A Recipe for Conflict: Different Styles of Communication
Deborah Tannen, a linguist, has written extensively on issues of communication and the difficulty people have talking to one another. She’s written about communication between couples, among families, between mothers and daughters and between sisters. It’s so interesting for me to read these. I relate to them from my own family situations, have seen my friend’s families reflected in her writing, and, as a mediator working with families, I hear the voices of people with whom I have worked.
The points Ms. Tannen make are so relevant to our lives. She writes about the power relationship that plays a role in interaction with mothers and daughters. How often have we bristled at the criticism from our mothers, whose approval we seek, while accepting the same remarks from our friends? While many people have written about sibling rivalry, Tannen writes about how that rivalry and the roles assigned to us as children effect our communication as adults.
Through our mediation practice, we see how the competitiveness of sisters, starting from a young age, impedes their ability to talk to one another without the past getting in the way. This so often boils down to the proverbial, ‘Mom always liked you best’, a conversation stopper for siblings. And then there are the labels that are given to children and stick with them even when they are adults. Giving kids titles like ‘the smart one’ or ‘the talented one’ is likely to cause the resentment which surfaces over the years and obstructs any meaningful communication. Each sibling is an individual and has his/her own conversation style. Some people are reserved when they talk, others aggressive, some emotional and these style differences, when interacting, can lead to ineffective communication. Sometimes the conversations cannot get past the style to the substance. After childhood, siblings can avoid dealing with these life-long antagonisms but later in life they may resurface and interfere with necessary conversations.
As mediators, we have seen siblings who are now confronted with the need to talk about serious issues regarding their parent’s well-being or estate matters. The inability to get past the old rivalries, resentments or ‘he said, she said’ conversations keeps them from being able to talk, have relationships with each other and their nuclear families, and deal productively with issues that require a resolution. For some people, a facilitated conversation is the best options for preserving relationships, resolving conflicts, making joint decisions, and being able to move forward, rather than letting the past get in the way. Tip: Consider reading Ms. Tannen’s book before those difficult conversations and make an outline that can guide the points you want to make and sticks to the issues.