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Humans have communicated via storytelling for thousands of years. Prior to the codification of language, non-verbal acts such as pantomime were used to inspire, educate, and entertain. The advent of language allowed for a more refined method of addressing some of life’s most pressing questions.

Within the process of storytelling, both the teller and the listener are thought to benefit. The former is given an opportunity to share, while the latter may find comfort in the connection. Case in point: my first-ever concert was legendary blues guitarist B.B. King at the long-gone Poplar Creek Music Theater. As was typical, he opened the show with his classic tale of woe, The Thrill Is Gone. As he bellowed such lines as “the thrill is gone away from me / although I’ll still live on / so lonely I will be,” the crowd erupted with cheers of approval as the storyteller put words and melody to a universally relatable feeling.

Recent findings from UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory appear to support this idea. This research team found that when participants were shown photos of angry faces, the region of the brain that prepares us to defend ourselves exhibited increased activity. When participants were then asked to verbally assign descriptive words such as “angry” or “mad” to the images, the same area of the brain appeared to cool. In the words of UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman, “This is ancient wisdom, but now we can verify it with brain mapping.”

It appears that both “The King Of The Blues” and these Bruin Brainiac’s support the idea that emotionally-rich expressions have therapeutic benefits. So how can we apply this to our lives? It’s not as easy as it would seem. Within families, effective communication allows us to better understand and connect with those around us. Unfortunately, the chaotic crisscross of daily life often leaves little time for meaningful connections.

A few tips:

  • schedule opportunities to connect − family meals, road trips, leisurely walks, shooting hoops, board games, coffee talk.
  • actively listen − listen patiently and ask clarifying questions as both convey interest.
  • exhibit open and inviting body language − be mindful of facial expressions, eye contact, posture, tone of voice.
  • don’t rush to fix − first and foremost, aim to understand, and remember that the speaker may just want to vent.
  • be creative − use age-appropriate anecdotes, books, shows, and news stories to stimulate discussion.
  • limit sarcasm − the word for this socially popular style of communication comes from the Greek sarkasmos meaning “gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.” 
  • go deep − whether poetically (“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”) or with simple statements (“I am sad”), go beyond basic facts and speak to heart of the matter.
  • practice mindfulness − as Dr. Wickery noted in her March 2016 blog entry, self-awareness is the key to empathy, and empathy is human glue.
  • schedule 1-on-1 time − because children are unique in their approaches to communication, 1-on-1 time may empower shyer, quieter kids to open up.
  • balance activities with downtime − classic parenting book The Hurried Child by David Elkind outlines the many pitfalls of over-scheduling, one being the loss of energies and opportunities to connect.
  • capitalize on car time − the cozy confines of your car is ideal for check-ins.
  • limit TV and technology − believe it or not, families used to entertain each other!
  • “How does that make you feel?” − it’s a psychology cliché for a reason, ask it often to deepen the dialogue

For many families, communication is a skill that must be developed and updated over time. The “rules of engagement” that children learn from their families will likely follow them into future relationships. If you feel that you or your family could use guidance in this area, the internet is jam-packed with helpful resources. If you’d prefer a personalized approach, family therapists are experts in this area. Remember: with children in particular, opportunities to connect dwindle as time goes on − consider these tips to make the most of each moment. 

Written by:
James Liggett, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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