The Three Conversations

The tweet that inspired this blog post

Image text:
“Every time you communicate with someone, three conversations happen:
1. What you said
2. What you meant
3. What they heard
Figure out how 2 and 3 diverge to fix a lot of miscommunication.”

I say this a lot, and I wanted to talk a bit today about what this means for parents. A lot of “disobedience” by children comes from them not understanding what is expected of them. Below is a scenario that I have heard countless times in my office.

Parent: I need you to wash the dishes.
Child: Okay.
Child: *Continues engaging in a preferred activity, such as watching a show or playing a game*
Parent: Why didn’t you listen to me? Wash the dishes!
Child: I was going to!
Parent: You never do what I ask!

Now both the parent and child are upset, and the parent will probably punish the child for not listening. But if we look at the three conversations happening, we can see that this is an issue of miscommunication rather than defiance.

The parent said, “I need you to wash the dishes,” but they probably meant, “I want you to stop what you’re doing and wash the dishes right now.” The child heard, “I need you to wash the dishes at some point, so for now you can keep playing your game.”

The child said, “Okay,” but did not immediately jump to the task. They meant, “Okay, I will get to it later because I am not ready to stop what I’m doing.” The parent heard, “Okay, I am going to indicate that I hear you but then do whatever I want.”

Transitions are hard. Transitions away from preferred activities are even harder. Kids need support with these transitions, which is why I recommend giving a five-minute warning (or series of warnings, depending on the child’s needs) before having to end a preferred activity.

When a child seems to be ignoring a request, it can help to stop and consider: Was I clear and specific with what I wanted? What does my child need in order to do what I asked? What are they telling me that I might not be hearing?

Kids are still learning how to communicate. (Most adults are still learning how to communicate.) They don’t always have the words for why something is difficult or why they aren’t ready to do something. Keeping the three conversations in mind can help you approach these interactions from a teaching perspective rather than a punitive perspective, which will allow your child to learn how to communicate rather than being punished when they do not fully grasp what they did wrong.

(Happy Halloween!) Photo by Daisy Anderson on

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. Her clinical interests are varied and include child and adolescent therapy, TF-CBT, rural psychology, telemental health, sexual and domestic violence, psychological assessment, and mental illness prevention. Dr. Marschall presently works in the Child and Adolescent Therapy Clinic at Sioux Falls Psychological Services in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she provides individual and family therapy and psychological assessment to children, adolescents, and college students. She also facilitates an art therapy group for adolescents and college students with anxiety and depression. Dr. Amy Marschall is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Telemental Health.

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