What people say generally accounts for 20-50% of what we communicate, the rest is down to body language. When family relationships are going through difficulties family members tend to talk less so it’s really important to be more aware of how you communicate non-verbally as well as verbally and to try to keep talking honestly.

Non-verbal communication

  • facial expression - not smiling can strongly express negative feelings - obvious but you might not be aware you’re doing it. Poor eye contact communicates mistrust/untrustworthiness whether you intend it or not.

  • body language - folding your arms is a sign of defence/low receptiveness to what is being said to you; turning away to continue other tasks signals not listening. So try not look at a screen, use a keyboard, check the time on your watch or doodle while someone is talking to you.

It helps to let the person talking to you know they have your full attention, look at them and nod to signal that you’re hearing them. Where possible turn off distractions eg computer screen/TV/mobile.

Verbal communication

Set up some ground rules including

  • no interruptions until the person speaking has finished (if there is a tendency for a particular family member to speak for a long time, agree together on a general rule of a time limit of x minutes for each person)
  • give each person the chance to respond without interruption
  • avoid saying ‘you never’, ‘you always’ – these phrases will usually be heard as blaming, they’re likely to receive a negative response, and are often inaccurate.

Signal you’re listening and hearing. When the person speaking has finished it’s helpful to show that you have listened and understood eg by saying something like ‘I hear that you think that I spend too much time watching the TV and not spending enough time with the kids and that you’ve asked me to stop watching so much TV before.’ If you’re accurate the other person will probably nod and because what you’ve said is not exaggerated or point-scoring it is likely to encourage the other person to respond calmly. Talking in this way helps prevent emotions and tensions escalating. This may take practice if family conversations are often heated – but keep at it so you can have calmer conversations about important issues.