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A 200 year old lesson in Family Communication

On a visit to the Florence Nightingale museum recently (a little gem – well worth a couple of hours http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/?v=79cba1185463) I noticed a small book in a display case of childhood possessions. It was entitled Sunday Evening Conversations for the use of Children by a Mother. It was printed in 1817.

In this 21st century when many people feel that technology is preventing families from communicating with each other any day of the week (see this research by Digital Awareness UK and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39666863), the idea of spending Sunday evening conversing with children intrigued me.

So much so that I tracked down an original copy of it from an antique book seller. I have it here in my hand. The question I’m asking myself is – if they valued the art and process of conversation in 1817, why don’t we, two hundred years later?

But then again, some people do. I was surprised and delighted to be asked to run a bespoke session last week for a family – 2 adults and two teenage children. The mother had attended one of my workshops and felt that her whole family could benefit from learning new skills and thinking differently about their communication habits.

And she was right. Each member of the team had different challenges and objectives; each member took away an individual set of tools and strategies. Interestingly, many of the issues we covered in their living room are also present in the board room. For example:

1.     Choose the right time to communicate. See Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox for more about the square of communication. Don’t try to talk to mum as she’s leaving the house to go to work; don’t cross examine the children as they walk in from school; avoid negotiating a pay rise with your boss over the coffee machine.

2.     Listen (rather than waiting to speak) and don’t interrupt. Many adults lack confidence in communication because they’ve been undermined by colleagues, bosses, clients. They speak too quickly because they are expecting to be interrupted. Often this has started in childhood with parents and siblings who don’t let them finish a sentence.

3.     The importance of small talk. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen distinguishes between ‘rapport talk’ – sharing non-work related information, and ‘report talk’ – business, instructions. In many families and companies alike, people dispense with the former and get straight down to the latter: “…..have you ordered that dishwasher part? Who’s taking Esmerelda to her sky diving masterclass ……..” – thereby missing the opportunity to build and consolidate relationships.

So perhaps what’s needed in 2017 is not a manual for Sunday evening conversations with our children but a communication guide for the whole family. I wonder if it’ll be available as an app???????????