The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on May 6, 2001 · Page 60
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 60

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Salina, Kansas
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Sunday, May 6, 2001
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Page 60
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hat is it about families and fighting? Like love and marriage, it seems you really can't have one without the other. No matter how happy and healthy a relationship with a loved one is, arguing, disagi-eeing, misunderstanding, locking horns, knockdown-drag-outs — fighting by any name — is a fact of family life. Hot-button topics like money, raising kids and ti-ust are as pertinent today as they were a century ago. But now those conflicts are being played out in a society that seems more than ever prone to violence and less willing to take responsibility for its actions. While most families are not as volatile as, let's say, Tony Soprano's (HBO's beleaguered mob under- her latest book, appropriately titled, / Only Say This Because I Love You (how many times have we heard that preceding a particularly painful putdown from a loved one?). A linguist by training, Tannen is famous for her work on the powei-ftd dynamics of language, especially between men and women. But my respect for Tannen is based on something more personal than a book. A good friend of mine, a no-nonsense, fearless female who is finishing radiation treatments in her battle with breast cancer, told me that Tannen's 1990 best seller, You Jiist Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, saved her then-20-year marriage. "The book helped my husband and me learn how to communicate and ultimately keep our marriage together," she said. 'And now, eight yeai-s later, I cannot imagine how I would've gotten thi-ough chemo and radiation if we hadn't stayed together." Armed with this proof that sometimes words do speak louder than actions, I sat down to dinner with Deborah in New York recently to explore how communication effects conflict within today's families. tion, which glamorizes fighting and makes it look fun, to family relationships, and Tannen finds an emotional pressure cooker. Eamily represents a safe haven and a sense of belonging. It's a place where you can be yourself and be loved for who you are. But this sense of acceptance can also be a license to criticize — or worse. A parent doesn't think twice about telling an adult child how to raise the gi-and- children; the working wife has no problem thanking the stay-at-home dad for making dinner — and inteijecting that it wasn't quite healthy enough.; FVom the caring comes its nasty cousin: criticism. "^,Vhen family members say 'I only say this because I love you,' and follow up with a critical statement, the only message you hear is often the criticism," said Tannen. In short, if members of your own family find you lacking, how could anyone else I Like the happy ending in Alice and Brad's story, you can also find techniques to fight fair. Here, we consult with one of America's foremost experts on , w , , ™ experts w how to keep your home life happy with the thoughtful turn of a phrase. boss who struggles with two "families;" see story, page 10), I have yet to meet one that is conflict-free. Fighting with family is especially wrenching — and seemingly inevitable. Wthin the family is where we are the most needy, and the most vulnerable. "What wife doesn't know how to bring out the woi*st in her "better half?" Which child hasn't brawled with a sibling, or with a pai'ent he or she deemed "embarrassing" or "out of touch"? What in-law is meddle- free? When it comes to family feuding, most of us can agree that the vei-y people we turn to for comfort can be oiu- biggest soui-ce of fi-ustration. Why do we fight with the people we are supposed to care about the most? Is there a way to avoid fighting or at least minimize the damage? This is the subject I recently sat down to discuss with Deborah Tannen, the internationally acclaimed expert on communication. I was looking forward to hearing her reseai-ch on how what we say can make or break family relationships, which she explores in 8 USA WEEKEND • May 4-6,2001 Since Tannen studies the influence of speech on behavior, I asked her about the language of family fighting. So much of it — "sibling rivahy," "teenage rebellion" and the ongoing "battle of the sexes" — is expressed in war terms. Is it possible that these fightin' words influence our behavior? Tannen believes they do, noting that within Westr ern cultiu-e, we approach everything as a battle or wai-. Whether it's outrageous daytime talk shows like JeiTy Springer's that encourage audience members to taunt guests, or Chris Matthews-style news "analysis" with assorted guests duking it out over politics, the same rules apply: He who is loudest and most aggressive gets tiie most air time — and comes off the winner. Ours is a nation of fighters, not listeners, unable to resolve a disagreement, determined to win. Apply this culture of confronta- pOENNIEHUGHfS secrets and talking about the most personal aspects of their lives. Tannen says that women's "rapport" talk vs. men's "report" talk promotes the miscommunications that so often prompt arguments between them. Men — focused on getting to the point of a conversation — are also power-oriented when it comes to fighting. Once engaged, they want to win. This means not admitting any wrongdoing, and by no means apologizing. Women, on the other hand, want to be listened to and understood. They also want a fight to end with an apology. I know I cannot get past a disagreement without one, whether it's fi-om me or the other person. Research shows that the apology is a huge point of contention between the sexes. Tannen agrees it is a good tool to end a fight. But insisting on it can also make things worse. "Women feel the apology sends find you acceptable? Perhaps that's where the term "killing with kindness" really comes from: Meaning well doesn't always end well. Another critical factor fueling family fights is nature •— that is, what Tannen sees as the natural differences m the way men and women communicate. While there are exceptions to every rule, the research is clear: For women, talk is the ultimate intimacy. Men, however, don't feel comfortable talking about then: feelings and tend to speak like a report card ("How was my day? B-I-"). Men's friendships are created by domg things together. Women ci*eate bonds by sharing Cover and cover story illustrations by l^u Brool<s for USA WEEKEND the message 'I am remorseful,' and therefore gives them a reason to think this apologizer won't repeat the behavior," she said. "Men, however, don't think an apology is necessary, and often view the mere request as a humiliation tactic or power play" She adds that it's related to the way we gi-ow up: Gii-ls say "I'm sorry" as a courtesy; boys equate it with having to "say uncle," where giving m is a public humiliation. That doesn't mean men can't change. I gi-ew up in a household where my mom expected an apology, and my dad, king of the castle, always complied. Women, Tannen says, can also leai-n to look for other verbal or even physical cues from the man or boy who indicates remoree. en and women may generally communicate in two different dimensions, but once kids enter the pictui-e, an entu-ely new dynamic must come into play. Parents have to put aside their different, even opposing styles and present a united front in a disagreement with their child. Parents should also keep in mind that, just as nat- m'al gender instincts vweak havoc on communication styles, it can also be a factor in conflict with their kids. Don't expect boys to be as open as gfa-ls about why they ai'e angi*y or hurt. Tannen says you should tiy to get boys to discuss their anger in the way men communicate with their finends: by shaiing an activity that takes the concentration off the conversation. "Gfoing for a drive or cleaning the cai- together allows the non-communicative child to feel more comfortable talking." In the tension-filled teen yeai-s, pai-ents can avoid a lot of fights by listening more and criticizing less. Even if the end result is still "no," Tannen notes that teenagers who feel then* parents have tiied to imderstand their point of view instead of immediately telling them that theii* ideas ai'e wong are less combative. S o what's the seci-et to keeping the peace or at the least from going to pieces when it comes to fighting with family members? Not sm-piis- ingly, "There ai-e no simple answers," said Tannen. There ai-e, however, a few key elements to keep m mind to work things out without totally working each other over: <^ Be careful how you give suggestions or criticisms. Vei-y often, advice or a suggestion can make the person at the receiving end feel inadequate. Tannen suggests that before you criticize, ask yom-self w% you need to and whether you have the type of histoi-y where you ai-e both open to it. % Fight fairly. That means avoid sai-casm, insults, exaggeration or name-calling, all guai-anteed to escalate the fight. Be dii-ect about what the problem is, stick to the topic and avoid di-edging up past trou- Continued on next page USAWEEKEND-May 4-6,2001 9

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