Please remember that you signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement before being granted access to this content. You have my permission to reprint this content for your personal use only. If you want to reprint or distribute this to others, please complete & submit a reprint request form. Thank you!– Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.












If we want to send messages through the windows of our house, the windows must be clean enough to see through. We want the person we are communicating with to clearly see us and understand our message correctly.

When we talk with others, we sometimes send messages we don’t mean to send. Our words are only the surface of our total message. Our tone of voice, choice of words, and even the order of our words affect the total message that others receive. We are usually unaware of these hidden messages, but others, including children, pick up on them. These hidden messages are caused by unclear communication and result in others shutting their doors (ears) to what we are saying. If we can send messages clearly, we can better solve problems that arise.



This chapter picks up where the Keep Your Cool Toolset ended, with the last step in anger/stress management, “Plan an assertive response.” Together, these two toolsets supply us with the tools for the first step in responding to Parent problems, Step C1 of the Universal Blueprint.

Step C1:  Set limits or express concerns.

  a.   Become aware of your anger/stress cycle. (The Keep Your Cool Toolset explained how beliefs about events and people actually cause our feelings.)
  b.   Relieve the pressure of the anger/stress. (The Keep Your Cool Toolset taught us about internal and external recharge styles, verbal and physical anger energy, and activities to help us regain our emotional balance.)

We complete our tour of Step C1 with the Clear Communication Toolset.


Plan an assertive response to the problem. The Clear Communication Toolset explains three important points:

  • The four styles of communication and the definition of “assertive.”
  • How nonverbal cues send hidden messages that can open or shut down communication.
  • Nearly a dozen tools for communicating our feelings, concerns, values and limits.


In Step B, the Child Problem Toolbox, we learned about F-A-X communication when we were receiving messages. Step C1, the Clear Communication Toolset, teaches us how to send clear messages. We want to remove as many hidden codes as we can and reduce any “static” that can shut down the lines of communication. We can use the Clear Communication Toolset in any of the following situations:

  • No problems. When we need a quick reminder to keep a problem from developing or worsening, we can choose tools from either the Cooperation or Clear Communication Toolsets. With these tools, children are less likely to react negatively to our requests.
  • Parent problems. We can use quick one-word reminders from the Clear Communication Toolset as a first response, if we’ve taken other steps in the past. When Parent problems persist, we can choose firmer responses from the Clear Communication Toolset.



Chapter 10: Clear Communication Toolset                                                259


  • C/P problems. When children also have a problem, disagree with us, or react negatively to our requests, we only use a clear communication statement  after acknowledging their feelings. Depending on the intensity of children’s feelings, we might use several listening responses before shifting to the Clear Communication Toolset.
  • Parent/child problem solving. When we need to reach win/win agreements, we add a few steps to the problem-solving process we learned in the Problem-Solving Toolset, to account for the parent’s part of the problem. Together, the F-A-X Listening, Problem-Solving, and Clear Communication Toolsets provide all the communication tools we need to do back-and-forth problem solving in any  in any relationship or with any group of people, including professional and personal adult relationships.

When we are dealing with Parent problems, we don’t want to say the same thing five different ways (or five times louder), hoping children will finally listen. If one step in the Universal Blueprint doesn’t resolve the problem, we move to the next step. Just remember that as we move through the steps, we can use any of the skills at previous steps. This means we can use the F-A-X Listening Toolset to Acknowledge feelings or offer a word of encouragement when we are Setting limits or Redirecting misbehavior (the next step, which we learn in Chapters 11 and 12).



To begin planning a response, we want to expand on the definitions we learned in the last chapter. There, we learned about the four styles of anger: aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. Communication styles build on these definitions, applying them to our verbal responses.


Aggressive  Communication

Aggressive communication has any or all of the following qualities:

  • Aggressive communication is firm, but not kind. Speakers say what they want, but hurt others in the process.
  • Speakers think they are superior to listeners. They believe their rights are more important than the listener’s rights (just like the over-controlling parenting style).
  • It is controlling and disrespectful. Any of the following terms could describe aggressive communication: harsh, abrupt, hostile, arrogant, tactless, impatient, inconsiderate, loud, critical, continuous, and dominating.
  • It uses aggressive body language, such as pointed fingers, pounding fists, hands on hips, and slamming objects.
  • Logical aggressive communication uses orders, commands, judgments, blame, challenges, and critical remarks.
  • Emotional aggressive communication is usually the result of stored up anger and involves childish tactics, such as tantrums, yelling, stubbornness, name calling, and arguing.
  • The goal of aggressive communication is to gain power over others—to win by forcing others to lose. Aggressive speakers want listeners, through sheer intimidation, to give them what they want. In the short-term, aggressive communication can seem to work. In reality, it is a lose/ lose outcome, because both people lose respect for each other and it damages the relationship. More problems usually occur, because listeners resent the aggressive speaker for ignoring their feelings and violating their rights. Listeners often become hostile, resistant, and argumentative. Then, aggressive speakers must use increased verbal or physical force to continue getting their way.


260                                                                                       The Parent’s Toolshop


Passive  Communication

Passive communication has any or all of the following qualities:

  • It is kind, but not firm. Speakers use a meek, whiny, questioning, or pleading tone of voice. They use indirect hints, hoping listeners will guess their wishes and voluntarily grant them.
  • Passive speakers believe their own rights are less important than the other person’s rights (just like the under-controlling, permissive parenting style).
  • The  passive  speakers’  goals  are  to  please  others  and  avoid  conflict.
  • It allows listeners to take advantage of the passive speakers. This causes both parties to lose respect for each other. If passive speakers give in, they feel hurt or resentful and often pout or whine about their loss. Other times, passive speakers grow tired of others taking advantage of them and may snap, aggressively lashing out in revenge.

Passive-Aggressive  Communication

Passive-aggressive communication has any or all of the following qualities.

  • It is neither kind nor firm.
  • It  doesn’t  assert  the  speaker’s  rights  and  violates  the  listener’s  rights.
  • The goal is to hurt others without being obviously hurtful.
  • Passive-aggressive communication uses passive body language (silence, frowns, crossed arms) to send aggressive messages (“I’m mad”).

Sarcasm is a form of passive-aggressive communication. It disguises anger, blame, and criticism with humor. Whether covering little digs with a smile or making someone the center of a joke, sarcastic people are not really being funny; they are attacking. When people see through their sarcasm and get offended by the attack, the sarcastic person often blames the person for being “a poor sport” with no sense of humor. “It was only a joke” is their way of covering up their inappropriate attack on the other person. And if others laugh, they are not only rewarded for attacking someone else, but can shift even more blame, “See, even they knew I was kidding. You’re too sensitive, lighten up.”

All forms of aggressive communication are destructive to personal relationships. They carry two implied messages, “You are dumb and you are wrong,” which is criticism and blame. They shut down communication and make conflicts worse by stirring up more angry feelings. It makes the original problem even harder to resolve.


Assertive  Communication

Assertive communication has all of the following qualities:

  • It is both kind and firm.
  • Assertive communication upholds the speaker’s rights in ways that respect others’ rights.
  • It uses attentive, responsive, and interested body language. Speakers have direct eye contact, open arms and hands, a respectful, matter-of-fact tone of voice, and friendly facial expressions.
  • It uses objective, factual descriptions that focus on the present moment and solutions to the problem.
  • Assertive communication is clear and direct. Speakers say what they mean to say.

Chapter 10: Clear Communication Toolset                                                261
  • The goal of assertive communication is to reach win/win solutions. Assertive speakers respectfully set limits (their win) while recognizing the feelings and needs of others (their win). Assertive speakers hope that even if the listeners aren’t happy about their limits, they will consider the speakers’ feelings and/or needs. Since assertive speakers address others respectfully, people listen better and are more cooperative. If others don’t immediately cooperate, assertive speakers continue responding assertively and respectfully, but more firmly.


A critical part of assertive communication is mutual respect for the rights of the people involved in the communication exchange. Briefly, all people have several basic rights in any discussion. 

The  Human  “Bill  of  Rights”

  • All people have the right to have others treat them with respect, because all people are unique, valuable, and important. People are no less deserving of respect if they are young or others judge their behavior as worse than others’.
  • All people have the right to have others treat their feelings as important and valid, even if others disagree with those feelings.
  • All people have the right to have personal opinions and values. With this right comes the responsibility to respect the needs and opinions of others who might disagree.
  • All people have the right to express their feelings, if they do so without violating another person’s right to be treated with respect.
  • All people have the right to make and refuse reasonable and unreasonable requests, with the understanding that others also have this same right.
  • All people have the right to change their minds, if they recognize their responsibility to accept the reactions of others and any negative effects that might result.
  • All people have the right to get what others have promised to give. If the promise is the result of a voluntary agreement, people can assert this right if they do so without mistreating the promise-giver in the process.
  • All people have the right to make their own decisions, with the understanding that they are accepting responsibility for fixing or living with any negative effects that might result from that decision.


There is scientific proof behind the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Studies have shown that only 7 percent of the meaning of communication comes from the spoken words. Facial expressions, posture, and gestures account for 55 percent. Thirty-eight percent of the interpretation comes from vocal qualities such as loudness of voice, rate of speech, and intonation1 . The goal of clear communication is to have our nonverbal and spoken messages match. When verbal and nonverbal information contradict each other, the subconscious mind automatically uses the nonverbal signals to interpret the meaning. It is true that mere words can’t hide feelings. So it is important that we not only learn what to say but how to say it. This prevents us from sending unhelpful hidden messages.


262                                                                                       The Parent’s Toolshop


 Negative statements can imply hidden messages.                  Positive statements send clear, respectful messages



Helpful  Attitudes

To avoid hidden messages, choose helpful words and present them with the following helpful attitudes:

Mutual respect. We have all been irritated, impatient, or troubled with another person’s behavior. Yet, we often make more of an effort to listen and talk respectfully with them than we do with our own children, whose relationship we value even more!

A Graduate’s Story. I was having a garage sale with a friend. She and her son came to our house to help us set up. My son came upstairs with an item that had just been broken. I jumped all over him! I said, “What have you been doing down there? What did you do?” He said, “I didn’t break it, Jason did.” Jason’s mother was sitting right there. Immediately, I said, “Oh well, it’s no problem.” My son said, “Oh, it’s not okay for me to break it but it’s okay if Jason did?” The other mother apologized and I apologized to my son. He was right! It made me realize that I am much harder on my own kids when they do something wrong than I am with a friend’s child. I love my kids more than anyone else in the world and will have a relationship with them for the rest of my life. So why do I treat them worse than I treat a friend or neighbor?

We often get more upset with our own family members, because we are more emotionally involved with them. Because we have so much at stake, we let things upset us more. But it is precisely because we have so much at stake that we want to make every effort to take care of the relationship.

If we treated our friends as we do our children, we’d probably lose some friends. Likewise, if we treated our children as respectfully as we do our friends, our relationships would surely improve.

 Some people react to this statement saying, “But we aren’t their friends. We are their parents!” This statement does not mean to be friends instead of parents. It means we simply conduct ourselves in friendly  ways with our children, just as we would with our friends. We may need to set limits, as we do with others who aren’t our children. They may not like the limits, but at least we aren’t being disrespectful in the process.


Chapter 10: Clear Communication Toolset                                               263


Another reaction might be, “But friends don’t repeatedly do silly, stupid things!” Let’s ask ourselves, “What if they did? How would we handle it?” Chances are, we would probably make an extra effort to be tactful and courteous to our friend. We might even overlook or ignore what the friend did, to spare a confrontation over a minor issue. When we are frustrated with our children, let’s not throw away our manners, respectful attitude, and effective communication skills.

Allow differences of opinion or respectful disagreement. Differences of opinion don’t have to lead to arguments. Discussions can become aggressive arguments, if we are bent on proving ourselves right and the other person wrong. When our attitude is forceful or arrogant, no one will value any opinion we want to share.

When we have a difference of opinion, we want to first listen carefully to the other person. Summarize and repeat the other person’s perspective before stating our own. This not only shows our objectivity, but opens the door to sharing (Step B, Child Problem Toolbox). Once we have listened to others, others are usually more willing to listen to us.

We can accept different opinions, even if we disagree. We simply accept them as different views of the facts and respond accordingly. For example, “I see you don’t want to lug an umbrella to school, since it doesn’t look to you like it’s going to rain. The paper said it was going to rain today.” Then we wait, to give children a chance to make a voluntary decision. If they choose to assert their will and the effect won’t be dangerous (here, the effect is getting wet) one option is to let them learn from their choice (Discipline Toolset). Another option is to suggest a compromise, “What if you take this small one in your backpack, just in case.” We want to pick and choose our “battles” carefully. We can often accomplish more by offering choices within limits and backing off than forcefully demanding our way.

A Personal Story. One of my father’s best qualities is his willingness to consider other viewpoints and respect others’ opinions. I can remember him listening to our records, reading our school books, and watching our television shows to learn more about us and our interests. (Now that I’m a parent myself, I realize he might also have been “screening” them!)

One of our favorite family stories is “The Peanut Butter Taste Test.” My dad and I bonded over peanut butter; we shared many heart-to-heart moments over a midnight snack of peanut butter on toast when we couldn’t get to sleep.

One day, as I helped unload the groceries, I said I didn’t like the generic brand of peanut butter my mother had bought. I liked a name brand better. My dad asked me why. I described how the other brands were too salty and coarse. He proposed the idea of a blind taste test. He said that if I could tell the difference without seeing the jar, he would be willing to switch. He blind-folded me and put three different peanut butters on three saltine crackers. (That’s the way they did it in the TV commercials.) All it took was one bite and I named which cracker had which peanut butter on it and described the difference in taste and texture. My dad was amazed and we bought that brand from then on. To this day, as a choosy mother, I still only eat that brand of peanut butter.

Avoid the “blame game.” Focus on solutions, instead. The blame game starts when someone asks questions that put others on the defensive, such as “Who did this?” The predictable responses are “Not me,” “I don’t know,” and “He did (pointing to someone else).” If we ask, “Did you do this?” most children answer “No.” (This is a setup question that encourages lying, which we cover in Chapter 12, “PO Toolset.”) If we ask, “Why did you do this?” we get a list of excuses. When we go around in circles looking for a target to blame, children can use this to their advantage. If they can confuse us or never let us find out who is responsible, we can’t hold anyone accountable. And if they’re lucky, we will get so frustrated we’ll take care of the problem ourselves. The real point to all these questions is, “There is a problem and the responsible person needs to take care of it.” This statement holds others accountable and empowers them to be self-responsible.


264                                                                                       The Parent’s Toolshop


The blame game is addictive. Once someone points out another’s faults or mistakes, the blamed person waits for a chance to even the score. If a parent yells at a child for leaving dirty dishes in the sink, you can bet the child is just waiting for a chance to point out the one time the parent does the same thing! This attitude of “someone has to be blamed for everything that goes wrong” is destructive. People become edgy and defensive. Their self-esteem goes down and they feel incompetent and uncooperative. To avoid or stop the blame game, we want to word our statements in general nonblameful, nonjudgmental ways, using the Clear Communication tools. If we don’t accuse or embarrass children, they are usually more willing to take responsibility for their mistakes or the problems that result.

If children don’t voluntarily take care of the problem and there are siblings or peers around, peer pressure can work to the parent’s advantage. The other children make sure they don’t have to take care of a problem they didn’t create. The key here is to describe the problem and that we expect whoever is responsible to take care of it—then walk away. When the parent leaves, the other children say, “I’m not going to clean up your mess!” Don’t try to force a confession, since this only leads to power struggles. Don’t punish all the children, since this breeds resentment and revenge towards the parent and guilty child. If one child repeatedly picks up the slack, notice their efforts to be nice, but explain that rescuing does not help others. People need to learn self-responsibility. The face-saving way out of the situation is for the responsible person to take care of the problem “anonymously.” If we are more concerned with solutions than blame, this approach meets our bottom line, too.

Avoid shame and guilt trips. Shame is toxic. It takes a mistake or negative behavior and turns it into one’s identity. Just because an action was irresponsible does not mean the person is irresponsible. This is how negative labels start.

Shame is also a powerful weapon that causes unhealthy guilt. Unhealthy guilt damages self-esteem with destructive self-talk, “I’m a bad person because I did a bad thing. I’ll never amount to anything.” Healthy guilt is a feeling of regret, without losing one’s self-respect and self-worth in the process. “I’m sorry. I’ll do . . . to take care of it.” Healthy guilt is usually self-imposed, whereas harmful guilt is imposed by others—to manipulate or control. When people feel unhealthy shame, their motivation and learning stops and avoidance, resistance, denial, and anger take its place. Instead, we want to describe the problem and leave character assassinations out of our comments.

Focus on the present. It is infuriating (and incredibly unfair) when people bring up past failures or predict negative future behavior. For example, “You are always late! Two years ago you made me wait for an hour and a half! You’ll never keep a job if you don’t learn how to be on time.” The real issue is not two years ago. Today, the child was late and the parent needs to count on the child coming home on time. Predictions and criticism have one sole purpose—to hurt and belittle others. They create negative labels and roles, which we learned to avoid and defuse in Chapter 4, “Self-Esteem Toolset.”

Be clear and direct. We want to say exactly what we mean and mean what we say. Double messages send two different, inconsistent meanings. Usually, people say the conflicting statements at different times, so they don’t realize they presented a no-win situation. For example, a parent says, “Help your sister with the computer. She doesn’t know how to get into that program.” Later, when the parent sees the helper taking over, the parent says, “Don’t do it for her!” The helper gets upset and complains, “But you told me to help her!” What the parent really meant was, “Teach your sister how to get into the computer program by herself,” but the parent wasn’t clear and didn’t explain the difference between helping and taking over.

“Contradictory” messages begin to say one thing, but end up saying the opposite. For example, “Sure, go to the party. I’ll just stay awake worrying about you all night.” This statement starts by saying “Yes,” but ends with a guilt trip that says, “I don’t really want you to go.” Direct statements carry one message.


Chapter 10: Clear Communication Toolset                                              265


Appropriate  Body  Language

Sometimes our body language contradicts our words. If our teen asks to borrow the car and we say “Yes” in a hesitant or irritated tone of voice, we’re implying we have a problem with the request. We can’t expect others to read our minds or body language. We shouldn’t be surprised or angry if the teen takes our words literally, “Thanks! See ya later!”

We need to pay attention to and control our body language, especially in the following ways:

  • Volume has a great impact on how others interpret our messages. If our voice is too loud, others think we are being aggressive. Too soft a voice suggests a passive comment. We want our volume to be moderate, with proper changes that express our feelings honestly yet respectfully.

A Personal Story. My voice is loud, even when I try to whisper. As a child, my loud voice was irritating and got me in trouble at school. Today, as a public speaker, my voice is an asset. When I get excited, I sound like I’m yelling, even if I’m not angry. My kids also have loud voices, so my husband often thinks we are arguing, even if we are simply excited or disagreeing. Because of our own loud voices, we tend to listen more to content than volume.

A mother, whose child was in my daughter’s first-grade class, called me during the first two weeks of school. She is a very soft-spoken woman and I’ve never heard her raise her voice, not even among a group of wild kids. She said her son was coming home from school upset, because the teacher “yelled” at him all day. Knowing this teacher, I knew she had a loud voice and spoke her mind, but not in disrespectful ways. I thought Amber would have commented if her teacher yelled a lot. I asked this mother whom her son had for a kindergarten teacher. This teacher was a soft-spoken, warm, huggy teacher. I told the mother I suspected that her son wasn’t used to being with an adult who had a loud voice. I told her I would check with my daughter and call her back if I found the case was any different. Amber, who had a soft-spoken kindergarten teacher, said this first-grade teacher was nice and didn’t yell. Loud voices can intimidate people and seem to be aggressive, even if the person’s intentions are warm and friendly.

  • Rate of speech is how fast we talk. If we talk too fast, it sends the message we are nervous or aggressive. It is also difficult to understand people who talk too fast. (When I’m nervous, I do this, too!) If we talk too slowly, people think we don’t care or are unsure of our feelings.
  • Intonation refers to the words we emphasize. Remember the example of “I didn’t say your dress looked silly” in the F-A-X Listening Toolset? Emphasizing different words can change the meaning of the same sentence.
  • Facial expressions need to match our verbal statements. If we smile and say “I’m furious,” people think we are joking. Likewise, if we frown and say, “I’m okay,” others will ask, “Are you sure?” Controlling our facial reactions is an important part of keeping our message respectful. We want to keep our faces relaxed, with appropriate facial expressions. We can use our words and a stern tone of voice to emphasize “I’m furious right now,” rather than screaming it with veins bulging. Mostly, we want our face and tone of voice to be friendly and matter-of-fact. This is how we are both firm and kind.
  • Eye contact is important if we want to “get through.” A curious “Are you listening?” look as we seek eye contact is most desirable. Cold glaring stares scare people and cause them to avoid eye contact.
  • Hand motions also speak volumes. Pointing fingers and pounding fists convey aggression and cause defensiveness. We want to keep our hands open and move them in relaxed flowing ways.


266                                                                                        The Parent’s Toolshop

  • Standing over someone with our hands on our hips is a position of authority and dominance. We are likely to get defiance in return. The ideal stance is to move toward others calmly, while speaking in a controlled way. With young children or someone sitting, it is preferable to kneel or sit at eye level. Just this position, alone, helps them be more open to what we are saying.
  • Timing is also important to get our message through. Avoid confronting or criticizing others in front of a group. It is embarrassing and humiliating. They will not only react negatively, but will probably seek revenge later for their humiliation. Ask the person to step into a private place. If we can’t leave, we can get their attention with a gentle hand on the shoulder as we whisper something in one ear. When we respect others’ privacy and confidentiality, they are more likely to respect us by listening and cooperating.