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updated: 1/20/2012 2:41 PM

Make sure you're being heard and understood

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If you're around 2- and 3-year-olds, you know the routine. It starts off with a few words jumbled together: "Megoaudduugginpaybagyad."

In the case of my son, these words were always delivered with a good deal of energy and emotion. My job as a parent was quite clear -- I had to translate the above, expressed in a dialect spoken only by my son, into logically and grammatically correct English and respond appropriately.

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If I did a good job, I was rewarded by a smile and a "Tango, Dad!" If I was inattentive or inaccurate in my translation, I usually received either a mild ("Daaaad!") or severe (temper tantrum) reprimand.

Oh, in case you're wondering, the correct translation was "I want to go out with the dog and play in the back yard." Even those of us who are linguistically inept soon become masters of our children's language.

Why do kids do this? Believe it or not, it is not just to give us parents a hard time or to pick a fight. It is, in fact, an important part of them learning how to communicate. Children have two goals when they engage us in such a conversation.

First, they are looking for help with basic vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar and sentence structure. When we translate their attempts into "proper" English, they are listening closely and will try to imitate our speech more closely in the future.

Second, they are trying to be heard and understood. They are trying to communicate something -- a question, a request, an observation, a story. When they feel heard and understood, they experience a sense of mastery and accomplishment. They also feel important to us.

Even if we say "no" to a request, it is important to them that they have been heard and understood. In fact, sometimes I think kids' temper tantrums over a parental "no" have as much to do with not feeling heard and understood as with not getting their way.

Fortunately, as we grow up we master our common language to the point where we can use it without constant corrections to our vocabulary and grammar.

Unfortunately, we also begin to assume that just because we can use the language, we are being heard and understood -- that's not always the case. It seems to me that there often is a real difference between what we think we are saying and what other people are actually hearing and understanding.

We've probably all experienced it. We are talking about something important -- giving directions, exploring a new idea, sharing a difficult emotion, confronting an issue of conflict -- and it seems like we are just not getting our point across.

And the more important our message, the more likely it seems we have problems communicating it. It is as though we were all 2 and 3 years old again and speaking different dialects of the same language. We can come close to knowing what we are saying to each other, but we still are missing something.

Just as children get frustrated with not being heard and understood, we, too, feel frustrated when we seem to be speaking well but communicating poorly. Perhaps we can learn something here from our children. Their insistence that we repeat what they have said is really there way of asking, "What did you hear me say?" or "How did you understand me?" Not bad questions.

I think that in our adult conversations, especially the important ones, it would be a good idea if we stopped every so often and just said, "I'm not sure I'm being very clear. What do you hear me saying?" or "I know this is a bit complicated. What do you understand about it?"

Of course, we need to be careful not to insult our listeners with such questions, but if we are careful how we phrase them they can help us determine whether what we think we are saying is what they are really hearing and understanding.

And, I guess, whether we are 2 or 52, that is what language is all about, isn't it?

• The Rev. Ken Potts' book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available through retailers.

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