I remember sitting at the dinner table as a little girl listening to my father talk about his workday, childhood, current events, and sports. You name the topic and he spoke about it as if he was the expert. This was my normal.
A few decades and a lot of self-discovery later, I acknowledge the value that many of my dinnertime lessons offered – like the simple importance of saying please and thank you. However, others provided little to no personal value and have been deemed by me as lessons worthy of unlearning. It’s not easy to change decades-old communication patterns, but the effort is nothing short of motivating and desirable when the outcome yields authenticity and accountability. Here are my lessons:
Lesson 1: Communicating doesn’t equal conversation
I spent many family dinners mistaking my father’s combination of storytelling and lecturing for conversation. I learned not to interject when he spoke (and say excuse me) and talk only when it was my turn. Don’t get me wrong, my dad was interested in his family, but for me, when his caring inquiries were received like that of an interrogation, I’m pretty sure my communication was more of a question and answer exchange than conversation.
Today, as a parent, family dinners are not as consistent as when I was a kid, but what remains consistent is that everyone at the table is encouraged to talk – thus, conversations ensue. I’m happy to pass along the lessons about saying please and thank you, and while I agree that it’s not acceptable to interrupt others when speaking, we’ve rectified that challenge by sitting around the table long enough for everyone to finish what they want to say.
Lesson 2: You are not guaranteed “airtime”
It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to speak at the dinner table and I certainly didn’t sit silently either. However, before I spoke, I went through an internal exercise, assessing whether sharing my thoughts would be a worthwhile effort (yes, effort). If I wanted to comment on what my father said, share a story about my day, or ask others about theirs, I wouldn’t assume that I’d be able to. I’m pretty sure my being a fast talker started at this table because when I had something to say, I said it as quickly as possible to ensure that my airtime would not be cut-off.
Nowadays, I sometimes find it challenging not to revert to old ways, mostly when I’m in situations that evoke similar feelings. Instead of fighting them, I’ve chosen to use them as opportunities for getting out of my comfort zone by doing what I know I’m allowed and entitled to do – say what’s on my mind.
Lesson 3: Opinions are sometimes presented as facts
My father was an intelligent man who spoke with a conviction that led me to believe that his words were always accurate, his beliefs were the right beliefs, and his directives were the best ways to do things. Therefore, when my thoughts, ideas, and actions fell outside the scope of his words, I often felt that my ways were the wrong ways.
Years later, my long-standing belief (not feeling) that I wasn’t wrong for being my own thinker was confirmed. As it turns out, my father expressed his opinions as facts, a realization that prompted my relearning the importance of communicating clearly and accurately. Facts can be stated incorrectly, but opinions are subjective and therefore aren’t right or wrong. I learned to speak for myself and about myself without imposing my subjectivity onto others.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time learning, unlearning, and relearning these three childhood communication lessons. Today I proudly participate in dinner conversations with my family where we each get the airtime we want and deserve. Topics of discussion are virtually limitless, and we promote the sharing of our thoughts and feelings without pressuring others to agree or conform. These are far different dinners than I had growing up.
I know the day may come when my kids want to unlearn some of the lessons I taught them. I’m OK with that, providing they relearn them in a manner that is reflective of their authentic selves. When it comes to recalling their lessons about communicating, I hope they have fun and loving memories of our many meals together, sitting around our family dinner table.