I recently read an article by syndicated columnist and distinguished pediatrician, T.Berry Brazelton titled “Use Your Words,” a now classic phrase that parents and early childhood educators use with 3 and 4 year olds all over the U.S. As I read the article, I was struck by how practical his conflict resolution process is for adults and teens as well. Here are his steps, with the word “child” omitted:
1. Stop mid conflict and hold back on action.
2. Analyze the situation: ”What’s going on? What am I doing or about to do?”
3. Ask yourself: “What do I want? What am I feeling?”
4. Express your feelings.
5. Become calm enough to listen.
6. Finally, be ready to negotiate and find solutions.
He adds that examples or short lists of possibilities may help coach children younger than three who are still mastering the ability to express themselves with words.
In my experience, it isn’t only young children who struggle to express themselves appropriately. When triggered emotionally, any of us can find it difficult to speak our truth clearly and calmly.
If we had all learned this process thoroughly as toddlers and practiced consistently in our lives since, what wonderful communication experts we’d all be as teens and adults. Some do learn this early on, but it isn’t often reinforced as we get older nor is it part of the K-12 curriculum kids are tested on.
Teens and adults have some special challenges in following these guidelines that three year olds do not.
Teen brains, especially the logic and decision making center, are still developing, so adolescents tend to react from their emotional center( the Amygdala), which makes calm assessment more difficult.
Adult brains have well developed habitual pathways for responding to high conflict situations, which we tend to follow unconsciously even if they don’t serve us any longer.
But the good news is that we and our brains always have the ability change, grow, and create new patterns. Right now is the perfect time to learn to “use your words” effectively.
A communication skills class, or work with a communication coach or counselor can help almost anyone expand their conflict toolkit and practice navigating difficult interactions with more clarity and gentle strength.