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Communication & Problem Solving

Excerpts from Making Healthy Families

Making Healthy Families

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

The ability to negotiate our needs in the family and our capacity to solve problems is also a function of our ability to understand our feelings. A young child depends on adults to accurately name their feelings. It is through this process that self awareness develops and a child begins to verbally articulate what is going on inside.

But having a well-functioning “communication membrane” which allows us to receive and send messages smoothly is not just about physical or emotional health. The overall atmosphere present in a family is directly related to whether communication facilitates or blocks conflict resolution. Families may become dysfunctional when problems cannot be solved. The capacity of family members to resolve problems contributes to an overall spirit of harmony or dissonance present in the home. Attention to family atmosphere is important because high and consistent levels of tension related to unsolved difficulties is thought to be the single largest contributor to maladjustment in children.

Problem Solving and Communication

A common pattern which creates distress in a marriage is one in which one spouse confronts conflict and the other blocks communication through withdrawal, sulking, stonewalling, flippancy, discounting or other methods of conflict avoidance.

One of the strongest predictors of divorce is the inability to solve problems. Contrary to popular belief, neither dissatisfaction reported in a marriage nor frequency of disagreements spawn failed marriages. Instead, styles of communication that inhibit problem solving spell trouble. A legacy of unresolved conflict may be the writing on the wall. Communication that relies heavily on blaming, placating, whining or sarcasm to express feelings leads to protracted discussions with less probability for reaching solutions. Researchers describe communication to be one of three important criteria, but the most pivotal in family functioning.

Family communication either strengthens or inhibits bonding and adaptation, two other important dimensions of family relationships.

It is easy to intuitively identify when we are having difficulty being understood or getting our point across. Similarly, we can often feel when we do not connect with another person’s interpretation of an experience. What is more difficult to understand is the relationship between our own communication and the potential for solving problems.

One way to know if your communication is effective in the family is to take note of how or if problems get discussed, and if they do what percentage of time a resolution occurs. Do topics of discussion reach closure, particularly when action needs to be taken? Pay attention to how you make decisions in the family and how this process feels to you and other family members.

One team of family researchers at Brown University describes 7 steps to problem solving:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Communicate with appropriate people about the problem
  3. Develop a set of possible alternative solutions
  4. Decide on one of the alternatives
  5. Carry out action required to guarantee action is taken
  6. Moniter to guarantee action is taken
  7. Evaluate effectiveness of your decision-making process

If communication skills are poorly developed, it will prove difficult to get past the second step of conveying your description of the problem to someone else. Likewise, unresolved conflict could be expressed in a miscarriage of action once it is decided (fifth step). However, if family members gestate a decision through to the final step of self- reflection, they are more likely to give birth to a feeling of team spirit, whatever the outcome.

How decisions are made in a family is often more crucial to positive feelings between family members than what is decided.

Below is an exercise in listening and empathy, the first step towards healthy communication.

Go to: Listening and Empathy

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Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

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