Communication in the Family

An article taken from UNIBUDS Annual Magazine 2002, a talk given by Dr. Belinda Siew Luan Kong


Last year (Straits Times, March 20, 2001), a Singaporean child psychiatrist, Dr. S. T. Wong noted that between 1996 and 1998 the number of children attending the psychiatric clinic increased from 5,600 to 20, 000. Dr Wong identified familial stress as one of the main contribution of the problem. According to Dr Wong, many parents bring their children to the clinic, wanting the psychiatrist “to teach their children how to get good grades… to be popular to do better than they are capable of. This a case of problem parents rather than problem kids (p.10)”.

In my view one of the main reasons for familial stress is miscommunication or the breakdown of communication in the family. Everyone appreciates the need to relate to others. Good communication is the most effective way of really relating. In this talk, I will briefly outline the forms of communication, look at some communication patterns in the family and focus on the factors influencing communication. I will also discuss how we can promote more effective communication and illustrate these with examples. My talk will focus on the psychological aspects of communication.

Forms of communication

Communication is a social process and language is commonly used in this process. Non-verbal communication involving body language, such as smile, gestures, eye contact and signals is equally important. The goal of communication whether verbal or non-verbal is to transmit thoughts,  feelings and emotions, or simply to impart information.

Generally people try their best to communicate and have a need to do so effectively. However, sometimes miscommunication or breach of communication arises, because people have difficulty in expressing themselves clearly or the listener has dificulty in receiving the message properly. Usually we think of communication as a linear process involving the listener and the recipient. However, in the family situation, communication is more complex. This is because the family operates as a SYSTEM, and when one part of the system is not operating well, all the other parts are affected.

Some common communication patterns

On a daily basis, family members communicate spontaneously without much thought being given to the interaction between the parties. However if one observes a family’s way of communicating closely, often patterns emerge that are fairly unique to the particular family. Some of the main communication patterns are:

  • Attack/attack
  • Demand/ignore
  • Blame/blame

Although there are other forms of communication patterns, these are some of the styles of interaction that have been noted as contributing to miscommunication.

Patterns of family communication

Parent-children communication

Some of the communication patterns and problems described above can be illustrated in the following parent-child interaction.

Mrs. Lee and her daughter Ling are arguing over Ling’s “misuse” if her time. Mrs. Lee overhears Ling talking on the phone with her girlfriend and nags Ling to spend more time on her studies instead of gossiping. Ling retorts that her friend is having some problems and she is concerned for her. Mrs. Lee ignores the explanation and adds that when she was her age, she did not waste time chatting one the phone. Ling ignores her mother. Later when Mrs. Lee asks Ling to stop for dinner, ling replies that she has to finish her work. Mrs. Lee then remarks that no one appreciates her efforts. In frustration, Ling suggests that her mother to spend more time with her own social activities, rather than worry about the children. Mrs. Lee then starts to compare Ling with her brother, and the conversation ended with each member yelling at the other.

If one were to draw the pattern of communication here, one can see the circular pattern in the interaction that contributes to the breakdown in communication.

Mother directs and demand -> daughter retorts -> mother criticises -> daughter ignores -> mother complains -> daughter deflects -> mother nags again -> daughter yells -> (result) mother feels depressed -> daughter feels guilty.

This is a good illustration of the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, that is how one thing leads to another. Unless the parties recognise the problem, and learn new ways of interacting the cycle of miscommunication could go on indefinitely (cause and effect) resulting in a deterioration of the bond between the members.

Inter-generational communication

Another significant pattern in the family is inter-generational communication, that is the transmission of legacies inherited from previous generations. I term this as the power of family traditions. Sometimes when I’m counseling parents and I ask them why are you dealing with your son/daughter in this manner, I often get the reply like “this is how I was brought up”.

One of the legacies that are usually handed down is the notion of prescription and obedience. This is a situation where the head of the family, usually the father metes out solutions without discussion of the problem. Often the family members comply out of a sense of duty or because the father is perceived to have the authority.

What the parties perceive as communication is the fact a transmission of how things have been done throughout the generations without taking into account what is presently relevant. They apply traditional dogmas simply because they believe very strongly in the merits of them. There is often no discussion of whether the solution is appropriate in the present circumstance. It is therefore not surprising that when this kind of interaction takes place, we hear children lamenting “It is no use trying to communicate with dad or mom as they are not going to understand. They are so old-fashioned.”

Barriers to communication

Why do communication break down? Some of the barriers to effective communication involves a lack of understanding of the real agenda. This can happen in two ways:

  • Inability or reluctance of the speaker to convey true feelings
    In the above example, the mother is feeling lonely and unneeded. Instead of communicating these feelings, she manifests them in the form of allegations and accusations. Not understanding her mother’s true feelings, her conduct is perceived by her daughter as nagging.
  • Inability or failure on part of listener to hear the real message
    The mother has not heard Ling’s real message that she’s trying to help her friend. Although the mother’s feelings are those of love and concern, by not adequately conveying these concerns, she was accused as critical instead of caring.

Promoting more effective communication

In my view people can acquire skill that will enable them to communicate more effectively. There are several ways by which better communication can be developed.

  1. Learning to empathise

    Very often of empathising with the speaker, one tends to sympathise with him/her. What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? Generally with sympathy one feels for the other person. With empathy, one feels with the person. In the earlier example, Ling is worried about her friend. If the mother empathises and feels her concerns, all that is often needed is for her to say “Sounds like you are worried about your friend” or “Sounds like your friend is upset”. With sympathy, what the mother might say is that “I can understand how stressful it is for you. I vcan remember going through a similar experience when I was your age.” And then the mother goes on to tell the daughter what happened to her previously, and offer solutions to the daughter’s situation, usually based on her own past experiences, rather than what is happening with her.

  2. Quiet listening

    One of the ways that individuals could improve communication is by developing the skill to listen quietly. What is quiet listening? It is the ability to quieten the mind and listen to what the other is trying to communicate without concurrently judging and adding value to what you hear.

    The ordinary mind is constantly chattering, and ruminating, carrying on an internal dialogue. By learning to listen quietly, one learns to empathise with how the person is really feeling and how to respond appropriately.

  3. Respond-ability

    In the above example instead of respoinding to what the other person really needs, Ling and her mother reacts to their internal dialogue and perpetuate the cycle of miscommunication. For example, if the mother can empathsie with her daughter’s concerns abouther friend, she can discuss this concern with Ling first, before bringing on tother issues. The daughter might then be in a better frame of mind to listen and give her mother the support that she is looking for. This is the idea of respond-ability that is the ability to respond appropriately to what each unique situation calls for.

  4. Utilising professional help

    Many family communication patterns are not apparent. They are either hidden or so ingrained that the members are not even aware of their styles of communicating. And this cycle could go on repeatedly for long periods or even over generations. It is usually when communication breaks down, or a problem arises that the patterns become highlighted.

    If people are unable to deal with dynamics that are problematic of dysfuncitonal, it is useful to consider professional help or counseling. In counseling families are often assisted in gaining insight into their “stuckness”, repeated patterns and learning new ways and skills of interacting. This includes helping family members to understand the kind of attitude they have previously adopted and encouraging them to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Another helpful technique is for people to be assisted in understanding their internal dialogue so that they can see how their way of thinking has influenced the way they feel and communicate. Buddhist mindfulness practice is a useful adjunct in this process.


Good communication is important. A breakdown or lack of communication, especially in the family context have significant implications for all family members. More effective communication can be developed through individuals learning to communication can be developed through individuals learning to communicate their real feelings, learning to empathise, listening quietly and responding appropriatel. The starting point to good communication begins with not with the lament that “he or she should take the responsibility to understand me better” but with each person taking the responsibility to develop the necessary skills to communicate and to relate more effectively.


2 responses to “Communication in the Family

  1. Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!!

    Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂

    Robert Shumake Paul Nicoletti

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s