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Deborah Tannen, PhD - Georgetown University

To escape from today's ever more complex, impersonal and overwhelming world, most of us turn to our families for comfort and a sense of belonging. But, all too often, we find ourselves frustrated instead of comforted by the contact we seek with those closest to us.

When we talk to family members, we sometimes are met with criticism and judgment rather than approval and acceptance. Searching for love, we find disapproval instead.

By studying the ways family members talk to each other, we can understand how these conflicts develop. We can learn how to work things out, rather than continue to work each other over.


When we talk to someone, our conversation echoes with meanings from our past experience with each other and with other people. Nowhere is this more true than within the family. We react not only to the meaning of the words spoken (the message), but also to what those words say about the relationship (the metamessage).

Metamessages are unstated meanings we glean based on how someone spoke—tone of voice—phrasing—old associations we brought to the conversation. The message communicates word meaning, but the metamessage yields heart meaning. A crucial step in breaking the gridlock of frustrating conversations is separating messages from metamessages.

Example: Whenever Esther's mother tells her, "I only say this because I love you," Esther knows that the next statement will be a remark about her weight. The message delivered is simply an observation about Esther's weight, but each party hears a different metamessage. To Esther's mother, the metamessage is, "I want you to improve because I care about you." But Esther interprets it as, "My mother is criticizing me again."

One of the most powerful ways to improve conversations and the relationships they reflect is to reframe the message -- to interpret it in a different way.

Example: When her mother comments about her weight, Esther can decide to view it as her mother's way of showing caring and trying to help, rather than considering it criticism. Or her mother, realizing the remark will sound like criticism, can decide to refrain from offering such advice.


Being in a family means being closely connected with the other family members. When you are close to others, you care what they think, and so you have to act and speak in a way that considers their needs and desires. This controls your actions, limiting your independence.

The way we talk to each other reflects both of these constant struggles for connection and for control.

Within the family, our close feelings often allow us to relax the rules we apply when dealing with outsiders. This can lead to problems in communication.

Example: Radio talk show host Diane Rehm was with her husband, John, at a meeting when one of the attendees made a good suggestion. John told Diane, "Write that down." She responded, "I'm not your secretary, but I'll be happy to make a note of it."

When they left the meeting, Diane told John, "You know, I felt that you were talking to me as if I were a secretary."

John replied, "I think you're overly sensitive about that."

Diane, who in fact had been a secretary before they married 40 years earlier, responded: "You're right. I am overly sensitive, and I would appreciate it if you kept that in mind. If you had asked me, 'Would you be kind enough to write that down?' I would have reacted differently."

Later that evening, at their dinner table, Diane stood up and said, "Well, I'm finished." John said, "You just did the same thing I did to you this afternoon. I'm sensitive to the fact that I wasn't finished with my dinner yet."

Both Diane and John wanted their partner to have sensitivity to the other's feelings and give the same courtesy they would show to a stranger they respected. Because they were able to talk calmly to each other about their feelings, they learned from the experience and resolved to be more careful in the future.


As adults, we feel we should be free from our parents' judgment. At the same time we still crave their approval. Meanwhile, parents often still feel impelled to judge their children's behavior as adults the same way they did when they were young. Having children who grow up well puts a stamp of approval on their performance as parents.

Example: When my father was a young married man, he once visited an older female cousin he did not know well. After a short time, the cousin remarked, "Your mother did a good job," crediting his mother instead of him.

Flip side for parents: If their adult children have problems, parents feel that their life's work of parenting has been a failure and fear that those around them will think the same way. This gives an extra intensity to parents' desire to set their children straight, but it may blind them to the emotional impact their corrections and suggestions have on their children. When parents and their adult children live far apart, as they often do today, their brief visits often turn into replays of childhood or adolescent parent-child relationships. Common result: Explosive conflict.

How to defuse the adult parent-child conflict: Bite your tongue. An older woman I know enjoys an excellent relationship with her two married-with-children daughters. Her secret for success: "When my daughters tell me they plan to do something that I think is a bad idea, I don't comment on it unless they ask my advice. And whenever I visit one of my daughters' homes, I behave like a guest."

As a parent, you always have a special power over your children. Wield it with discretion.