Communication is child’s play – or is it?

Young child sitting on a toy fire engine

As the whole world (or at least a large part of it) went baby-mad last week (“welcome to the world, Prince George!”), I’ve been giving some thought to communicating with babies and children. As the mother of a 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter, a large part of my time is spent communicating with her and has been ever since she was born.

So what are the key things I’ve learnt and how can I apply that to working with organisations to improve the way they communicate?

It is possible to communicate a lot non-verbally. From communicating that a baby is safe and loved by giving it lots of cuddles, to showing a pre-schooler that you know perfectly well that they are being naughty by raising an eyebrow at them, to showing that your 5-yr-old is important to you by putting away your Blackberry and concentrating solely on them, there are plenty of ways in which we communicate things to a baby or small child without putting it into words.

And, of course, they communicate a lot before they learn to talk – crying to show you that they are hungry or upset, gesturing at your sandwich with clasped and unclasped fingers to show that they would like to have a bite, throwing themselves on the floor in frustration when they can’t do something. As their parent you have to get used to ‘listening’ to their gestures and ‘hearing’ what they’re telling you.

Lesson to apply now: all effective communicators use non-verbal communication to strengthen their message and ‘listen’ to the non-verbal communication of those around them.

Children learn how to communicate by copying those around them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will copy others word for word (although sometimes they do), but they do notice the unconscious ‘rules’ about communication – for example, my mum tells me that even before I could use recognisable words, as a baby I would babble for a certain time and then stop and look at her, making it clear it was her turn in the ‘conversation’. This was something I had picked up from observing the adults around me taking turns in conversations. And if you shout a lot at or around your children, they will learn that that’s how you communicate and will shout a lot themselves.

Lesson to apply now: effective communicators learn how to communicate by copying those around them who are getting the results they want to see, by having regular team meetings, for example, or using stories of the people whose lives they are changing to motivate and inspire their team.

(Note: I do realise that some children take longer than others to grasp this talking one at a time ‘rule’, but those that want to be successful in getting a snack, for example, soon realise that they need to wait their turn and not make adults cross by interrupting.)

If communication between you and your child is not working well, they will express their frustration, anger and confusion in other ways. You spend a lot of time wishing that your child could talk ‘because that will make things easier’ and once they start, you have to take notice of their views and opinions. Although I’m yet to experience the joys of parenting a teenager, I suspect that this will be particularly true then. Some of the most successful parents I know talk about ‘keeping the lines of communication open’, so that no matter what, their child knows that they always have somewhere to turn before they start behaving in extreme ways.

Lesson to apply now: if communication between people who work at an organisation is not working well, the frustration, anger and confusion that occurs as a result will play out in problematic non-verbal ways.

So there you have it – it’s not scientific, or tested in any way, but this is my experience of learning to communicate with a new person and how that knowledge can be applied to organisational communication.

Until next time

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