The command-and-control approach to parenting has in recent years become less and less effective. With the emerging generation living in a world of globalization, new technologies, and changes in how culture creates value plus the ever increasing electronic social interaction with others have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of parental relationship.

What will take the place of that model? Part of the answer lies in how parents manage communication with their children—that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their family members. Traditional communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more relevant. Most important, that process must be conversational.

I arrived at my conclusion while reviewing a recent research project that focused on the state of organizational communication in the 21st century. Over more than two years professional communicators as well as top leaders at a variety of organizations—large and small were interviewed. The type of organization varied, blue chip and start-up, for-profit and non-profit, provincial and international. To date this research firm have spoken with nearly 150 people at more than 100 organizations. Both implicitly and explicitly, participants in the research mentioned their efforts to “have a conversation” with their people or their ambition to “advance the conversation” within their organization. Building upon the insights and examples gleaned from this research, I see a model of parental leadership that we could call “domestic conversation.”

A smart parent today, needs to engage with their teens in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, parents should initiate daily practices and create new cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility within the family relationships. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a busy and fragmented family to function together instead of dealing with separate lives living under the same roof. By talking with your teen, rather than simply issuing orders, a parent can retain or recapture some of the qualities— of the early years of child rearing when the young person was just starting out and ‘discovering’ their family and place in it.

In developing a conversational model for parenting teenagers, we identify two key doubled elements that reflect the essential attributes of interpersonal conversation: 1) intentionality & intimacy  2) interactivity & inclusion. A parent who through conversation-based practices need not (so to speak) dot all four of these i’s. However, as the research indicates, these elements tend to reinforce one another. In the end, they coalesce to form a single integrated dynamic family conversation. For the sake of length this article will only deal with number 1) intentionality & intimacy.

Intentionality means “Getting Close”
Personal conversation flourishes to the degree that family members stay close to each other, figuratively as well as literally. Conversation, similarly, requires parents to minimize the distances—cultural, attitudinal, and sometimes spatial—that typically separate them from their teenagers. Where conversational intentionality prevails, those with decision-making authority seek and earn the trust (and hence the careful attention) of those who live under their care. They do so by cultivating the art of listening. To most whether a father or a mother this is the most challenging. Learn to listen and not just speak with your teen directly and authentically. Physical proximity between parent and child isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential. What is essential is mental or emotional proximity. Conversationally adept parents step down from their authoritative perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their teen.

Intimacy begins by “Gaining trust”
Where there is no trust, there can be no intimacy. For all practical purposes, the reverse is true as well. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner, and any discussion that does unfold between two people will be rewarding and substantive only to the extent that each person can take the other at face value.

This intimacy distinguishes conversation from long-standing forms of top down communication to up & down. It shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas. It’s less controlling (which feels risky at times) in tone and more casual. And it’s less about issuing and commanding orders than about asking and answering questions.

Conversational intimacy can become manifest in various ways—among them gaining trust, listening well, and getting personal. Parenting has never been easy but these ideas should help and remember it’s never too late to start the conversation.



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