The best conversations are those where it is safe to speak your mind, where the outcome is a win for all concerned, where you hear and understand while being heard and understood…

The Wise Son
“DMZ, Dad!” declares my son, before handing me a letter from school implicating him in some sort of mischief. I glance at the letter, open my mouth to bark an angry question, then catch myself. I can’t “legally” handle this situation that way. The Wise Son has invoked his right to leave the realm of confrontation and enter the realm of calm reasoned discussion. (Darn it!)

And so we enter into that realm…

The Zone
“DMZ” has become an extremely helpful communication and relationship practise for my sons and me.

For those interested, aDMZ (or Demilitarised Zone) is literally the frontier or boundary between two or more military powers (or alliances), where military activity is not permitted. Often the Demilitarized Zone forms a de-facto international border. It is an area where disputes and requests are to be pursued by peaceful means such as diplomatic dialogue.

Sorry for the lengthy definition but I hope you already see the analogy. The best conversations (for anyone) are those where it is safe to speak your mind, where the outcome is a win for all concerned, where you hear and understand while being heard and understood. This is especially true at home with our families.

In my home, the “DMZ” is a conversation devoted to open communication and negotiation without the presence of weapons (such as sarcasm, accusations, or door-slamming) and without the threat of repercussions for what’s said.

In establishing this kind of neutral territory, the adult leads the way and uses it for two purposes only:

  1. To hear and to be heard
  2. To seek win-win outcomes.

Because of this practise, my boys and I stay in touch with each other (avoiding that awful feeling of “I don’t know you anymore”), we take some of the anxiety out of more difficult topics of conversation, we have a release valve for our frustrations, and we renew trust and affection.

Rules for the Zone

  1. You (the adult) suspend your bias, teaching the child to do the same. You endeavour to hear their heart, face uncomfortable realities (home truths are particularly potent at home), see the subject from their point of view, and drop your own defensiveness.
  2. No interruptions. Each person gets to have their say. In the DMZ, we don’t have to defend ourselves or prove anything. The only thing worth protecting here is the relationship itself.
  3. No accusations, insults, or threats. This is neither the time nor place for legislation. List facts as much as possible. Talk about your own feelings when such-&-such happens, rather than pointing the finger (ie., “I feel angry” rather than “You make me angry”)
  4. Be solutionoriented. Even here, remember that the solution doesn’t have to be decided upon there and then; hearing and being heard is the first object of the exercise.

The Rules in Action
What follows is how the adult might speak about a situation with their child, using these rules. Let’s imagine that the child came to the parent wanting to tell them how that adult had been repeatedly hurting their feelings.

  1. Suspending bias: “So tell me a story where this happened?” “What else was going on at the time?” “How are you feeling about this now?” “What do I actually do that bugs you?”
  2. No interruptions. “Thanks for being honest with me, it was important that I hear that. I am sorry that I caused you this frustration. I need to tell you my side of it now and I hope you’ll listen like I did…”
  3. No accusations, insults, threats. “The thing that I react to is when you … It usually happens when I am very tired after work … I don’t know why you do it and I don’t think you do it to annoy me …. Let’s try to change this so it stops happening this way.”
  4. Be solutionoriented. “What would you like me to say when I am feeling tired and annoyed?” “What could we both do instead?”

Lead on, Parent
I stress again that you are the instigator and the role model in this. Establishing such a practise may look like a huge job right now. Rather than “formally” establishing it, why not get off to a rough start? You could start by trialling some of these ideas in your next few conversations (or conflicts). You might even use this approach with your partner!

If I was there with you now, talking about this, I would put on my coach’s hat and finish with a question like this:

“What would give your child (or partner) a sense of confidence that they can safely speak their mind in the next conversation?”