First Things First: ‘Most generous interpretation’ can improve your relationships

Lauren Hall
Lauren Hall

It's no secret that poor communication habits are the silent killers of many relationships. Spouses, parents, children and siblings often fail to connect, express and respond to expectations and effectively work through conflict. In all relationships, it's easy for individuals to misunderstand each other, not actively listen before responding and miss verbal cues for connection.

As much as clear communication plays an important role in relationships, one method suggests the most generous interpretation (MGI) of people and their behavior plays an even bigger role in family health.

Dr. Becky Kennedy, author of the New York Times best-selling parenting book "Good Inside," suggests that you can separate a person from their behavior. "Finding the MGI teaches [us] to attend to what is going on inside ... (feelings, worries, urges, sensations) rather than what is going on outside (words or actions)."

Here's a parenting example. We had a few families over for dinner last week. My 4-year-old son enjoyed playing with all of his friends. When the night ended and everyone went home, I told my son it was time to take a bath. "No! I won't take a bath. I'm not going to do it right now, and you can't make me," he yelled at the top of his lungs. At that moment, I had a few response options: 1) Yell back with something like, "Don't talk to me like that or you'll be punished!" 2) Lay the guilt trip on with a statement like, "I just gave you a fun night with friends. You're ungrateful." 3) Make it about my emotions, saying, "It makes me really sad when you talk to me like that. I don't deserve that." 4) Use my most generous interpretation by separating his behavior from who he is and following up with curiosity. "Wow, I hear how upset you are. Tell me more."

I chose option four. My son then told me he didn't think it was fair for everyone to go home. He missed them and felt sad that they were gone. He started crying and told me he was extremely tired and didn't think he had the energy to take a bath. So, I responded, "I get it. I'm tired, too. If we don't take a bath before bed right now, then we have to wake up a little early in the morning to take one before school. It's your choice. Bath tonight or in the morning?" He chose the morning option and was asleep in about 5 minutes. He woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to take a bath before school.

Some may interpret this method as "being too easy" on kids, but Kennedy suggests it's actually framing their behavior in a way that will help them build critical emotion regulation skills for their future, and parents are preserving their connection and close relationship along the way.

"I often remind myself that kids respond to the version of themselves that parents reflect back to them and act accordingly," Kennedy says. "When we tell our kids they are selfish, they act in their own interest ... but the opposite is true as well. When we tell our kids, 'You're a good kid having a hard time ... I'm right here with you,' they are more likely to have empathy for their own struggles, which helps them regulate and make better decisions."

So how does this method work in a marriage? The next time your spouse snaps at you, ignores you or does something to make you feel unseen or unheard, use the MGI rather than yelling, sulking or blaming. Let them know you see them and want to know what's going on inside, beyond their behavior outside. Say something like, "You seem upset. Would you like to talk about it?" or "You seem distracted. Can we talk about what's on your mind? I'm here with you."

Choosing the most generous interpretation isn't easy. At the end of the day, it forces you to respond instead of react and to be curious rather than make assumptions. The connection and depth the MGI can bring to your family is worth the challenge.

Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at [email protected].

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