Family Communication Skills are ideally taught during the first formal 3-way family meeting or they can be the primary focus of a subsequent family meeting.
Detailed descriptions of the 3 types of statements comprising communication skills in A-CRA are described in CBT, along with the CBT skills techniques of Instruction, Supervised Practice and Feedback. Review this material before conducting a family communication skills session, and use it to flesh out the practices outlined here.
This practice element on Family Communication Skills involves integrating a clear and specific request for change in the context of these more generic communication skills.
Take a few minutes to introduce the importance of communication skills in facilitating positive change in relationships. Acknowledge to the caregiver that even if we are good communicators in other situations, our skills often go out the window in conflict situations.
Assess the quality of communication between the caregiver and the adolescent. Ask each person to describe what communication is like when they talk about (i) non-problem topics and (ii) problem topics. Ask them to describe a real-life situation that happened recently (e.g. Tell me what happens when you try to talk together about …”. For those situations that do not go well, listen carefully to understand the dynamics that typically unfold between them. To make sure you understand the situation and to demonstrate you are listening you may want to sum up the situation and ask clarifying questions (e.g. “Let me see whether I understand this … “) .
Ask the young person and caregiver to recall the areas of change that they each identified after they completed the Relationship Happiness Scale. If some time has passed check that changes in these areas of the relationships are still high priority goals.
Formulate requests for change – Making requests and negotiating for behaviour change are fundamental skills in relationship management and repair. Within the relationship domains selected as priority goals, ask the caregiver and young person each to formulate a request for change by the other person. Help them to frame the request in a way that is brief, positive, specific and measurable. Instruction and feedback are useful techniques to use at this stage. Explain what a good request for change looks like, provide examples that are similar to the desired statement, and ask questions that help shape the statement towards a good format. At this stage the young person and caregiver can write down their request statements or verbalise them to you the practitioner. Spend a few minutes working quietly alone with each person.
- Examples of well formed requests for change from a caregiver to a young person include: “I would like you to prepare a meal for the whole family two nights per week”; “I want you to try attending literacy classes at least once a week for one month”; “I want you to stay home with the kids on Wednesday nights so I can have one night out a week”.
- Examples of well formed requests for change from a young person to a caregiver include: “I want you to go out or do something quiet with the other kids on Saturday afternoon so I can play guitar with my friends in peace”; “I would like you to attend literacy classes as well so that we can practice reading together”; “I want you to come and pick me up from basketball practice on Monday nights so that I can actually get there more often”.
Review communication skills – Before preparing to verbalise the requests out loud to each other it is a good time to review communication skills. By the time you have a 3-way face-to-face meeting with the young person and their caregiver, it is very important to have spent some time alone with the young person teaching communication skills. Ask the young person if they are willing/able to outline 3 types of statements comprising basic components of communication skills. If necessary spend some time practicing communication skills. Ask the young person to think of the last time they practiced these skills and to demonstrate these statements now.
- An understanding statement – in which the speaker demonstrates that they understand the needs and wants of the other person, and express empathy with the feelings that person may have.
- A partial responsibility statement – which indicates that the speaker is willing to accept at least part of the responsibility for creating and / or solving the problem.
- An offer of help – which is a direct offer of something that the speaker can do to help solve the problem.
Verbalise the requests for change – Help the young person, then the caregiver to verbalise their request for change in the context of communication skills in a way that facilitates listening, reciprocity, and negotiation. Make sure that they are speaking to each other, and not to you. Use modeling, praise, and other feedback to help shape the statement towards what is wanted. When we integrate requests for change with an ‘understanding statement’, a ‘partial responsibility statement’ and ‘an offer of help’, the other person is more likely to feel that their issues and concerns are understood, and then they are more likely to listen and be open to considering our request. In order to demonstrate this neither person is allowed to say ‘no’ to the request, however, they do not have to say yes either. The idea is to demonstrate that negotiation is possible, and to practice the skills that facilitate it.
- Example of caregiver speaking to young person: “I understand that it’s important for you to spend time with your friends, and I can see that the other kids in the house make it difficult for you get quiet time at home. I’d like to help find a way for that to happen more. But I need some ‘me’ time as well so I would like it very much if you could stay home and mind the kids just one night a week on Wednesdays”.
- Example of a young person speaking to their caregiver: “I understand that the other kids make a lot of demands on you and that you are tired. I know I haven’t helped out much lately and that’s because I just can’t stand the noise. If I can get a little bit of quiet time I might have some energy to help more. It would really help me if you would take the other kids out on Saturday afternoon so I can play guitar with my friends in peace”.
Shaping is an important process to use here. It involves reinforcing successive approximations towards achievement of a complex goal. The first few attempts may not have all the necessary parts but we identify and reinforce the parts that are done well, identify the bits that are missing and encourage their incorporation in subsequent efforts.
Negotiation – Requests for change preceded by an expression of understanding, a partial responsibility statement and an offer of help are built to facilitate negotiation. The combination of these statements recognises the need for give and take from the very beginning. If the young person and the caregiver both agreed to the requests expressed in the statements above, then a neutral observer could readily accept that a fair exchange has been made. In reality further discussion will usually be necessary for both parties to explore the pros and cons of what is being asked of them. Help the young person and caregiver to explore their perceptions and concerns in ways that continue to demonstrate understanding and partial responsibility, while maintaining clear expression of their own needs.
TAKE CARE: Ensure that negotiation remains focused on the domains of the relationship that were prioritized in goal setting, and which are the subject of the requests for change. Do not allow this particular discussion to drift to other areas of conflict. A danger at this stage is that communication will regress to old negative patterns. If this happens use some of the techniques for Keeping the Interaction Positive.
Set homework; Ask the young person and caregiver to identify another issue within their relationship where each desires change, and to schedule a specific time to meet and practice verbalising requests for change using the communication skills that they have just learned.
NOTE: These procedures for teaching Communication Skills in the context of family meetings are drawn from the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA), particularly Procedure 11: Caregiver-Adolescent Relationship Skills in the A-CRA Manual (Godley et al, 2001; p 156-169).