I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a perilous place this world is in which to raise kids. The murder of four people — two of them teens — in a small college town just west of here was set against a backdrop of a dark musical subculture known as “horrorcore.” A teen who is close to us is also dealing with the consequences of some poor choices.
As the father of two teenage boys ages 17 and 13, I think about all the factors that add up to the their adolescent experiences. As someone who makes a living in communication, I believe it is near the top of the list. That frightens me because despite being a professional communicator, I know I don’t always practice it as well as I could. And I know I’m not alone.
If you want a glimpse into the communication taking place (or not) in America’s homes, just take a look at the people with whom and for whom you work. If your boss closes his door and fails to make herself available to you, chances are good that she’s closing the door on her husband or her daughter at home. If your co-worker refuses to share details about a project that you need in order to do your job well, chances are he’s refusing to share the details of his activities with his wife. If there are people in your office who primarily communicate with a demeaning tone or with sarcasm, I’d be willing to bet that’s how they communicate with their kids.
It’s no wonder, then, that half of all marriages end in divorce and so many kids go elsewhere to find acceptance and encouragement — often from people who don’t have their best interests at heart.
I know whereof I speak. Although I like to think my professional communication skills are fairly sharp, I know I haven’t always been a great communicator at home. I have no doubt my communication shortcomings contributed to my own divorce. I believe I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. For the sake of my sons, who live with me, I hope I have.
If I look at communication from the standpoint of my work, I can see some parallels that apply to my personal life. The communication advice I give to clients, to seminar audiences and to readers is easily transferable to my home:
- Be genuine. I’m participating in a seminar at my church about parenting teenagers. This was one of the first principles we learned. In the business world, it’s essentially the same as “transparency.” Kids, like employees, can smell a phony a mile away. It’s difficult to gain the trust and respect of people who sense you are not being genuine in the things you say and how you say them. Being genuine requires a certain degree of vulnerability — something that business leaders as well as parents often find difficult. But it’s worth the risk because it helps build a foundation of trust.
- Be available. I work from home, which is both a blessing and a curse. It enables me to be home nearly every day when my sons get home from school, but I admit it’s sometimes frustrating to be in the middle of writing a story or working on a communication plan when they walk in and want to talk about their days. But what a golden opportunity it is to communicate with them! I remind myself how important my availability is to them. Recently I conducted focus groups for a client and one of the chief complaints of employees was that their bosses weren’t available. Communication can’t happen if one party isn’t there.
- Be engaged. Neither can communication happen if both parties aren’t engaged. There’s the old cliche of the dad sitting behind an open newspaper while his wife or kids are trying to engage him in conversation. Well, that’s not far from the truth in many families as well as many organizations. Today, the newspaper has been replaced by the BlackBerry, but the effect is the same. Put it down. It’s so important to really hear what our kids are saying. Ask questions. Have a real dialogue. I’m amazed at how little engagement on my part it takes for my sons to open up and start talking about what’s going on at school or with their friends.
- Be empathetic. This word is often misunderstood. Empathy doesn’t mean validating or agreeing with everything our kids say. It means putting ourselves in their shoes so we at least understand why they feel the way they do or say the things they say. I’ve had plenty of bosses in my career who weren’t professional communicators, so I often felt isolated and misunderstood in my work. However, I can think of one who empathized with the challenges I faced even though he had never faced them himself. He was one of my best bosses. I’ve found when I show empathy to my sons, they are much more willing to open up to me about what’s going on in their lives.
- Be clear. Occasionally my 13-year-old comes home from school and tells me about an assignment, but he is unclear on some of the details. The lack of clarity is sometimes due to his not listening very well and it is sometimes due to vague instructions from the teacher. Regardless, clear communication has not taken place. Effective communication is an interactive process. It requires give and take, repetition and inqusitiveness. Saying something once rarely is sufficient. I’ve learned this is true in my own interactions with my sons. Yes, I get tired of repeating myself — but if it ensures that my kids are clear about rules, instructions and expectations, I’ll do it. At work, bosses often are required to discuss expectations with employees and then document them. Maybe we should have the same requirement in our homes.
If there is one thing I’ve learned about workplace communication, it is that the most successful organizations have given considerable thought and planning to communication and have executed those plans with rigor and discipline. Maybe our families could benefit from the same.