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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

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Tip #3 to Constructive Couples Communication: Yes,and!

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

In the world of Improvisational Acting, one of the rules is to keep the action moving forward, so not blocking a person’s story is key to success.  Improv actors do this by saying in response to whatever their partner says, “Yes, [that’s true! you’re right!] and….” 


Now, I have to admit that I have a reputation for borrowing trouble before it comes.  That means when someone brings up a new idea, I have been known to immediately look for what might go wrong with that plan.  I especially like the "Yes, and" tip because it focuses me on the positive.  

Listen to how a couple might use this technique to build up a warm connection between them.  Bob introduces a new topic and before jumping to why it won't work, Barbara makes an effort to agree with even one little part of it:

Bob: I really want to go to vacation in Hawaii so we can just hang out under an umbrella.
Barbara: YES, and we can drink piña coladas with little umbrellas in them.  Those are so festive!
Bob: YES, and I read a review of a restaurant right by the water that has festive colored lights.
Barbara:  YES, and I could finally try the Mahi Mahi now that I am eating fish.
Bob: Right! and I hear Hawaii has some of the most creative deserts ever.
Barbara: Oh! You know how I love deserts AND we could walk on the beach after dinner.
Bob: That’s sounds really nice.  I love the sound of the waves. 

Now, let’s assume in the above conversation that Barbara really doesn’t want to go to Hawaii.  She knows how expensive it is and is worried that such a trip will badly eat into their savings.  Going to Hawaii just to make Bob happy truly will not serve the family in the long run.  For one, Barbara is likely to get tense and tight lipped about every expense on the trip thereby ruining Bob’s pleasure and for two, the family might really need that money later if the cost of a Hawaii trip takes from their emergency fund.  

This is where the variation of “Yes, and” comes into play.  

By using “Yes, and” Barbara has allowed herself to imagine what she might enjoy about Hawaii and has built up a lot of warm feeling between Bob and her.  Now it is time to introduce her concerns.  Let’s see how this goes:

Barbara:  I love the waves, too, and AT THE SAME TIME I am worried that Hawaii will be too expensive.
Bob:  Yes, that’s true, and AT THE SAME TIME, we saved by not going away at Christmas.
Barbara:  I’m glad we’ve got some extra put away, and AT THE SAME TIME, I wonder if we could find some place relaxing that is closer to home.  I’d like to avoid the cost of a big plane flight.
Bob:  Yeah, I checked prices and it will be peak season, and AT THE SAME TIME I just get so much benefit from being near the water, it is worth it to me.

Bob and Barbara are getting close to being able to move into the brainstorming phase to find a win-win solution.  Notice that now when Barbara brings up the issue of cost, Bob slips in that he has considered cost:  He already checked the price of tickets, so it is not that he is insensitive to their budget.  His last statement also reveals how is being near the water that provides so much benefit to him.  This would be great place for them to begin generate alternative ideas that meet Bob’s need to relax near the water and Barbara’s need to not go over budget:  Tahoe? Santa Cruz? Lake Shasta?  It is easy to imagine that this warm, lively conversation will continue to move along toward a solution that works for them both.  They will end up with a good plan, but more importantly, the process of coming up with that plan will leave them feeling more loving and connected.  Talk about win win! 

Remember, communication is constructive when it keeps moving in a generally positive direction.  In his research on happy marriages, John Gottman found that couples need five positive interactions for every negative interaction in order to stay close.  What I love about Yes, and is that it builds up a lot of good will.

Now, I know some of you sceptics are thinking, no way!  

Even if I use "Yes, and" or "Yes, and at the same time," my partner will never use it in response.  Well, it's true.  If you don't teach the technique to your spouse, it might be harder to keep the flow going, but remember, in this case it is your partner who is excited about the topic, so that should make it easy.  Why wouldn't he want he be delighted you are not blocking him?

What about when you introduce "And at the same time," and your partner still shuts you down? Then you go back to "Yes, and."  Imagine that Barbara says, "I love the waves, too, and AT THE SAME TIME I am worried that Hawaii will be too expensive."  If Bob answers, "You worry too much!", Barbara needs to go back to agreeing with that before adding her "And and the same time."

Barbara:  That's true! I do worry a lot, and at the same time I want to make sure that we are free from worry on the trip.

Bob:  You don't need to worry. The trip will be great!

Barbara:  Yes, being near the water is great, and at the same time, the flights are bound to be really expensive.

Bob:  I don't want you to worry about the cost of things.  

Barbara: Right! I do love how you make all the arrangements, and at the same time, I wonder if we might find a nice place near the water that we could drive to?  

Do you see how tenaciously Barbara is holding onto her concern AND AT THE SAME TIME continues to acknowledge anything she can agree with by Bob.  Hanging on to positive while making sure that your needs get addressed (if not met) is not easy, but the payoffs are great.  

I can hear some of you grumbling, Why do I have to be the one to do the hard work? What about my partner?  Believe me, I get how you feel.  Sometimes I just want someone to agree with me, too.  I'd like to feel that I am not carrying the burden of communication by myself.  However, the beauty of all three tips--active listening, I-Statements and Yes, and/Yes, and at the same time--is that even if only one person uses them, an enormous shift occurs in the relationship.  That is how powerful they are!  

If you wait until your partner is ready to learn them, too, you may wait too long:  There may be no relationship left to transform.  And here's the cold hard truth:  Even if you don't love your spouse anymore, you will always be co-parenting together.  Using these techniques will absolutely improve your communication--and that can only be good for your kids.  

I am such a believer in constructive communication and want so dearly for you to experience the joy that effective communication can bring to a relationship that if you commit to getting coached on using these techniques and others for at least 10 sessions, I will give you a 30% discount off the regular price.  Wow!  That's a big savings!  If after three sessions you are not perfectly satisfied, I'll refund you 100%. Get started by signing up HERE for a free 20-minute consult.  

Want more tips for kids and couples?  Get my blogs and newseletters  HERE right in your inbox.  

I Love My Spouse, but I Hate Parenting with Him: TIP #2 for Constructive Couples Communication: I-Statements

Elisabeth Stitt

 

How has it been going with Tip # 1--active listening?  Did you miss it? You can catch up HERE.


With Tip #2--I Statements--we create room for conversation, but instead of just listening, we learn to express our emotions so our partner knows what is going on inside our heads.  

Have you ever sat in a busy place like an airport or a café and made guesses about people?  I love doing that.  People always fascinate me, and I like to tell stories in my head about the people around me.  In the process I make a lot of assumptions about who they might be.  I look at their clothes, how they are standing, their expressions, who they are with, what language they are speaking.  I take it all in and I start making guesses.  Well, I may make a game out of it, but we all make assumptions, all the time--with strangers and with the people we love.  We tell ourselves stories about people's motivations, as if we could see inside their brains.  And perhaps just as harmful, we assume that others can see in our heads, too!  

Lots of times we make positive assumptions--like when my husband makes hot tea and brings it to me, I assume he loves me and is thinking about me--but often times we make negative assumptions about what our partner is thinking or feeling without doing a reality check. Here’s an example:  Barbara is washing the dishes while Bob sits on the couch reading.  As she furiously scrubs, she might be seething thinking, “It’s not fair that I’m working and he’s just sitting there relaxing.”  She might go on to tell herself, “He’s okay letting me wash the dishes alone because I’m home all day and he thinks I don’t do anything all day.”  

In reality, Bob might not be aware of her at all.  He might just be enjoying his good book.  Or he might have his own internal dialogue going. He might be thinking, “I am so stressed out from work.  I just need 30 mins. to veg out.  I wish she’d stop doing the dishes and relax for a bit!”  Fear of an argument can make it hard to reasonably ask our partner’s motivations, but what are we supposed to do with all our hurt or hostile feelings?

The technique I want to tell you about today is called an I-Statement.  It is used for introducing a difficult topic in a gentle way.  Here is an I-Statement Barbara might have used to express her negative emotions about the dishes:  

Addressing Bob, she would say, “When you sit on the couch reading while I am doing dishes, I feel resentful and put upon because I am working and you have leisure time.”  

Let’s look at each part.  The I-Statement starts by identifying one concrete situation.  It goes on to express a feeling (in this case resentment) and the underlying cause of the emotion (Barbara would like to be resting, too, but feels she cannot until the dishes are done).  Notice what the I-Statement does not say: It is not used for broad general character defamations (like “You’re so inconsiderate!") and it does not go over past history (as in “You always let me do the dishes and never help"). It does not go on and on with a lot of detail.  

What are some other times you might feel upset with your spouse?  Perhaps she comes home late without calling.  Perhaps he leaves to do a Costco run without telling you, leaving all three children in your care.  Perhaps she makes plans for the family without asking you first.  The list could go on and on, right?  In each of these cases, you could use an I-Statement to start the conversation that communicates your distress.  Here are some sample statements you might calmly use with your partner. 

When you came home late without calling me, I felt worried because I imagined you had had an accident.

When you left me with all three kids without telling me first, I felt furious because I've been point person on looking after the kids all day and I need a break.  

When you said yes to our going to dinner at friends without checking with me first, I felt ignored and insignificant because I didn't get a chance to weigh in with my desires or opinions. 

Of course, the feelings and the reasons behind the feelings could be different than the ones I have suggested here.  The important part is that you are expressing your emotions rather than expecting your partner to guess them.  At the same time, you are delivering your message in a way that is not an attack. Tone is, of course, still important, but if you stick to the formula--because you are mentioning a specific event and sharing only your own feelings and not your partner's motivations--you greatly avoid the chances of anger, sarcasm, or bitterness taking over.

Got it?  It can help to think through some possible I-Statements before you actually start using them.  You might even want to write them down.  

Once you have delivered your I-Statement, then what?  At the very least, you will have expressed your emotions and that feels good.  But let's suppose your partner gets hostile and tears into the one part of the statement she can defend.   In response to your comment, "When you came home late without calling me, I felt worried because I imagined you had had an accident," for example, your partner may mitigate how late she was, arguing it was only 15 minutes.  That's fine.  If that is true, use it in your I-Statement response: "When you were 15 minutes late home without calling me, I felt worried because I imagined you had had an accident."  Maybe now your partner will say you are being ridiculous!  Use that, too:  "Even if it was ridiculous, when you came home late last night, I felt worried."  As long as you you keep sticking to the truth of your feelings, your partner will not be able to argue around them.  It helps to picture your spouse and run through the conversation through your head as you imagine it will go, so you can think out your responses.  

On the other hand, if you and your spouse can train each other, you can keep the conversation going in a peaceful vein.  Let's go back to Barbara and Bob and the dishes.  When Barbara uses her I-Statement to tell Bob how she is feeling, what should Bob’s response be?  Well, this would be an excellent time for some Active Listening.  He might say something like “You’re really frustrated that you are doing the dishes alone.  It doesn’t feel fair to you.”  By not defending himself, Bob gives Barbara a chance to off load her emotions and really tell her whole story.  At the end of the active listening, he might ask Barbara, “What would you like me to do?”  Now if Barbara says, “It would make a big difference to me if you would help me with the dishes,” Bob is likely jump up from the couch and grab a dish towel. Not having felt attacked, he will have listened with an open heart.  Most spouses do want to support each other if they are asked in a way that assumes the best in them.  

As with active listening, I-Statements are a skill you can use just from your side of the conversation and you will still have an effect on the health of relationship.  Find a few places this week to give them a try.  

Let me know how it goes.  Not signed up for my newsletter?  Sign up HERE and you won't miss my favorite communication tip of all coming next week.  

My Spouse and I Just Can't Seem to Get on the Same Parenting Page

Elisabeth Stitt

I hear that from clients all the time.

In fact, the first time I heard it was from my sister complaining about my brother-in-law.  Now, my brother-in-law is just about the nicest, most generous man you can imagine.  I love being a guest in his house because the moment I walk in the door, he makes me feel like a queen who should get her every need and desire met.  Great qualities for a good host!  But unchecked, meeting a child's every desire is not healthy--especially when Hank would come in the room and contradict what my sister, Allie, had just said. 

The scene might go like this:

Kids:  We want waffles for breakfast!

Allie:I know you do, but we've run out of eggs, so it is going to be cereal this morning.

Kids:  But we want waffles!

Hank:  What's this? You want waffles?  Of course, you can have waffles!

Allie:  Hon, we have no eggs, and I've just told the kids it's cereal instead.

Kids:  But, Daddy, we want waffles!

Hank:  You want waffles?  We can do waffles.  I'll run to the store for eggs.

Lucky kids, right?  Yes, in the sense that they feel seen and heard and important, but kids really do need to learn that sometimes they don't get what they want.  Sometimes they have to make do with an alternative.  Most importantly, however, kids need to know that their parents are in agreement and that they won't undermine each other.  

My sister and brother-in-law are a great example of how qualities which are attractive in a mate--who wouldn't want to be made to feel like a queen?--are not always the ones you want in your child's father or mother--unless toned down to the common ground  Allie and Hank were eventually able to work out.  

And I get it. I've been there, too. Here's an example.  (It may seem petty, but the fact that it drives me nuts is exactly what makes co-parenting so hard.)  My husband is not a conserver of natural resources.  In other words, he leaves on every light in the house and he lets the water gush forth while shaving (Did I mention we live in drought-stricken California?).  In the interest of marital harmony--and perhaps because I am secretly envious of his confidence that the world will provide him all the resources he needs whenever he needs them--I had long since learned to roll my eyes at him rather than nag him to turn off the lights and the water.  

The day came, however, when I called to one of the kids to turn off the lights when leaving the house, and he looked at me blankly and said, "Why? Daddy never does."  You know in the cartoons when the character's face turns beat red and steam comes out of his ears?  Well, that was what I am sure I looked like. That innocent question was like waving a red flag in front of my face.  I'm afraid in the scene that followed I was not at my best.  

So, how do couples find common ground, so they can provide a united parenting front?

First, let's consider why issues with our spouse feel so much more charged when our children are involved.  Here's the thing.  We care about parenting so very, very deeply that it is hard to be reasonable when it comes to our kids.  It is often a shock when our parenting partner has a very different idea about what is appropriate.  So, yes, it is hard.  On the other hand, Penn State reported earlier this year in a 7-year longitudinal study that “Parents who have better co-parenting relations feel more supported and confident, less stressed and depressed and they show more warmth and patience with their children” (Indiver 19 January 2015).  That reminds us how very important it is to work on the issue, even when it is hard and really uncomfortable.  

But don't despair.  I have some tips for improving communication with your parenting partner.  Each of the tips is designed to increase the good will between partners--to prepare the soil for the really sticky points.  

TIP 1: ACTIVE LISTENING

 Active listening refers to listening with the purpose of allowing one’s partner to reveal what is on his mind.  But more than that, it really means listening without judgment and wanting to know not just the facts of the story or issue but what is in the speaker’s heart

Here’s how to do it:

 *      Listen: Don’t comment, disagree or evaluate.

 *      Use your body: Eye contact, head nods, brief comments like “yes” or “uh-huh.”

 *      Prompt information: Tell me more.  What else? What is important about that?

 *      Repeat back: Recap the gist said and wager a guess at the emotions present.

 I recommend practicing this first with topics that are not controversial.  For example, you might ask your partner about a happy childhood memory or a person he admires.  Your main purpose in using active listening is to open up space in the relationship.  By really digging into your partner’s feelings and motivations first you activate your own empathy and secondly you gather a lot of information about what is important to your partner (which provides you useful data when you are looking for places to find happy solutions that will work for you both). It feels good to be listened to.  Think back to early in your relationship.  Chances are you listened to your partner hanging on her every word.  Just giving your partner that rapt attention again can bring those loving feelings he had when he courted you.  

Once you have mastered active listening with noncontroversial topics, introduce a topic that could become more touchy like “What is a lesson you would really like our kids to learn?”  This can be a scary question because your spouse might say something that really throws you for a loop like, “I’d really like the kids to learn to hang glide.”  Your comfort levels might immediately go into high alert.  What?! Teach the kids something that dangerous?!  What kind of responsible parent lets his kids up into the sky attached to a giant kite?!  

If you can take a deep breath, however, and settle down into some active listening, you are likely to learn something really interesting.  Perhaps your spouse did it as a young man and it is the most alive he has ever felt.  Now he wants his own kids to experience that intense appreciation for being alive.  Perhaps he felt closer to God.  Perhaps he was terrified doing it but having done it, nothing in life has ever been as scary, and he wants his kids to know that facing their fears will serve them later in life.  

Imagine how different you would feel listening to your spouse share such a meaningful experience and how touched you would be that he wants his children to experience something that meaningful, too.  Listening Actively does not mean you have to give in to your children doing something you really disapprove of but having listened, you are now in a position to thoughtfully suggest an alternative. 

I know some of you are saying no way could I get my spouse to start talking like that, much less to learn to listen actively.  That's okay!  You will find a shift in your relationship, even if you practice active listening only from your side of the fence.  I want you to go and try it.  The next time your spouse says something--about the kids or otherwise--that gets your dander up, instead of getting angry (or sullen), start getting really, really interested.  I challenge  you!  And then leave a comment here or email me at elisabeth@elisabethstitt.com about how it went.  You can also email me for a copy of my Constructive Couples Communication Webinar.  

Not on my mailing list? Sign up HERE for Tip #2 on constructively communicating with your parenting partner.  

How Do You Keep the Balls in the Air? 5 Tips for Juggling Your Life

Elisabeth Stitt

Let's face it.  In the old battle between Quality Time vs. Quantity Time, ask any kid and he will say that he wants both.   But where does that leave us today?  More families than ever have two parents being paid for work that takes them away from the family resulting in outsiders spending as many or more hours with the child than the parent.  How is a parent to be the parent he wants to be in this situation?  There is no easy answer, but below are some parenting choices that can help:

1.  Take the time to be on the same parenting page as your partner.  When families are stressed and there is very little flexibility, it is more important than ever that parents have taken the time to articulate their key values and priorities.  Clearly, with less available time, something is going to have to be left out.  It will help if parents are at least confident that they are fostering the lessons they think are most essential.

2. Let clear routines move your time together along smoothly.  Parents who feel they are not getting enough time with their kids are sometimes over indulgent to make up for it.  As a short cut to establishing closeness, they let the child make all the decisions about what the family is going to eat, watch, when they'll go to bed, etc.  That might buy short-term good will, but it never works in the long run.  Inevitably parents' patience runs out and there are meltdowns when the parents now tries to insist the child go a certain direction.  With clear routines--including routines for fun-, silly- and down-time--children know what to expect.  They don't get to the edge of feeling out of control and they don't feel the need to fight their parent.  Life unfolds in a regular rhythm.  

3. Be deliberate in creating traditions or habits that will bring you together as a family.  I know a family with four boys that has a routine before they go out the door.  Mom or Dad stands at the door and does roll call!  Each boy shouts HERE energetically.  Then the parent goes down the list of what is needed for that outing (Gone potty? homework? lunch?) and after each inquiry each boy replies in best military fashion CHECK!  I have seen this rountine in action, and the boys love it.  It makes them feel like a troupe ready to go on a mission all without feeling nagged and without the drama of showing up at school without your homework, your lunch, etc.

4. Figure out what are the key pieces you need in your day/week to keep your sanity.  I used to race from my classroom at my school to my daughter's after school care. I was going on the theory that it was better to have me nearby--say, while correcting papers at the kitchen table--than it was to give her my undivided attention.  This didn't work.  I was harried and distracted when I first got to her and once we got home that stack of papers was always pulling me away from her.  She finally had the wisdom to tell me to do my correcting at school and then LEAVE the papers there.  When I went to pick her up--even if it was a couple hours later than I would have before--I was 100% hers. 

5. Be willing to reevaluate your work/life balance every six months or so.  Here's my final tip.    Most children would be happy with you standing at the ready 24/7:  Most jobs could easily fill our every waking moment.  Therefore, balance is something we reach for:  It is not something we get and then keep with no attention to it. The key is to remain open to change.  The sitter who was right for your infant, might not have the energy to keep up with your toddler.  You might choose to work fewer hours for a while so that you can join the co-op preschool down the street.  The school-aged child who has been sailing along might get the teacher from hell this year requiring you to go into work at dawn so you can be there to pick her up at the end of the day.  Maybe you have been a stay-at-home parent and that has felt pretty good, but over time your longing for meaningful work in your field is making you short tempered and impatient.  In that case, it might be healthier for your children to see less of you but to have a thriving, full-filled parent when you get home.  Only you can know what is best for you and your family.  There is no magic formula other than to keep checking in with yourself and what is really most important to you.  Working with a coach will help get you that clarity.