What if, while driving, someone cut us off or “flipped us the bird,” and we just thought, “I wonder what’s going on with him today?” instead of, “How can I kill him?” Think of how many near strokes would be averted!


I think most families are filled with the love of each member for the others, but getting to a state of consciousness of that love is like traversing a mine field.


Next time your mom frowns, consider that her forehead might itch, or she might have a cramp. It might not be all about you and your pile of opinions.


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