We communicate with each other all day long. With children and with adults. With co-workers and partners. With friends and business acquaintances. Communication is a key part of the foundation of any relationship. Since it’s so important, it makes sense that I often hear questions in my office about how to talk to children and teenagers in a way that helps them feel heard and is more likely to increase cooperation (that’s the dream, right?), especially during difficult situations. However, it’s important to consider how you communicate on a routine basis before we think about how to communicate during a hard time.
While this is a topic that we could talk about endlessly, I’m going to share one trick that may help your child to both feel heard and increase the chances of cooperation. Let’s talk about two little words: “but” and “and”. You might not have given these words much thought, but how you use them can be a game changer.
BUT: This three letter, frequently used, word can actually serve as a significant hindrance in conversation. The word “but” is used to contradict that which has already been said. What it can do in conversation is really cut into the positive, supportive or validating statement you just made and undermine the entire sentence. It can feel really invalidating when someone says “but” following some type of validation. More than that, often times, we will only hear the negative part of the sentence anyway.
That might sound like this: “I know you’ve been working hard in school and have been busy with softball practice, but, I see you got a C in history.”
There’s a good chance that you’re trying to validate your child by starting with that first part of the sentence, so we don’t want one word to ruin your efforts.
When you’re thinking of using the word “but”, see if the word “and” could be substituted in. This can be especially helpful when the second statement can negate the first statement. While this might just sound like semantics, I promise it’s important. The more people feel connected and heard the more likely they are to listen and cooperate.
AND: The word “and” is magic. It allows you to bring together two ideas. It allows for both things to be true in a way that can validate both perspectives. Even though it might sound not quite right to you at first, try to just substitute the word “but” for the word “and”. The word “and” doesn’t detract from either part of the sentence.
Let’s take a look at the example from above, but let’s swap the “but” for “and”:
“I know you’ve been working hard in school and have been busy with softball practice, but, I see you got a C in history.” Now let’s swap out that “but”…
“I know you’ve been working hard in school and have been busy with softball practice, and, I see you got a C in history.” See the difference that little change can make? Instead of your kid shutting down or only hearing what comes after the but, you’ve now validated their hard work and can have a conversation.
Let’s take a look at some other examples:
You’re a really good student, but it seems like English is a tricky class for you.
You’re a really good student, and it seems like English is a tricky class for you.
You're having so much fun playing with your legos, but in five minutes, it's time for bed.
You're having so much fun playing with your legos, and in five minutes, it's time for bed.
I know you want some freedom, but you need to be safe and make good decisions.
I know you want some freedom, and you need to be safe and make good decisions.
You’re a really good dad, but I need more help with the kids.
You’re a really good dad, and I need more help with the kids.
You love being a parent, but you need a break sometimes.
You love being a parent, and you need a break sometimes.
You’re a really good parent, but you yelled at your child today.
You’re a really good parent, and you yelled at your child today.
From a realistic strategy perspective, we’re talking about a strategy that involves changing one word in a sentence.
From a big picture perspective, allowing yourself to make space for two things to be true, at the exact same time, can really shift your perspective into a much more flexible and accepting place. It can allow you to balance the importance of both things that you’re trying to say, and allow you to understand and validate someone’s feelings or accomplishments while providing constructive feedback and still keep the conversation going. It's also much more consistent with the complexities of life, most of the time, both things are equally true.
Thanks for reading!