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Smart Stepfamilies

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By Carri Taylor


I don’t even see what you see!! And, you don’t see what I see either!! The truth is: no one understands me and I don’t understand anyone else. Sound disappointing? Maybe at first, but once I make the transition and embrace this belief; I quit spending so much energy trying to make something happen in my marriage and stepfamily that may never come to pass.

The closest I can get to understanding and connecting with the people in my life is by learning the skills it takes to do that. The closest I can get to having anyone understand me is by skillfully getting in touch with me, organizing my content and delivering it in a clear way. Does this come naturally? Not in my experience of being me and working with others. Can it be learned? Absolutely! Can it change your life and relationships if you do? You got it!

Communication skills are like learning to play an instrument, a sport, use technology, etc. There is always a learning curve. Because of our human (or sin) nature, our intuitive response to people and situations is usually exactly wrong.

SKIING / Lesson One

When I got out on the slopes for the first time I was really clumsy and fearful. I was also excited because I was learning to do something new. When I thought I was going too fast or falling, my tendency was to lean back against the hill – get away from the danger. What happened? My skis lifted out from under me and I ended up doing exactly what I didn’t want to – careening down the hill and falling. Then the instructor told me to lean forward, into the turn. Was he kidding? I thought I would die if I did that. Yet when I did, I found control, I found the ability to manage myself on the skis and the thrill of the sport started becoming mine. This is true of learning anything.

Good communication comes from learning the skills that are counter-intuitive to me – in other words, the last thing I really want to do – but the first thing that allows me to lean into the communication transaction and make the turns in my step-relationships that I’ve wanted to.

What are the moves to leaning into the communication transactions in my life? That’s what I teach. Learning those moves, myself; has opened up my eyes to me, others, the world around me, and taken me through many difficult transactions in forming my stepfamily much more gracefully.

Why bother to learn these skills? Research has discovered (and I have experienced) that the #1 skill missing in all relationships – business or personal - is communication. I believe communication skills are imperative for people to even have the ability to address their issues, whether intrapersonal or interpersonal. Without these skills, the issues can easily turn into problems, and when problems go unresolved we end up in the trees, off the run, with broken skis and maybe some physical (and emotional) injuries to others and ourselves.

Those of us in stepfamilies who’ve skied into the trees of "divorce" know all about this. But how many of us learned how to "ski" before entering our stepfamily?


Another important factor in communication skills training is "awareness." I believe most of us go through life unaware of ourselves – how we come across in another person’s world – especially our spouse’s, ex-spouse’s, children’s and stepchildren’s worlds. I also believe most of us are very unaware of what’s going on around us in our communication transactions. Yet, I haven’t met many people that will admit this. In fact, the starting point is usually the opposite. Most remarried couples that I work with really believe they have a clear picture of themselves and argue with anyone (spouse, ex-spouse, children, stepchildren, boss, co-workers, parents, or friends) that might suggest the picture is different. At most, we seem to be aware that something is wrong, but are not able to clearly identify what.

I call it "waking up" – waking up to myself and how I enter another person’s world. Also, waking up to things that are going on around me. Then with skillful interactions, the development of an effective approach starts changing my life – even when dealing with "unskilled" people. The key word here is "approach." This then impacts my relationships with my new spouse, ex-spouse, children, stepchildren, and everyone else in my life.


I may be headed for the right airport and even have my eye on the landing strip, but if my approach is too fast, too slow, too high, or too low, I may be in trouble and not land safely. If I don’t pay attention to the flight controllers and my instrument panel as I’m making my approach, my landing, and my way to the gate; I may just cause more interference and collisions. In this particular landing how many others am I taking with me?

Communication skills start with understanding me. Taking a look at how I have been and am approaching my communication landings. Then having a willingness to seek out and learn more effective ways of listening to information that will guide me along the way. Finally, checking my attitude toward the others that are with me on this flight (caring or uncaring).


To me, a lot of people are going through life as if they’re on a cruise ship. But they’re stuck in their cabin, looking through the porthole. Since that’s all they see, that’s all they know. They are absolutely sure that their view through the porthole is the truth, the reality. Unfortunately, their interactions when they leave their cabins are with people who also believe the view from their porthole is the truth. Some views are similar (the cabins were close to each other) – and some views are not (the cabins are either in the front or back of the ship, or even on the other side). Then the arguments take place as to whose porthole is the "truth"

What I believe communication skill training does is to get a person up on the top deck of the ship. The person’s view is still limited, but much more expansive. The skills allow the person to turn around and do a 360 – still realizing they will never see it all at once. There is more to see on either side of them and behind them. Skills teach a person how to get the information they were previously eliminating. This inevitably leads to better decision-making in every area of life.


I’ve had many remarried couples tell me that it’s like taking off dark glasses and seeing clearly for the first time. This can be exciting and scary all at once. I’ve also watched some remarried couples chose to put the sunglasses back on. The problem is handling my emotional responses to seeing clearly. I may be uncomfortable with my life and/or situation, but the anxiety of changing my behavior and doing something different (like getting on the ski slopes for the first time) produces much anxiety. I know I’m not going to do it well. The anxiety surpasses the discomfort and all of a sudden I’m willing to settle for uncomfortable rather than push on through.

SKIING / Lesson Two

As I push on through the anxiety and see I’m making it down the hill with fewer falls and collisions, I’m getting positive results. The positive results start bringing comfort and the anxiety starts to diminish. I actually begin taking some risks with my new skills and continue to see results. I learn from my falls and collisions. I get back up and proceed with vigor!

The difference between skiing and communicating, in my mind, is this: most of us, whether we know how to ski or not, can probably recognize a bad skier from a good one. However, when it comes to skillful communication, most of the world doesn’t know or understand good communication skiing (skills). Who taught us? My parents didn’t. I went after this on my own.

I encourage the remarried couples I work with to do what I did. At whatever level your skill development is: go with it; try it on; try it out; when you fall - get up; when you blow it – repair. Do it poorly – you will improve. The world around you will be amazed. You will make a difference. I could tell you many stories of my own and of other remarried couples about how this works. What an example we can then be to our entire step-system when we do this!


Some years ago I got a speeding ticket and you can guess the rest… I had to go to traffic school. I left with one major concept that reminded me of something my Dad instilled in me when learning how to drive – SAFE SPACE. Dad taught me to always drive aware of what was going on around me. He told me to look in my mirrors often, scan ahead, around and behind so if something happened, I would know where to take my vehicle. He also impressed upon me that my vehicle was the only one on the road I could control. Upon completion of traffic school I realized I drove a second too close to the vehicle in front of me and wasn’t leaving enough SAFE SPACE if that vehicle or any others went out of control.

Now think about that in your interactions with your spouse and stepfamily members. I am the only one I can control in the interaction, although I can remember spending lots of energy and time trying to control the other person (obviously trying to get them to drive the way I wanted them to). When I, along with the others I was interacting with, eliminated SAFE SPACE from our conversations, communication collisions occurred. This many times left horrible accidents to clean up and repair.

Learning communication skills teaches me to drive effectively in my interactions with others, creating safe space, increasing my ability to check the mirrors (verbals and non-verbals), and learn how to manage my vehicle (ME) skillfully – thereby avoiding collisions. By this I do NOT mean pleasing and/or avoiding difficult situations, but knowing how to do the diagnostics and determine my direction – where I want to go and how I want to get there.


When there is an accident (or communication collision), I see it from my side of the street (perspective) and whoever is involved in this with me will be looking at it from the other side of the street. Then the argument takes place over whose side of the street is RIGHT. When in fact, neither of us have the entire picture. How do I "cross the street" and see it from another’s point of view? Not easily! I have to give up being "right" and live "ready to be wrong." In embracing the other side of the street (that I can’t see), and having someone embrace my side of the street (that they can’t see), our vision is enlarged, truth is expanded and we acknowledge that we are both right & wrong. Unfortunately, this can be very humbling.

Many times I see myself as a "communications traffic cop" in working with remarried couples and stepfamilies. Everyone involved in the collision is seeing it from their street corner. I get the report from all the corners, teach people the skills to "cross the street" and see the accident (or situation) from another vantage point. Is this easy? No. I have met with a lot of resistance encouraging people to "cross the street" or realize that their street corner is not the only one.


None of the above is easy. It involves taking apart old habits. Learning how to talk with clarity; telling the truth in love. Understanding what listening really is; humbling ourselves, putting ourselves aside in this moment and taking a trip into another person’s world. Thinking more highly of the other person; honoring their point of view instead of pushing ours. I see very few people that know how to do this. Most of us are waiting to talk, not really listening.

The end result is the redesigning of our lives, marriage relationships, step-relationships; in essence all relationships - including our relationship with God.

Copyright 2003. Opportunities Unlimited. All rights Reserved.  Used with Permission.  Visit the Taylor's web site at www.cgtaylor.com.

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