Did I really just say that?

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Sometimes we can be such lousy communicators…

PlaygroundOne sunny Saturday morning – quite rare in Dublin – I took my children to the playground. We were at the zip line when a little girl went to complain to her mother about her brother because he didn’t wait for his turn and skipped the line. There were another six kids in front of him. The mother was at a distance talking to someone. I could make out her response to her daughter’s complaint: “Tell him he’s in big trouble”. She faithfully delivered the message to her brother, who smiled and took three turns as the others were waiting for theirs behind him.

What I found really interesting was that the mother barely look at her little girl; it seemed almost as if she didn’t even leave the conversation with her friend.

I asked myself what “You’re in big trouble” could mean, and what was that big trouble? As it turned out, it meant nothing. As they left the lady bought an ice cream to their children a few minutes later (unless she punished him severely upon arriving home).

I detected a few elements in that statement:

  • The words the mother said had nothing to do with the message she communicated.
  • There was no real message to the boy. He wasn’t in big trouble. In fact, the mother didn’t care what the boy was doing.
  • The real message was to the daughter: Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m talking?


A further reflection took me to the conclusion that the boy knew his mother so well that, after detecting an empty threat, he didn’t even pay attention to the message. The real loser in this scenario was the daughter, who felt more frustrated and angry after than she did before.

Boy 1: Mother 0: Daughter -1.

It’s hard to get a complete picture of what the mother is like just by that one action, but she did herself no favors, for sure. If she always manages similar scenarios similarly then surely she undermines her own authority as well, which creates a vicious circle.

It’s easy to fall in the trap of communicating the wrong message when you don’t choose your words carefully and don’t support what you say with your body language. Here are a few examples of things you may do or say and their real meaning:

When you say: “You’re in big trouble!” (when delivered directly to the child, not like in the scenario above) – What you communicate: “You did something wrong, and I don’t bother to take the time to explain you what it exactly is, but I want you to know that I’m not happy with you.”

When you say: “I’ve had enough of you” – What you communicate: “I’m annoyed with you now, and I’m venting my frustration, but I have no clue how to help you overcome what I think your problem is. Actually, I don’t even know what your problem is. I’m incompetent.”

When you say: “I’m gonna deal with you” – What you communicate: “I’m frustrated and I need to let out some steam. You should feel ashamed and I want to frighten you, but I don’t really intend to do anything.”

When you say: “You’re such a (something negative, such as lazy boy, clown, etc). ” – What you communicate: “Instead of helping you overcome some difficulty I’m gonna qualify you. I want you to understand that you need to change something, and by telling you’re a clown (or anything else) I want you to take concrete action steps to make that change.”

When you say: “Why can’t you behave like a normal boy/girl?” – What you communicate: “You’ve really annoyed me now, but I don’t have the resources nor do I want to take the time to help you. Anyway, I shouldn’t be spending my time to help you grow in maturity.”

When you say: “Big deal!” – What you communicate: “Come on! Don’t be such a complainer. You’re making so much fuss over this? Don’t you realize that this is only important to you?”

When you continue looking at your phone, computer, keep watching TV, read on etc. as your child comes to you asking for help or asking a question (the above story falls in this case). – What you communicate: “Why do you think you’re so important that I will pay attention to you when you need me? Your issue is not a priority now.”

When you fail to keep your promise to your child because something else comes up. – What you communicate: “I only keep my promise made to you if nothing more important than you comes up. You’re not a priority now.”

There are numerous other phrases and actions that communicate the wrong message. You have to be brutally honest to yourself in order to realize when you’ve used them and after a while you will develop a sense of seeing those moments coming when you’re about to use them. This is your weapon and secret sauce, because you will be ready to use the right words and align your actions with the message you want to deliver…

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