"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." - Ludwig Wittgenstein
Picture this: a quintessential American scene with parents in the kitchen, yelling toward the adolescents in the other room. The parents are convinced the kids don't listen. The kids are sure their parents don't understand them. And the grandparents? They're chuckling at the irony of it all.
The Universal Struggle of Communication
Let's be honest—no family has ever claimed to have perfect communication. It's a constant work in progress, a never-ending cycle of misunderstandings and reconciliations. But here's the kicker: families don't struggle with communication any more than we do with colleagues, friends, or even strangers at the DMV. However, family communication comes with its unique set of challenges:
1. The Longevity Factor
These are relationships that don't just last for seasons or phases; they span decades, even lifetimes. This longevity provides a rich tapestry of shared experiences, deepening our bonds and solidifying our love. But let's be honest, it also offers a fertile ground for complexities and annoyances to flourish. Take Uncle Joe, for instance, who has managed to be late for Thanksgiving every single year for the past 15 years. It's almost an endearing tradition at this point, but also a subtle reminder of the challenges that come with long-term relationships.
Consider this: In 1900, the average life expectancy for Americans was a mere 47 years. Fast forward to today, and we're living much longer, which means families are staying together for extended periods. While that's generally a positive development, it's not without its complications. The longer we share our lives with the same set of people, the more intricate the web of emotions, expectations, and histories becomes. Both the beauty and the difficulty of family lie in this enduring closeness. The stakes are high, the relationships are deeply ingrained, and the dynamics are ever-evolving.
2. The High Stakes
In families, the stakes are not just high; they're astronomical, touching on matters from life and death to every nuanced issue in between. While navigating conversations about death and money is universally challenging, within the family unit, these topics are simply inescapable. In professional settings, we might have the luxury of skirting around conflict or tiptoeing through the minefield of financial discussions. We can even procrastinate on making tough decisions in many areas of our lives. But when it comes to family, there's no such luxury of avoidance or delay.
Family life often forces us to confront these challenging issues head-on, whether we're ready or not. Decisions that carry significant emotional, financial, or even existential weight have to be made. And they have to be made collectively, often requiring a level of vulnerability and openness that can be both liberating and terrifying. It's not just about deciding who gets grandma's antique clock; it's about navigating the complexities of shared assets, generational expectations, and deeply rooted emotional ties. It's about making choices that could affect your family's dynamics for years, if not generations, to come. It's not easy, but then again, nothing that truly matters ever is.
3. The Generational Divide
Families are a melting pot of generations, each with its own set of beliefs and attitudes on a wide range of topics—from mental health and political views to gender identity and life goals. In the United States alone, we're currently sharing our homes and lives with six distinct generations:
The Silents, born 1925–1945
Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964
Gen X, born 1965–1979
Millennials, born 1980–1994
Gen Z, born 1995–2012
And the still-to-be-named cohorts born after 2012
Each generation has its unique perspectives on issues like drug and alcohol use, income, self-confidence, trust, and materialism. With humans living longer and technology driving rapid changes, the generational divide is widening faster than ever. That's why it's crucial for everyone to educate themselves about the experiences and viewpoints of their family members across these generational lines.
Jean Twenge's book, "Generations," serves as an excellent primer for understanding these generational nuances. It's not just about acknowledging the differences; it's about fostering empathy and open dialogue. In a world where misunderstanding is often the norm, taking the time to understand the generational experiences within your own family is more than just enlightening—it's essential.
Creating a Common Language
Given the intricate dynamics and high stakes involved, family coaching emerges as a vital tool for fostering a common language within families. This isn't just about semantics; it's about enhancing Social Capital, a cornerstone for family flourishing and overall well-being. Social Capital is the art of making collective decisions that serve the best interests of the family unit. It's about consistently navigating complex choices in a way that puts the family first. Achieving this level of cohesive decision-making becomes nearly impossible when family members speaking different "languages," whether those are languages of values, expectations, or purpose. By establishing a common language, we lay the groundwork for more effective communication and, by extension, healthier relationships.
Whether you're the cooks in a bustling kitchen or the cast of a Broadway play, effective teams communicate through a variety of methods—made-up words, shorthand, inside jokes, and even body language. Engaging in workshops with a family coach offers a structured environment to develop these unique communication mechanisms within your household and extended family.
A Way Forward
TFM's approach to helping families find a common language involves eight workshops in the first 12 months. This becomes a foundation, a baseline, a way to begin the process of improving communication—not overnight, but incrementally, over time. We're ready when you are. If that's not your cup of tea, consider starting a family book club. It's a fantastic way to build a shared language and can be done either in-person or virtually. Audiobooks? Absolutely, they count as real reading. Here are three non-fiction books that are engaging, discussion-worthy, and eye-opening for all generations:
- Generations by Jean Twenge
- Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
- Drive by Daniel Pink
- The Good Life by Robert Waldinger
3 tips for running a successful family book club:
- Schedule a specific date for the book discussion and appoint a facilitator to guide the conversation. If some family members are geographically dispersed, consider hosting the meeting virtually. This not only keeps everyone on the same page but also fosters connection among family members who might not see each other often.
- Allow ample time for everyone to read the book—especially for those who may not be in the habit of reading regularly. A 6-8 week timeframe is generally ideal. Remember, the objective here is not just intellectual growth but also enjoyment and shared family time.
- Maintain a sustainable pace. This isn't a sprint; it's more of a long-distance relay where the baton is passed from one generation to the next. Aiming for 3-4 books a year over a decade is far more valuable than burning out quickly because the book club starts to feel like another job on your to-do list.
By adhering to these guidelines, you're not just reading together; you're building a lasting family tradition that enriches your collective Social Capital. In a world where misunderstanding is the norm, communicating at a high level is a superpower.