Clarifying Spoken Communication between Parent and Teenager

What works best is keeping communication declarative and operational

For this blog entry, I am indebted to psychologist, Dr. John Narciso (his 1975 book, “Declare Yourself”) for introducing me to the ideas of declarative and operational communication. What follows is my take on these concepts when working with the parent/teenager relationship.

Manipulative and declarative communication

Begin with the notion that people, be they adult or adolescent, like to get what they want in their relationships. To varying degrees, they are anchored in their own self-interest. Although often asking, explaining, demanding, or negotiating for what they want from each other, they can sometimes, particularly when blocked or in conflict, resort to emotional manipulation to get their way.

How does emotional manipulation work? Testimony to its usage might be:

“She can’t resist me when I ….”

“He gives in when I….”

“I can soften them up by ….”

“She can’t stand it when I express…”

“I can win our disagreements by acting….”

“To change their mind I appeal to their feelings of…”

What’s going on?

Manipulation can be a tactic of emotional extortion to win one’s way, often after explanation or argument have failed to convince. Consider a few common examples of how one person can play upon another person’s (the target’s) emotional vulnerabilities to persuasive effect.

  • · Flattery can exploit the person’s need for admiration. Now the target says: “I want your compliments, so I’ll give in!”

  • · Affirmation can exploit the person’s need for devotion. Now the target says: “I want your love, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Obligation can exploit the person’s need for duty. Now the target says: “I want to honor what I owe you, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Fatigue can exploit the person’s need for relief. Now the target says: “I’m tired of arguing, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Suffering can exploit the person’s readiness for guilt. Now the target says: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Conflict can exploit the person’s discomfort. Now the target says: “I can’t stand it when we fight, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Resentment can exploit the person’s intolerance of un-forgiveness. Now the target says: “I don’t want you holding this against me, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Helplessness can exploit the person’s pity. Now the target says: “I feel sorry for you, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Threat can exploit the person’s need for safety. Now the target says: “I dare not oppose you when you yell, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Promises can exploit the person’s hope. Now the target says: “I want things to get better, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Accusation can exploit the person’s avoidance of blame. Now the target says: “I don’t want to be at fault, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Displeasure can exploit the person’s intolerance of anger. Now the target says: “I don’t want you mad at me, so I’ll give in.”

  • · Sorrow can exploit the person’s fear of disappointing. Now the target says: “I don’t want to let you down, so I’ll give in.”

Manipulation finds so the ways. When emotions are put to extortionate use, the truth of honest feelings can be corrupted. And now distrust can be aroused in the targeted party. For example, based on past experience, the parent rejects the teenager’s expression of true devotion: “You’re only saying you love me to get something you want.” And now sincerity of the young person’s attachment is disbelieved. What a loss for them both!

“Get my way techniques” is what Dr. Narciso called these emotional ploys. Tempting to use for adolescent and parent alike, they can have persuasive power when direct discussion fails to convince. However, they are always costly.

His advice for a well-working relationship: be declarative and not manipulative. Do not use emotional extortion, and do not give into it if the other person chooses to act that way with you. Remain declarative. Simply say: “Let’s state what we each want or do not want to have happen, explain why, and then work something out we both can live with.” Expect the other person to be declarative with you.

Operational and Categorical Communication

Dr. Narciso also believed in the pitfalls of categorical communication – statements of a general nature meant to designate some aspect of human conduct. For example, I could ask a group of parents at a workshop what major ways they would like their adolescent to act with them at home. Among the common categorical answers that everyone might agree upon might be: responsible, respectful, and reliable.

Then I would ask the Narciso question: “Could one of you join me up front and do responsible, and do respectful, and do reliable with me?” No takers. Why not? The problem is that categories lack specific meaning. Too vague, they often have little applied use. So, often when parents are in a hurry, for example, they will use the shorthand of categorical communication in the often mistaken belief that the teenager will know exactly what they mean, when the young person often does not.

To be better understood they need to operationalize their choice of language by talking in terms of actions, behaviors, happenings, and events. For example:

“By responsible I mean that you will tell me the truth;”

“By respectful I mean listening and not interrupting when I’m talking;”

“By reliable I mean you will keep your promises and agreements with me.”

This is why parents need not to tell their nine-year-old early adolescent to “clean up” her or his room. Agreeably, the young person may comply with the parental request and then after ten minutes declare: “Job done!” However, on inspection the parent finds all manner of belongings snuck beneath bedcovers, shoved under the bed, piled in the corners, and thrown into the closet. “This isn’t cleaned up!” they object. “You’ve just rearranged the mess!” But to the young person’s eye: “It looks clean to me!”

So now, after the fact, the parent has to translate their categorical instruction. They do so by using operational language to specify what they meant. “By ‘clean up’ we mean: trash (stuff to be thrown away) in the waste basket, play objects put back on shelves, dirty clothes in the hamper, clean clothes in drawers or in bins or hung up, and no hiding disorder where it can’t be seen.”

Of course, the young adolescent can be confusingly categorical too, like when complaining to parents: “You’re not being fair, friendly, or fun to live with anymore!” Now the parent needs some operationalizing of terms to understand specifically what’s on the young person’s mind.

In sum: when communicating with your adolescent, as John suggested, try being declarative and not manipulative; being operational and not categorical. Clarify your communication this way, and you’ll encourage your teenager to do the same with you.