You’ve all seen it and maybe even participated in it. A family sitting at the dinner table; several children and parents intensely communicating, but not with each other. Instead they are all communicating with a digital screen! You’ll see them smiling, frowning, staring-all at a device instead of those around the table with them. This has become so commonplace that we don’t question it anymore. For many, it has become a cultural norm.
In my blog today, I’m not going to bash the digital age we are living in. Instead, I want to focus on what we, especially our children, know about how to communicate. Communication is a necessity of life. The forms of communication we use seem straight forward, but are they?
The forms and their frequency are the things that are changing. Face to face communication where you see someone’s face and body is actually becoming less and less frequent. The need for us to meet someone in person to perform a particular task has greatly diminished. We don’t have to visit a store to shop, or go to a school to be taught. We don’t have to go to church to hear the preacher’s message or even attend the sporting event to see the event. We are now able to experience these things in our house and never even interact with a single person face to face. Let’s be honest, we love the convenience and comfort that this provides us, but at what expense?
Over the years, researchers have made claims that over 90% of our communication is nonverbal; facial expression, body language, voice tone, etc… These numbers seem pretty extreme and in fact more recent research suggest that the difference between nonverbal and verbal communication percentages are more influenced by the situation. Listening to a book on audio is certainly much more verbally effective than nonverbal, but having a face to face disagreement can be significantly more nonverbal. With that being said, researchers agree that nonverbal communication is significant, and often much more important than the words we use.
So, how are you teaching your children to communicate? If the primary communication they use is looking at a digital screen and reading words, they likely are missing a huge portion of the message. This is why we frequently see messages getting misinterpreted or misunderstood. “No, I didn’t mean that, I was just joking around.”
I encourage you to be intentional about teaching your children how to communicate. When I teach lessons on communication to young students the first thing I teach is to know your audience. Yes, before you say a word, you should know who you are talking to. Age, gender, energy level, mood, interest level, etc… We have all had great teachers and not so great teachers. One of the primary skills that I quickly identify in a great teacher is their ability to read their audience prior and while teaching. A great teacher does a quick inventory on the audience and looks for the general mood, attention, interest, and energy of the crowd. If the audience is reflecting positive attention and interest, then as the teacher, you quickly seize the opportunity and teach with the same energy. If you notice tired or somber faces and you ignore that message, there is a big chance that you are quickly going to lose your audience and before you know it, you will be preaching to the walls.
Great teachers know their material, but make rapid adjustments to keep their audience engaged. Reading body language, voice tones, and facial expressions, is part skill and part intuition. Some teachers just seem to be naturals, while others need to be trained and practiced in these skills. Here’s the good news, these are skills that can be learned, practiced, and significantly improved.
How do you teach your children to read their audience and be effective communicators? As mentioned earlier, some of them will be naturals, but all can benefit from learning and practicing three simple techniques.
Audience Check. Teach your child to observe and read their teachers and others every day. Each day when your child walks into the classroom, one of the first things they should do is take notice of the people they encounter, especially their teacher. Is the teacher appearing to be happy, sad, tired, irritated, etc… If your child walks into the classroom and stares at the ground, they likely will miss one of the most important messages necessary to start their day off right.
Greet and Check. Teach them to initiate the first greeting. As soon as they walk in the classroom and take notice of the people, they follow up with a simple greeting. “Hi Mrs. Smith!”, or better yet, “Hi Mrs. Smith, how are you today?” Wow! Guess what is about to happen? Because the child took an interest in the teacher, the teacher is going to respond not just with a verbal word, but a mood, and an energy through her nonverbal clues. More importantly, most of the time the teacher will return the interest. I’m doing great this morning! How are you doing?” This is so important! Now, not only does your child have basic information about the teacher, but the teacher now gathers information about the student. If this is done on a daily basis, it will not be long before the teacher and student have a greater depth to their understanding and interaction with each other.
Clarity Check. Teach them the skill of seeking clarity of the message. When they hear, see, and recognize the teacher’s message, test understanding. For example:
Student: Hi Mrs. Smith! How are you?”
Mrs. Smith: In a low and quiet voice - “I’m okay.”
Student: “Mrs. Smith, you seem a little tired today”. Is everything okay?”
WOW! Now the student is not just engaging, but seeking to gain greater understanding. This shows the student investing and taking an interest in the teacher. The teacher will typically seek to clarify the message, and consciously or subconsciously, they will feel a greater interest and empathy for this student. Practice these same skills on a daily basis in your house. Every day have your child practice checking in with you when they walk in the door. Have them notice, greet, and clarify understanding of the people in the house, especially their parents.
Effective communication and interaction with others is a lifelong skill that your child will use every day of their life. This is tremendously powerful in teaching your child to invest in the interest of others, rather than just themselves. Next time you think about giving your child their tablet when they walk in the house, stop and spend some time teaching them to be Masters of Communication not Disasters of Communication!