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The Skinny – Amy Brunell

How to Communicate to People, Not Their Behavior –

This week I’m attending a national camp convention. Camp staff from everywhere come together for three days of workshops and networking. I attended one workshop and was reminded how we don’t often communicate with children and adults very effectively. Not only do we  tend to talk down to children, we also talk down to adults. We are often jockeying for power and fulfilling our own agendas ahead of listening to what Marshall Rosenberg, Founder of Non-Violent Communication calls others “unmet needs.”

Communication difficulties come from the paradigm that “I need to win the battle.” As long as that is the unconscious or conscious desire, the win will only be temporary. Sure you may think you win the conflict, but the next day some passive-aggressive behavior may “get you back.” The win isn’t a win if both parties aren’t respected.

Today at the conference, many workshops focused on the theme of how to communicate when a child is having trouble in some way. When a child misbehaves, one workshop facilitator suggested telling the child “That’s not allowed.” My cohorts and I were discussing other communication strategies we have used for telling a child to stop. My friend says, “That’s not acceptable.” In my family we say, “That’s not appropriate.”

So when we talk with children and attempt to guide them into positive behavior, we want to differentiate between the behavior and the child; the behavior may not be okay but they as people are still okay. The behavior is their attempt to meet their needs.
We don’t put the child down. We listen for their unmet need, and guide the behavior, expecting that the child needs guidance. An ineffective strategy for both the child and the adult, is to take their behavior personally.

As we move on to adult communication, I’d like to offer the same idea of differentiating between the behavior and the person. Perhaps the unwanted behavior isn’t about you? Perhaps it’s not personal? How would your life change if you didn’t take behavior personally? Author Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements, writes: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. And I would add, their own suffering. Even when my child misbehaves, he’s trying to get his needs met. Even when adults drive me crazy, I need to remember they are trying to get their needs met.

I’m not endorsing being a doormat. I’m not endorsing letting others hurt you, act violently physically or emotionally. I think personal safety has to be of utmost importance. But if your safety is not an issue, I am suggesting that we be open to a process that promotes a more peaceful existence. Let’s listen openly to others both the younger and older amongst us. Let’s think about how to get both yours and my needs met. Let’s offer the gift of listening to those around us.

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