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How Active Listening Can Help Young People Communicate Better

How Active Listening Can Help Young People Communicate Better

One useful skill you won’t learn at school is the ability to communicate in an effective, healthy way. Techniques like active listening can help young people communicate better, build stronger relationships with friends and family, and so much more.

We rarely think about how we talk to other people, even though we do it all the time. Knowing even just a few principles about active listening can transform idle chats and serious talks with parents into productive conversations. Like all skills, active listening can be learnt with some practice.

Most of Us Aren’t Good at Listening

Even though you frequently engage in conversations, you may not be the best at listening. This is a widespread issue many people struggle with in their daily lives. One of the reasons it persists is that school teaches us to approach conversations from a critical perspective, like it’s a debate. It’s just one of the many unhelpful lessons schools impart onto students.

There are times and places when debate is vital, but real life usually isn’t one of those. The conversations most of us have are about understanding someone, supporting a friend, or mediating conflicts between family members. None of those situations are best served by treating them like a debate!

Another thing many people do in social situations is waiting for their turn to speak instead of digesting what the other person is saying. I understand how hard this can be, especially in groups, as I frequently struggle to know how and when it’s appropriate to jump in with my own comments. If you spend your time worrying about what you should say next, though, you’re not really listening to whoever is speaking.

Listening shouldn’t be passive. Sitting there being non-responsive when someone is talking can come across as cold or even mean. But active listening can help young people communicate better and avoid the pitfalls of passive conversations.

Use Active Listening for Better Communication

Active listening is a set of techniques that help you understand the person you’re talking to while communicating to them that you’re listening. Anyone in almost any situation can use these techniques, and they’re extremely easy to learn.

Key aspects of active listening:

  • Being non-judgemental. Your aim is to find out what the other person thinks, not to make judgements about their beliefs.
  • Asking questions. You are seeking to understand their perspective, so asking questions helps fill in your knowledge and shows them that you’re listening and taking them seriously. 
  • Seeking to understand. You want to try as much as possible to see what the other person is saying. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but you want to make sure you have grasped their views and are representing them fairly. 
  • Reflecting what the other person says. When someone says they feel angry about being left out of a project, for example, listen to them and then say: “So what you’re saying is, you feel upset because you think we went ahead without you?” This gives the person a chance to confirm or correct your understanding.

Once you and your conversational partner understand each other’s perspectives, then you can move on to discussing how to proceed in a way that gives you both what you need.

Non-Verbal Active Listening Skills

Not everything we communicate is through words. If our body language shows we’re not listening, people will pick up on that. Active listening can help us communicate here, too, by adopting simple non-verbal habits.

Some non-verbal ways to make other people feel heard include:

  • Maintaining eye contact, so they know you’re paying attention.
  • Nodding, smiling, and saying “uh huh,” to show that you’re interested and are following what they say.
  • Not interrupting people – as tempting as it can be to share your thoughts! To make someone feel heard, you need to give them space to express their thoughts.
  • Being aware of body language, both theirs and your own. If someone is hunched over with their arms crossed in front of them, they may be feeling anxious, defensive, or overwhelmed. By contrast, if you sit with an open posture, people will feel more comfortable talking to you.
  • Showing interest and being patient. Often we feel like we need to jump into every conversation to show we get what someone is saying. But there’s value to stepping back and allowing someone to talk without assuming you know what they mean. Sometimes you’ll be surprised when people take things in a different direction from what you expect.

Examples of How Active Listening Can Help Young People Communicate

Let’s consider a few scenarios where young people put their active listening skills to practice.

Lucy is in 10th grade, and she finds out that her friend’s grandmother, Rebecca, recently died. Lucy sees that Rebecca is unhappy, but she’s not sure how she can make her feel better. When they have a quiet moment, Lucy could ask Rebecca how she’s feeling. Rebecca might say that she’s sad, still numb to the situation, or angry because she feels cheated out of time with her grandmother.

To use active listening, Lucy would nod and keep looking at Rebecca to show she’s listening. She also shouldn’t be shocked or dismissive if Rebecca is not feeling the way she expected. Lucy should listen patiently and show she understands by saying something like “It sounds like you’re upset that you’re missing out on time you would have liked to spend with your grandmother, and you’re angry at the world for depriving you of that.”

Now consider a group project at school. Robert, Tom, Allison, and Chanelle are working together on a history project. Robert wants to do the project on the Civil War, but Allison would rather focus on the Industrial Revolution. They could end up arguing back and forth about which idea is better, causing a lot of stress and not making any progress.

Chanelle steps in to help. She can ask Robert why he has his preference and listen as he explains that several members of his family are interested in the Civil War, so it’s a topic he knows a lot about. Then she can ask Allison why she prefers her option and listen as she explains that it’s a topic she’s studied before and found very interesting.

Chanelle can use active listening to communicate this to the group: “So Robert, you’re saying that you have access to information about the Civil War which could help us, and Allison, you’re saying that the Industrial Revolution is a more interesting topic to you.” If they both agree, Chanelle can put a new question to the group: Should they pick a topic which is easier to access information about or which is more personally interesting?

Using active listening in either scenario won’t solve the problem, but it will help make clear what the problem is and ensure everyone feels adequately heard. Then you can find a way to solve the issue through discussion.

Active Listening Skills Take Time and Practise

You may notice when you start trying to use active listening that you won’t always get it right. Sometimes you’ll misunderstand people, or struggle to hear what they’re saying, or revert back to your old, debate-like conversational habits. But that’s okay! Failure is how we learn, and like all skills, active listening takes practise. 

Don’t worry if you find active listening hard at first, or if you make a mistake. Keep trying, and keep learning, and you’ll find it an invaluable skill for communicating. Within the span of a few conversations, you’ll see just how useful this universal skill is for your life.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.


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How Vulnerability is Strength, Not Weakness

How Vulnerability is Strength, Not Weakness

What do you think of when you hear the word “vulnerability”? Someone who’s weak and can’t look after themselves? Many people think being vulnerable is something to avoid. But in fact, vulnerability is strength, not weakness. Let me explain.

Why Vulnerability is Strength instead of Weakness

Lots of people think that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is about rejecting this idea and finding strength in being honest about how you feel. If you’re struggling in life, it’s a much better demonstration of your strength of character to ask for help than it is to pretend you can manage on your own.

When I was finishing my Ph.D., I was extremely stressed. I never had enough time, I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, and I felt exhausted and miserable. I didn’t want to burden my friends with these problems, as many of them were in grad school at the time. I ought to be able to handle it myself without asking for help, right?

Eventually, though, I realised I couldn’t continue on my own. I asked two close friends to help me out, and they did so in spectacular fashion. They took care of some of my work, brought me food, and most importantly, they supported me and cheered me up.

Not only was this extremely helpful for me, but it also strengthened those friendships. My friends weren’t annoyed that I asked for favours, and they didn’t think I was selfish. They were glad to help, just as I was glad to return the kindness later on.

By being vulnerable and admitting I needed help, I acquired both practical support and stronger friendships.

More than Just Honesty

It’s tempting to equate vulnerability with honesty. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing, though. Vulnerability is more about the reasons why we share something, not just sharing every feeling we have. A vulnerable thought is an honest thought, but just because you share that thought doesn’t mean you’re demonstrating vulnerability.

Imagine that John and Stewart are best friends, and they both have a big job interview today. John panics and comes across as a bumbling fool, while Stewart keeps his cool and ends up landing the job.

John feels it’s unfair that Stewart did so well simply because he was calm. He might say something like “Your successes make me feel like a failure. I feel worthless because of you.”

Showing that vulnerability is strength

Voicing a feeling like this certainly seems like vulnerability. (It’s honest, at least.) In reality, John is simply dumping his problems onto someone else instead of taking responsibility for his own emotions.

To transform this into a “vulnerability is strength” moment, John might admit that he has this feeling, tactfully voice his envy to Stewart using Nonviolent Communication, then understand that he has the ability to change if he wants to. Stewart might even give him some tips on how to keep calm in his next interview.

Emotional Vomit vs. Vulnerability

One common issue when people first start trying to embrace the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is that they over-correct and land in emotional vomit territory.

Emotional vomit is where you share all your feelings all of the time, to the point where every situation becomes about you. Everyone knows “that guy” who pours out their intimate secrets to someone they just met on the bus. Such behaviour is frustrating for those around you and can push people away instead of bringing them closer.

If you find yourself in emotional vomit territory, don’t worry: you’re not failing at vulnerability. It’s common to enter a kind of adjustment period where you over- or under-share as you attempt to find the right balance. It’s all part of the journey.

All you need to do is take steps to rein in this tendency to make everything about you. Don’t force yourself to share in the name of vulnerability; just make sure you aren’t hiding behind a façade of false bravery and let the sharing come naturally.

Being Vulnerable without Being Inappropriate

The key to being vulnerable without emotional vomiting is to know what’s appropriate. The feelings you might talk about with your best friend are different from what you would talk about with a teacher. Make sure that you’re sharing your feelings in a way that suits the relationship you have with that person.

Consider these questions when deciding what you should share with whom:

  • Am I close enough to this person that they want to hear about my feelings?  
  • Do we have a reciprocal relationship where we both share?  
  • Is now the right time for me to unload? Is the other person in the right mental space, or are they absorbed in their problems?  
  • Is this the right setting and the right place to have an in-depth talk about our feelings?

If you pick the right time, place, and person to talk about your feelings with, you’ll find there is great strength in vocalising your struggles. I didn’t walk up to a random friend at a party and tell them about my stress issues during my Ph.D. program. I waited, I chose a quiet location, and I talked with people I trusted.

Living a Vulnerable Life

Vulnerability comes in a variety of forms, not just sharing a hardship or internal struggle you’re experiencing. Other aspects of vulnerability include:

  • Admitting when you don’t know something
  • Taking responsibility for the decisions you make
  • Speaking up when someone hurts you
  • Telling people around you that you care about them
  • Putting yourself out there, and taking risks even if you face rejection

The key to cultivating the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is to take note of these behaviours and gently steer in a more productive direction. One conversation at a time, one moment when we stop emotional vomit before it occurs. Those are the steps to getting stronger through vulnerability in your own life.

Most of us know something in our lives we should be speaking about but aren’t. Whether it’s fear of failure, a feeling of being lost, resentment of others, or feeling inadequate, chances are there’s something you’re keeping to yourself.

Challenge yourself to be vulnerable about one thing you’ve been keeping hidden. Choose the right time, place, and friend in your life, then see how the people around you support and help you.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.


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How to Identify Passive-Aggressive Behaviour When You’re a Young Person Who Wants Quality Relationships

How to Identify Passive-Aggressive Behaviour When You’re a Young Person Who Wants Quality Relationships

Do you have friends who get annoyed at you but complain behind your back instead of talking it out? Do you have a boss who rolls their eyes when you raise a serious issue? How about family members? Do any of them sulk or give you the silent treatment when you displease them?

This is called passive-aggression, and it’s incredibly destructive. I’ve seen friends lose friends over this type of behaviour, and I’ve struggled to communicate with passive-aggressive people in my own life, as well.

It can be difficult to recognise and react to passive-aggressive behaviour. But with a little effort and the right communication skills, we can build stronger, better, and healthier friendships.

How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

The first step to dealing with passive-aggression is to identify it in ourselves and in others. We’ve all met passive-aggressive people who insist that they’re fine and nothing is wrong, all while continuing to behave in a way that makes it clear they’re angry. 

Some of these behaviours include:

  • sulking
  • doing things deliberately badly
  • backhanded compliments
  • deliberately not doing something to cause inconvenience to others
  • not taking responsibility
  • glaring or avoiding eye contact

Let’s look at an example. Gemma invites her close friends and a few of their partners to a party. She doesn’t invite Emily’s boyfriend, though. Emily attends the party alone and seems to have a good time, but in the days afterward, she gets up and leaves every time Gemma comes to sit in her group. When mutual friends ask her what’s up, Emily insists she’s fine.

This is classic passive-aggressive behaviour. Emily is angry about her boyfriend not being invited to the party, but she won’t say so out loud. Instead, she expresses her anger at Gemma through sulking and avoidance.

Gemma can tell that Emily is angry at her, but she might not know why. She feels like she has to walk on eggshells around Emily and that she maybe needs to beg her forgiveness, even though it’s not clear what she’s done wrong. 

Emily is manipulating the situation to make Gemma feel guilty and uncomfortable, instead of expressing that she’s upset her boyfriend wasn’t invited to the party. It’s easy to see how unhealthy and frustrating that can be in any kind of relationship.

We can be passive-aggressive ourselves, too. A common example is having parents ask us to help with chores such as taking the rubbish out. We might put off doing it for hours or days, waiting until a parent gets fed up and does it themselves. 

By doing this we’re being passive-aggressive by deliberately not doing a task, or doing it badly, so that we won’t be asked to do it again in future.

When Being Nice is Passive-Aggressive

Sometimes passive-aggressive behaviour isn’t obvious — even to the people who are perpetrating it.

People sometimes believe that they’re being “nice” by not voicing their unhappiness and deferring to the wishes of others. But if that niceness comes with the cost of them being snarky and sulky, and if they are only pretending to be nice in order to manipulate you into doing what they want, then that behaviour isn’t nice at all — it’s selfish.

Think of a guy who has a crush on his female friend. Instead of voicing his feelings and asking her out on a date, he keeps showing up to “support” her when she’s down or when she’s having problems with her current partner, talking about how her current boyfriend is no good, and so on.

All this time he’s actually resentful of her and is trying to win points so that she might eventually reciprocate his romantic attention. Rather than expressing his true wishes, he hopes to manipulate her into being interested in him. 

A lot of people would say he’s just being nice, even if he has ulterior motives. In reality, he’s not being nice at all; nor is he being a good friend. He’s being passive-aggressive.

It’s Time to Call Out Passive-Aggression

Once you’ve noted passive-aggressive behaviour, you need to have a conversation with the person about it

You can tell them directly that you’ve noticed they seem angry, and ask them why. Give them the opportunity to spell out what’s bothering them, and try to listen with an open mind. Sometimes people behave like this, not because they have bad intentions, but because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions or they feel like they can’t.

This won’t be easy and it won’t always work — some people won’t listen to anything that sounds like a criticism. They may become defensive, or deny their behaviour.

But still, it’s worth trying to talk to them and to be emotionally mature. People may not realise how badly their behaviour is affecting you, or they may think you don’t care about them, so taking the time to talk with them can demonstrate otherwise.

If you’re not sure how to start this conversation, sometimes it can help to acknowledge how uncomfortable you are about bringing it up. The handy phrase “I need to talk to you about something awkward” lets the person you’re talking to know that you’re not taking pleasure in telling them off or trying to make them feel bad. You acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable for both of you, but that it’s important to discuss disagreements and issues in a mature and responsible way.

Take a Step Back

Often, people won’t react well to being called out like this. They will probably feel embarrassed or defensive, maybe even angry. It can take some time and self-reflection to realise when you’ve been behaving poorly, after all.

Once you’ve called out passive-aggressive behaviour, it’s best to back off for a bit. If you want to salvage a friendship, sometimes you need to give that friend some space to reflect on their behaviour. Don’t text them often or go right back to hanging out all the time.

Once both you and your friend have some time to reflect, you may find that you’re not actually angry at each other and that your disagreement is something you can move past.

When you meet or text with someone for the first time after a disagreement, don’t dredge it up or apologise. Instead, start afresh and allow yourselves to remember why you were friends in the first place. It’s not about dwelling on what happened, but moving forward to something healthy.

It’s true that this won’t always work. Sometimes people will be so angry that you disagreed with them that they’ll never forgive you — but these people were never going to be good friends anyway.

Remember that it’s ok to walk away from these situations. You are under no obligation to put up with passive-aggressive behaviour, especially if you’ve made every effort to work it out in a mature manner.

Most of the time, though, you’ll find that with a bit of space you can rebuild a friendship after a disagreement and have healthier boundaries with each other.

Arguing Sucks

Most of us don’t like fighting or arguing with people. We’d rather everyone got along and that no one ever felt bad. Even as an adult, I find it hard to disagree with people whom I like. It’s a lot easier to talk about boundaries in principle than it is to put them into practice.

But the truth is that you can’t avoid conflict in your relationships. You can either do what most people do, which is to avoid conflict to such a degree that you end up being passive-aggressive, or you can confront conflict head-on by acknowledging it directly and getting issues out into the open.

This isn’t comfortable, and it requires you to stick to your principles and weather other people’s awkwardness. But it is the best and most adult way to deal with conflict, and it will lead to stronger relationships.

Try to be aware of when people are displaying these passive-aggressive behaviours against you, and try to honestly acknowledge when you’re using them yourself. That’s the first step in moving past this stumbling block and onto more honest and effective communication.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.


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Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

You’ve no doubt heard teachers, parents, or coaches talking about the importance of self-esteem. Maybe you’ve even had a professor tell your class that you are all special.

This kind of thinking comes from a good place — wanting to ensure that young people have high self-esteem and feel good about themselves.

But self-esteem is an unhelpful concept with no practical value. Accepting empty platitudes does nothing and leads nowhere. You’re far better off putting in the effort to learn real skills to build self-esteem from the inside out.

Let me explain.

Why We Talk About Self-Esteem Today

In the 1980s, researchers in education noticed that children who were more successful also had higher self-esteem, meaning they agreed with statements like “I am special” and “I can do anything I put my mind to.” So, the researchers thought, if we could only boost the self-esteem of all children, then they’d be more successful.

The idea became popular in schools, self help books, and parenting guides, and it’s still common today. It became so prevalent that people think they’re entitled to that empty praise, no matter what they do.

Here’s the problem: the fact that children had high self-esteem was the result of their success, not the cause of it. Trying to boost self-esteem doesn’t necessarily result in people being more successful. It might make them puff up and feel good, but that sensation is fleeting.

What is Self-Esteem, Anyway?

One problem with projects that try to boost self-esteem is they fail to adequately define what the concept is in the first place. Self-esteem is vague and covers a whole range of different ideas, including:

  • Self-confidence: the feeling that you are capable of taking on new things and doing well at them.
  • Self-worth: the idea that all humans have inherent value which should be respected and appreciated.
  • Ego boosting:  bigging yourself up to make yourself feel better.

These concepts have their place in our lives, but mixing them up only serves to confuse people. If you want to feel self-confident, for example, pursuing bravado or boosting your ego will not help you.

Self-Efficacy is More Important

If self-esteem isn’t helpful, then what is? In both my personal experience and based on the evidence from psychology research, what really makes a difference to people’s state of mind and the way they approach life is confidence.

When I say confidence, I don’t mean bragging or hollow swagger. I don’t mean faking or pretending that you have abilities that you don’t. And I don’t mean putting other people down in order to make yourself feel better.

Real confidence is the result of competence. It comes from having faced challenges in the past which you have overcome, and from feeling that you are capable of facing new challenges in the future.

Do you remember learning how to ride a bike? Figuring out how to swim? How to do long division for the first time? Before you learned these skills they seemed scary, like something you’d never be able to do. But with practice you were able to manage them.

Once you mastered those skills, they seemed easy. You felt confident doing them. You increased your level of self-efficacy in these areas and earned self-esteem as a result.

How to Build Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem isn’t something to strive towards or look for in life, it’s the result of building self-efficacy. So, what do you do to become a more capable, more confident person? There are a few key ways to build yourself up, and they have nothing to do with empty platitudes or flat praise from teachers.

Commit to a Long-Term Process

One of the reasons that building self-esteem became so popular in schools is that it’s seemingly a quick fix that can be applied to groups of people. If you build self-esteem, there’s no need to change teaching methods or purchase expensive new equipment, no need to look at how confidence develops over years. Teachers only need to say complimentary things to their students, then they’ll do better.

The truth is that building self-efficacy takes a long time, especially if you don’t feel sure of your abilities. Building confidence is a process that takes years and requires a lot of commitment.

Learn New Skills

There’s no better way to improve your confidence than to try out a new skill. Whether it’s learning a language, trying your hand at a craft, or taking up a creative hobby, there’s immense psychological value in acquiring a new skill. When there is something you start off not knowing how to do, then practise and overcome that challenge, you feel more capable of doing new things in the future.

I have always thought of myself as someone who was good at academic tasks, but bad at physical ones. I was always terrible at sports and hated being forced to exercise as a kid. When I was an adult, though, I found myself enjoying cycling, running, and lifting weights. These skills weren’t beyond me — they were just things I hadn’t learned before. Learning them and growing my skills made me feel not only physically better, but also like a more capable person.

Learning a new skill also requires that you accept your failures. You aren’t going to be good at everything straight away. You’ll learn to see that something you’re doing isn’t working, then change your approach to something different. When you are able to accept this try-fail-retry cycle, you’ll be less intimidated by new challenges and more satisfied by your successes.

Acknowledge Weaknesses

Finally, there’s one aspect of confidence which is highly underrated, and that is acknowledging your weaknesses. This might sound counter-intuitive, as most people think those who are confident only talk about what they’re good at and don’t have any areas of weakness. In reality, that simply isn’t the case.

No one is skilled at everything. Pretending that you have strengths or skills you don’t possess won’t benefit you in the long run. If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you can’t learn to overcome them to become more competent.

True confidence includes honest acknowledgement of both your abilities and your limitations. It involves knowing that just because you’re not good at everything doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It also doesn’t mean you have nothing useful to offer the world.

You Don’t Need Ego, You Need Competence

Building self-esteem has to be done from within. Bathing in the empty praise of others does nothing to improve you as a person, nor does it build self-confidence or self-efficacy. Feeling like you’re entitled to self-esteem is essentially saying you want people to tell you you’re great without earning those compliments.

Do you really want that? Do you really want to be told you’re talented, intelligent, and successful, or do you want to be those things through and through?

To be more successful in life, being told that you’re great won’t cut it. You need to go out in the world and learn skills, whether it’s food preparation or effective communication. That’s how you gain self-efficacy, that’s how you build self-esteem, and that’s how you improve your life in the long run.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.


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How To Use Nonviolent Communication To Solve Conflict With Your Parents

How To Use Nonviolent Communication To Solve Conflict With Your Parents

 It’s normal for your relationship with your parents or guardians to change over time, especially once you become a young adult and start to stake out your own individual preferences. But this process of asserting yourself often leads to conflict. It can be hard for parental figures to accept that your wishes and desires are different from theirs.

If you’re struggling to assert boundaries, express your needs (including dissatisfaction with school), or start difficult conversations with your parents, the principles of Nonviolent Communication can be really helpful.

What is Nonviolent Communication?

The concept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. It’s based on the idea that human behaviour is rooted in attempts to meet our most fundamental needs. When this fails, we often resort to violent or harmful actions out of sheer frustration.

This frustration can be seen in many types of communication, but it’s especially noticeable between young people and their parents. How many times have you felt like your father or mother just didn’t understand you? The thing is, they often feel the same way: that you don’t “get” where they’re coming from.

Bridging this gap is what Nonviolent Communication is all about.

The 4 Stages of Effective Communication

Nonviolent Communication aims to help people identify their own needs, the needs of the other party, and needs shared by both. You and your parents want what’s best for you; it’s just that you’re approaching the problem from different angles. NVC can help you work together.

Nonviolent communication consists of four basic steps:

  1. Observe facts about the world. Start by talking to the other person about clearly defined facts that you can both agree on.
  2. Describe your emotions. To communicate effectively, you need to understand how you feel about the facts you’ve agreed on. You aren’t trying to argue, you’re trying to convey your emotional state.
  3. Identify the needs and desires of the other person. Use empathy to understand the underlying reasons for the other person’s perspective and behaviours. Try to be aware of your own needs and desires as well.
  4. Propose a course of action. In this step, you suggest a way forward or some kind of compromise so both you and the person you’re talking to get what they want.

This system is extremely useful because it gives you a structure to work through when you are feeling upset, angry, or frustrated. As someone who used to have a short temper when I was younger, I found that I would often yell or argue because I wasn’t feeling heard. When I tried to communicate how I felt, I didn’t have the right words or structure to express myself, which resulted in a lot of slammed doors. Over time, though, I learned that if I could communicate more effectively, I didn’t feel as angry or frustrated. When you’re able to lay out what you feel and why, it’s much easier to stay calm and reasonable.

A key principle of this approach is that you’re not trying to “win” an argument. Instead, you’re trying to understand the other person’s perspective so you can come to a solution which works for both of you.

Assert your needs to your parents using nonviolent communication

Using NVC in practice

Let’s look at three examples of how young people could use this method to communicate with their parents over typical disagreements.

Example 1: Disagreements over education and future prospects

Emma is seventeen and preparing to apply for universities. She has always loved reading, and she wants to study English literature. But her parents think that’s impractical. They want her to study something more concrete, like business or economics. How can she address this with them?

This situation is difficult because Emma knows she will have to spend the next three years studying whatever subject she chooses. And she knows she’s most interested in English and would love to study that. But her parents are concerned about her job prospects, and whether her degree will set her up well for her future.

A bad way to communicate about this would be for Emma to get angry and tell her parents she doesn’t care what they think. Phrases like “You don’t understand me” or “You want to control everything I do,” even if they are true, are not an effective way for Emma to get what she wants.

Instead, Emma can use the framework we described:

  1. Observe facts: “You know that I’ve always loved to read. Books have been a big part of my life for a long time.”
  2. Describe emotions: “When I think about studying English, I feel excited and hopeful for the future. When I think about studying something else, I feel restless and uninspired.”
  3. Acknowledge her parents’ feelings: “I understand that you’re worried about my future and you want me to be able to get a good job at the end of my studies.”
  4. Propose a compromise: “What if I studied English as my major, but took some classes in business as well? That way, I could feel inspired by my studies but also build up skills for future jobs.”

Example 2: Poor boundaries around personal relationships

Jennifer is eighteen and has been dating her boyfriend for several months. Her father keeps asking her intrusive and inappropriate questions about her love life and the physical status of her relationship. She finds this overbearing and shaming.

Parents are not always comfortable when their children begin to date or look for romantic relationships. Jennifer’s father may think she is too young to be pursuing relationships, or that her partner is a poor choice. This is upsetting for Jennifer, who considers herself an adult and capable of making her own decisions about her partners.

A bad way to communicate about this would be for Jennifer to lay down an ultimatum, like “If you don’t stop interfering in my love life, I’ll move out of your house and go and live with my boyfriend.” There may indeed come a time when she needs to move out in order to have her freedom. But before taking that drastic step, she can try to communicate with her father:

  1. Observe facts: “You’ve been asking a lot of questions about my boyfriend recently.”
  2. Describe emotions: “When you ask probing questions, I feel uncomfortable, like I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions.”
  3. Identify needs: “I understand that you have a need to keep me safe. My need here is to learn for myself what I want in a relationship.”
  4. Propose action: “I would like you to stop asking me so many questions about him, and in return I promise I will let you know if I need help or advice about him.”
Assert your needs to your parents using nonviolent communication

Example 3: Differing values about technology

Sam is sixteen and he uses his phone all the time to stay in touch with friends. His mother thinks he spends too much time on his phone and he should be going outside instead. Whenever she gets upset with him, she takes away his phone. Then he’s left with no way to communicate with the important people in his life.

Technology is one of those subjects that causes issues because different generations see it so differently. For Sam, his phone is a basic essential for texting with his friends, looking up important information, and managing his life. For his mother, his phone is a shallow distraction which prevents him from focusing on what is really important.

A bad way for Sam to communicate his frustrations would be to invoke the past, like “You always do this” or to invoke other people, like “None of my friends’ parents do this to them.” Both of these will only make his mother defensive, and therefore less likely to compromise with him.

For the best chance of finding a compromise, Sam can try this:

  1. Observe facts: “I know I use my phone a lot. And I know you don’t like how much time I spend on it, and you think taking it away will make me more receptive.”
  2. Describe emotions: “But I use my phone to talk to my friends. When I can’t contact them, I feel isolated and alone. I feel like I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
  3. Identify needs: “I see you want me to be more present during family time, and not to be distracted by my phone.”
  4. Propose action: “If you let me keep my phone, I’ll agree to not use it during dinner. Dinner time can be our time to talk as a family. And then after dinner, I can contact my friends.”

Communication takes practice

Communication between teenagers and parents can be particularly difficult because of power imbalances. If you are under eighteen, or if you are financially dependent on your parents, or if you live in their house, then they have a lot more power to compel you to act in certain ways.

If you struggle to communicate and to make your parents see your point of view, don’t beat yourself up emotionally. It is objectively hard to make yourself heard, and it takes practice to stay calm and stand your ground in a disagreement. Growing pains like this are natural and inevitable as you assert your independence and become an adult.

As you finish reading this article, take a moment to reflect on a frequent disagreement with your parents that would allow you to practise NVC.  With this method, you might be able to reach a compromise that meets everyone’s needs.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.



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