Improving Communication With Our Children to Really Get Our Message Across

The first step we have to take towards achieving real and effective communication with our children (and any other human being), is to make sure that we are speaking the same language.

Obviously (except in very rare cases), all members of one family do speak the same language. But the words we choose to express what we think and feel can be very different from those that somebody else in our family chooses, making it very difficult to establish and maintain effective communication between the parts. And there is an explanation for this:

Every human being experiences reality through their senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.

Our capacity to receive information through these sensory channels is almost infinite, but even in the womb, we start to learn to ignore (eliminate), group (generalize) and modify (distort) unconsciously in different ways a large part of the information that we receive, focusing on the portions that (also unconsciously) we believe will be most useful to us at that time or in the future.

This creates in us a “map” with the pieces that each of our senses brings onto ourselves, that as a whole, represent our perception and become our personal representation of reality. This “map” (our experiences) is always incomplete and it’s just an extremely subjective representation of the “territory” (the reality).

Very seldom are we aware of the rhythm of our breathing, the fabric of our clothes brushing against our skin, the ambient sounds around us, the things that are in our peripheral vision, etc.

But if we focus our attention for example on our breathing, we will be able to feel how our lungs fill up with air as our chest expands, and we will even be able to listen to the sound the air makes as it passes through our nasal orifices.

ll that information was available to us before we noticed it, but unconsciously we chose to ignore it, to focus our attention on other things.

And in the same way that our brains give priority to some information over other (for example, the words written, over the font or background colour, we also unconsciously pay more attention to one of our senses over the others.

If you remember a relative or very close friend that you haven’t seen in a very long time, can you see his or her face clearly? can you listen to the tone of their voice? do you remember how you felt the last time you saw them? Which of the three things did you do first?

We all store information (memories) primarily in a visual (images, sight), auditory (sounds, hearing) or kinesthetic (sensations, touch) way. Smell and taste can bring up very vivid memories, but they are almost always tied up to some of the other representational systems. If we perceive the smell of freshly baked bread, chances are that it will bring to mind the visual, auditory or kinesthetic memory of another occasion in which we enjoyed the same aroma (in my personal case, the smell of wet grass after a rain, invariably takes me back to the first days of elementary school).

This may seem like an interesting but unimportant fact, until we realize that, besides generalizing, eliminating and distorting, we tend to communicate using predicates related to our primary representational system. And even more importantly: we understand better the communication that uses the predicates related to that representational system which we tend to favour.

When you are worried, do you feel pinned down? do you see things dark and blurry? are you out of tone with the people around you?

What do you want for your children? a bright future? a happy life? a life where they live in harmony with themselves and others around them?

All three of the phrases have basically the same meaning, but they are represented in a visual (bright), kinesthetic (happy), and auditory (harmony) way, and instinctively we are going to prefer or feel more connected to one phrase over the others.

To us, it’s going to sound more logical and therefore easier to understand, if something is expressed in our own language.

This is why my first recommendation to start building the path you will follow towards a better communication and relationship with your children, is to identify our own preferred representational systems, as well as theirs.

To accomplish this, I suggest you do the following exercises:

To identify your own preferred representational system, I recommend that you select the memory of a situation that gave you intense positive feelings and has a special meaning to you… something that is very important and easy for you to remember in detail, like the first time you saw your partner, your wedding ceremony, the birth of your first child, etc.

Pay attention to the memory you have selected and write down on a piece of paper, with as much precision as possible, every detail that comes to your mind. Write down what you remember about the place, each of the people that participated in the event, what was said, what was done, as well as what you saw and felt. And try to be as specific as possible on each of the descriptions.

Once you are done writing everything you remember about that very special event for you, I want you to read again everything you wrote and distribute the comments you wrote, in three different columns. One column for the comments you made about what you saw, another for the comments you made about what you heard, and the last one for those comments you made about that you felt. Feel free to embellish as you copy the original comments to their respective column.

For the last step in this exercise, you should pay close attention to each of the comments you wrote, to notice whether there is consistency and a congruency of concepts in the characteristics you might have given to the them in each of the representational systems you might have used.

For example, did you write down a description of a warm color (kinesthetic/visual)? or did you comment about a bright sound (visual/auditory)?. Or are you consistent and unconsciously maintain congruency by saying for example dark color (visual/visual), sensation of joy (kinesthetic/kinesthetic), etc.?

Reading again what we wrote, we’ll notice a tendency to favour one representational system over the others, and this will be the first link we will have built on the chain we must construct to keep us together on a communicational level with our children.

Now, to identify the preferred representational system of your children, specially if they are very young, what I recommend, is to do it on a less formal manner, so they don’t feel like they are being tested. Talk to them, ask questions and pay close attention to their replies:

When they talk to you, do they tell you what they saw? what they heard? how they felt?

In addition, generally speaking, it is important to also take into account that predominantly visual people tend to be relatively impatient, and are a lot faster in making decisions and grasping the meaning of what is being said to them. By creating a mental image of the information they are receiving, they can immediately decide if it’s something that fits their maps or not. This is advantageous in the sense that characteristically we are talking about determined people who don’t “beat around the bush”, but it also has its disadvantages, because by deciding very quickly, they can do it before having received all the information necessary to guarantee the right decision.

On the other hand, predominantly auditory people take a little more time in making a decision, because they prefer to listen to all the arguments and explanations before deciding or accepting what is being said to them.

Finally, it could be said that in a way kinesthetics are the most cautious and that it takes them a lot more time to reach a conclusion or decision, since, besides listening to the arguments and forming a mental picture of the situation, they also need to be fully aware of how they feel about one decision or another.

It is very important to remember the following: We all use all of our senses to create our maps of reality. These exercises are designed to determine what is the preferred representational system for each person (not exclusive or constant for every situation).

Being aware of our preferred representational system and the words we use, as well as our children’s, it will be our responsibility to broaden our maps and vocabulary to achieve an effective communication with them and contribute through it to the expansion of their maps.

An additional exercise that I recommend on this subject, is that of “translating” the comments or instructions that we generally give to our children, from the language we are accustomed to using, to the three representational systems that we’ve talked about.

For example, a common instruction that I give to my daughters is “brush your hair”. Translated to the different representational systems, the comment would be:

* Visual: After you brush your hair, you will look a lot better

* Auditory: Have I told you that I’ve heard people say that you look very pretty when your hair is well combed.

* Kinesthetic: Doesn’t it upset you to have a messy hair? You would make me very happy if you brush it.

* To cover all the systems: When your hair is brushed, I feel very good, and I know you do too, because you can note and hear that people see you differently and they tell you you look very pretty!

A lot more useful information on how to communicate better with our children can be found in the book “Flexible Parents, Happy Family”, available on