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For Better Family Conversations, Lose These 3 Behaviors

These leadership techniques can work with your family, too.

I was talking to a friend recently who said that he had been to a leadership workshop where they had talked about three techniques that often backfire when you’re trying to motivate a team or change a person’s behavior. The three techniques were teasing, whining, and nagging.

“It made a lot of sense,” my friend said. “But not just in team meetings or with staff or even co-workers. I realized it made perfect sense with my family, as well!”

A number of different sessions with clients after our conversation made me start to think more about this point, as they spoke about conflicts that emerged in their relationships with friends and family. So I thought I’d share some ideas about how these three apparently useful tools often backfire.

123rf image 33804138 Mark Adams
Source: 123rf image 33804138 Mark Adams


A client recently expressed concern that her fiancé had gotten upset when she teased him. I asked her what she understood about what he had told her.

“He took it to heart,” she said. “My family always teases, and you learn that it’s basically good-natured. It’s a way of getting closer, without getting too close, like a side-arm hug. But I guess if you didn’t grow up with it, it can hurt a little bit. He thinks I should stop doing it. I think he should grow a thicker skin.”

Teasing is actually interesting in a number of ways. My PT colleague Nick Luxmoore puts it this way:

"Sometimes it’s called ‘banter,’ usually prefixed with the adjective ‘harmless,’ as in “Don’t take it personally! It’s only harmless banter!” But teasing is never harmless. It’s always a mixture of the friendly and the hostile, the affectionate and the cruel. Close friends tease each other, lovers tease each other, and they do so, because there are times when they can’t help having mixed feelings about each other. Teasing is familiar and intimate, even as it’s hostile and distancing."

Numerous child psychology specialists agree with blogger Symone Grady that teasing can be a form of bullying.

Luxmoore, however, joins a number of other psychotherapists and developmental specialists who believe that there is a fine balance of teasing and not teasing. Learning to differentiate affectionate teasing from bullying is one of the important developmental tasks that we all face during childhood and adolescence. As we master the task, we learn both how to take teasing, when it comes our way, and how to give it out in appropriate, non-hurtful ways. But teasing can go awry — teasing that hurts, that feels like bullying, and that pushes the teased person away from the teaser, and away from other people sometimes too, can be far more destructive than we realize.


I’ve written about some of the problems with whining in another PT blog post. As I explain in that post, one of the problems with whining is that it's so irritating that it often drives others away and almost always fails to get anyone to pay attention to your complaint, no matter how legitimate your concern might be. So one of the tasks for you if you are a whiner is to find a constructive way to address your complaints — one way is to note that there's a problem and to be willing to be part of the solution yourself, to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the work, so to speak!

And if you’re the parent, sibling, child, or friend of the whiner? It’s often worthwhile to try to help them frame their concerns in the kind of constructive way I just described. Sometimes you have to wade into the whining a little further than you’d like, but after you listen for a brief time, you can say, “I hear that you’re really having a problem with a, b, or c. I actually think it would be useful to see if we can find a way to address the problem. But I think there might be a better way to go at it. What would you think about....” And then offer a couple of concrete ideas. Or even better, ask the complainer what they think might be useful. As a parent you might want to set some guidelines — things like, “It’s better if we don’t just try to blame someone here, but if we try to find some ways to manage the situation,” or “I know this isn’t perfect, but what about…” or, “I don’t think it’s helping just focusing on who’s to blame. I need your help thinking about what we might do to change the situation ourselves.”


Even the word isn’t pretty. And if you’ve ever been the target of someone’s nag, you know that the sound of a person’s voice when they do it is even less pretty. And finally, although maybe it should be the first point, it doesn’t work. Although sometimes you can wear someone down by repeating your complaint often enough, you’re likely to do some damage to your relationship. Nagging is actually the least successful method for getting something done, especially if you would like to have some kind of positive relationship with that person.

I know it’s hard not to badger when your significant other consistently leaves the lights on, the toilet seat up, the dishes in the sink . . . or more significantly, doesn’t eat well or sleep enough or take care of their own needs. Yet try this little test: Stop all comments about a specific issue for a week. At the end of the week, if the behavior is no worse than when you were constantly pointing it out, you might save yourself and your relationship a lot of wear and tear by removing that particular issue from your complaint list. And sometimes, although not always, the behavior might even improve!

The bottom line? These three behaviors seldom achieve what you are hoping they will achieve. Instead, they often create painful ruptures in your relationships. And even when the ruptures are silent, as when someone you tease simply quietly pulls back, or someone you nag simply gives in to you, the behaviors can ultimately cause significant damage to the relationship that you were only trying to improve.

So what can you do instead?

The answer is simple, but takes some work to put into play. But if you start with the understanding that each of these behaviors involves a set of conflicting wishes, it gets a little easier. For instance, teasing is often a way of trying to get close to someone, of expressing affection even, while also maintaining a distance and perhaps expressing a criticism. Whining and nagging are ways of trying to get someone to change or to do something that you want — again, often a person you feel both connected to and maybe a little frustrated with.

When you feel like teasing someone, ask yourself if you are trying to get a little closer, or to show a kind of closeness without quite admitting it. And then ask yourself why you might be conflicted. Does wanting to be closer make you feel more vulnerable or less powerful? And if so, perhaps it would be worthwhile to try to decide if teasing really accomplishes your goal. It might make you feel powerful for a minute or two, but if you hurt the other person in the process, it certainly won’t make you feel closer. And it will not make anyone else admire you.

The same is true with whining and nagging. Both may be ways of trying to take control in a situation in which you feel less than powerful. But neither actually gives you much power or control.

In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen offer some brilliant ideas for changing problematic forms of communication and gaining the power and control you don’t feel that you have. Their ideas are so rich that I won’t try to boil them down here, so take a look at the book. They encourage a number of different ways of listening, thinking, and talking about problems.

The thing to remember is that when teasing, whining, and nagging don’t bring you closer or make anything better, doing them again won’t work either. A better solution: Take a deep breath, and take a closer look at what’s going on. And then start listening, thinking, and talking in different, more constructive ways.

Facebook image: tommaso79/Shutterstock



Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

by Douglas Stone, Bruce Pattonand Sheila Heen

Penguin Paperback 2010