What my toddler taught me about communication

One thing that makes toddlers amazing is the remarkable speed at which they develop critical skills. Chief among these is language.

My son Maxwell is two-and-a-half. Just one year ago, at 18 months old, he was stringing a few words together. Fast-forward one year, and man, can this kid talk! Like most other children his age, he is now an animated storyteller, a dogged interviewer, and a non-stop soliloquist. Two-word phrases have become complete sentences, full of transitions, intonation and exclamations. (My favourite? “Oh crumbs!”).

experts learn from amateurs

a woman walks down a path holding her son's handAs a professional communicator, I have relished the challenges and delights of connecting with my son through language. Even for parents whose children are non-verbal—perhaps they are on the autism spectrum or have hearing impairments—there are many ways parents and children convey meaning to one another.

At Spur, we don’t work with small children very often. But we do lead communication strategies, social-impact marketing campaigns and in-depth engagements with diverse audiences. We also work on complex projects, like repairing BC’s highways after the 2021 floods or transforming how we address youth substance use.

This work has taught us we don’t often have the same vocabulary when the subject matter is complicated. When you don’t prioritize accessibility, miscommunication is common. But some great best practices are hiding in toddler talk! Here’s what I’ve learned.

what my toddler taught me

a toddler reads a newspaper1. Give someone your full attention. Now, I don’t give my son my full focus all of the time. That’s parenthood. But when Max is trying out new words and sentences, I often think, “Wait? What?” If I stop and focus entirely on him, suddenly things that made no sense the first time become much clearer.

In our new hybrid work lives, many of us multi-task during video calls. Sometimes that’s okay, but other times—like when we’re facilitating important dialogues with our clients or their stakeholders—that’s just a non-starter. Stop, give people your full attention, and listen very carefully to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. Even if they’re not phrasing things exactly how you would, you’ll be surprised how much more you understand when you’re all in on the conversation.

2. Next, don’t be afraid to play charades. We all know body language and non-verbal cues are important. When I’m trying to infer what Max is telling me, it helps to pay attention to his emotions. Is he mad? Excited? These are clues. And don’t forget the “sounds like” tool. Toddlers often mix up words that sound alike, or even use words that aren’t right at all, but might be meaning adjacent. For example, it’s common—and cute—to hear a small child say “spicy” when they mean tart or sour.

When you lead a public engagement on a complex project (as our Spur consultants often do) it’s common for folks to mix up terms. Try not to get hung up on the semantics if they don’t really matter. Pay closer attention to people’s meaning and intent to form a bridge of understanding. (Sidenote: this is a mantra of ours since our name is Spur Communication, not Spur Communications, a mistake we see—and forgive!—all the time).

3. Finally, consider your shared reference points. Oftentimes, apropos of nothing, Max will start describing a scene from a show or describe a funny thing that happened when he was at the park with his grandmother a week ago. Not immediately knowing what’s prompting his speech can make it confusing to understand what he’s talking about. When you pause and consider your shared experiences—the scene from that favourite movie you’ve watched again and again—you can catapult yourself into his brain space. You get what he’s saying because you remember what he remembers.

As communication and engagement practitioners, we know the public doesn’t easily forget. When community members bring up a bit of ancient history on a project, try not to be dismissive. Be empathetic because you probably remember the issue they’re raising and how much it mattered to them. Even when you need to politely move people along to the present, recognizing your past shared experiences might help you understand each other better.

seeing our value as parents

All of this has got me thinking about what other professional insights we gain when we become parents. Raising a little one and launching a business at the same time hasn’t been easy. That’s why I was encouraged when Sonja Baikogli Foley, co-founder of Maturn, told me there’s recent research to support that mothers are even more valuable at work after they become mothers. According to the Reframing Motherhood research by The Female Quotient, parents often develop or hone new skills such as empathy, multitasking, flexibility, understanding, time management, communication skills, and staying calm under pressure.

Unfortunately, Sonja says the opposite perception—that parenthood is a liability—is more common.

“Mothers are often penalized for becoming mothers, when really, we need to be leveraging mothers’ newly acquired skills to become even more impactful leaders with their new lived experiences, skills and abilities. We created Maturn because we believe there’s a better way to support mothers while advancing equity.”

(Maturn supports mothers from the moment they know they’re expecting and throughout early motherhood, through their maternity leave program and the Motherhood Leadership Program. They also support people leaders through a Supporting Mothers, Advancing Equity workshop. Awesome right? Check them out!)

don’t let words get in the way

In the end, if we can’t communicate, we can’t connect. And there are so many ways to mess it up. Thankfully—as the toddlers in our lives remind us—the words don’t have to be perfect for us to understand each other.

Get in touch if you’d like to learn how we can help with your communication challenge.  Even if we come from different worlds or speak different languages, we’d love to try talking with you!

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Natalie has over a decade of experience in strategic communication. She is passionate about powerful stories that inspire positive action.

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