by Jenny Mathews, contributing writer 

I remember many of the basic lessons taught in my USU Interpersonal Communication class: make eye contact, use feeling statements, pay attention to body language or non-verbal communications and be “present.” Since I took that class, many new ways to communicate have emerged: email, Skype, texting, social media, etc. Perhaps one side effect of these new methods is the increased risk of miscommunication, and sometimes, especially when I’m trying to get through to my older kids, there are holes in my “bag of tricks.”

Actions speak louder than words. Recent neurological data informs us that parents have even more influence on their child’s communication than we thought. “Psychology Today” author, Jim Taylor Ph.D., writes that new information on the “mirror neuron system” (the area of the brain that is activated children simply watch people) is implicated, among other things, in healthy vs. underdeveloped communication skills. The model of your communicative style will have an impact on your child’s. They look at what you do, who you are and how you make them feel and use those as a basis for determining how they react to what you say. Your child will see your efforts to be an authentic and vulnerable communication partner as an indicator of how important it is to you.

Pictures are worth MORE than 1000 words. The identification and use of alternate forms of non-verbal communication is a pretty easy way parents of millennials can “up their game.” Kids use images in emails, texts and social media all the time. Exploring what emotions an image evokes is a wonderful way for anyone to further develop emotional literacy and become a more effective communicator.

I used to feel childish using them, but have since realized that emoticons can also be effective non-verbal cues. In an article written for the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Franklin B. Krohn suggests that within certain guidelines, using emoticons to convey non-verbal types of communication — smiles, frowns, tears or steam coming out of your ears — may be an appropriate option. The framework for his guidelines is based on the recipient’s generation. For example, “Traditionalists” (those born before 1946) should not be sent emails or texts with emoticons while “Millennials” (those born after 1980) can effectively be sent communications with generous use of emoticons.

Anytime stories. Author, scholar and public speaker, Brene Brown says her number one life hack is the use of the following five words: “The story I’m making up…” In her own words, “Basically, you’re telling the other person your reading of the situation — and simultaneously admitting that you know it can’t be 100 percent accurate.” For example, instead of arguing with your daughter about not following through with a responsibility, you would say, “The story I’m making up is that your time texting your friends is more important than the contribution you’re willing to make to our family.”

By sharing the “story” that their behavior has created in your mind, you project your desire to better understand them. When the desire to better understand the other person comes across as more important than your desire to be right or protect your own interests — or you allow yourself to be vulnerable — you create a bandwidth of trust between yourself and that person. As a bonus, it even works well in emails and texts.

Communication trolls. Have you ever looked at an email or text over and over again as you try to read if there’s something they’re not saying? A communication “troll” is a hidden emotion that lurks behind your verbal and non-verbal cues that makes them harder to read. Maybe it’s an emotion you’re not willing or able to fully acknowledge or perhaps you’re ashamed of. These trolls seem to exist now more than ever with modern text, email and social messaging. I admit I am guilty of this.

Recently, I was annoyed with someone about something they had said. When that person texted me about something completely non-related a few days later, I hadn’t let go of that negative emotion and my initial response was short and terse. Once I recognized that I had planted this “troll” in the text message, I was able to let go of it and send another, less cryptic response that even included a smiley face. Often just giving our emotions a voice (even if we’re the only one who hears it) can help us address them more appropriately and avoid unnecessarily confusing others.