You may have heard that only a small percentage of what you communicate is actually in your words. The look in your eyes, the expression on your face, the shape of your mouth, the tone and timbre of your voice, your body language – all join together in a little symphony of communication when you try to speak to someone else. All this information is coming your direction when someone is trying to communicate with you.
To make matters even more complicated, in addition to receiving all this information, your mind has to comprehend the language, the form, and the idea behind it. Add to this the fact that typically while someone is speaking, we are having possible responses pop up in our minds at the end of every sentence, and it’s amazing anyone ever communicates anything.
When we reach an impasse in our ability to communicate effectively, it is time to call on a professional communication coach to help us navigate those waters. We need a referee.
A Quick Example
Let’s make up a couple, Karen and Bill. They’ve been married a few years, have a couple of young kids, and by mutual agreement, Bill has a day job and Karen runs the household. Karen is having one of those days – kids have been fussy, the check engine light came on, she dropped a full cup of coffee on the floor and got it on her new shoes, and her mom called to criticize her for all the ways she’s coming up short as a parent.
She is literally slaving over a hot stove, T.V. blaring, children screaming and running, when Bill comes in the front door after a frustrating day. The first words out of his mouth once he’s in earshot are, “You left the garage door open last night.” What kind of response can he reasonably expect? Depending on how close Karen is to the end of her rope, anything from “Seriously?” to profanity and a face full of macaroni and cheese.
If Bill had taken a moment to read the room, assess the emotional state of his family, and gotten outside of his narrow awareness of his perceived shortcomings regarding his wife and the garage, he might have done any of a number things differently.
If the person you want to communicate with is stressed, angry, anxious, or distracted, your chance of actually communicating with them drops significantly. This is where having some communication tools on board can really come in handy.
Some Tools for Better Communication
A Moment to Assess
So many arguments could be avoided if the person initiating the conversation would take a moment to pause and assess the situation.
If I am “coming in hot” to a conversation, an argument is almost a foregone conclusion, and not much adult communication will be accomplished. Check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Where are you feeling it? Are you anxious? Is your stomach in a knot? Is your throat tight?
Are the first words out of your mouth locked and loaded and designed to shame or hurt the other person? Have you considered how your words are likely to land on the other person? Have you larded your opening salvo with trigger words you know will set the other person off? Are you angry and spoiling for a fight? If arguments are common, take a moment to check in with yourself before starting a conversation.
How many arguments might be avoided in a year if each person started a conversation with, “Is this a good time to talk about _______?” Asking permission to start a conversation acknowledges that there is a person on the other side of the conversation, a person with agency, a unique emotional grid, and a current stress narrative I may know little about. It is empowering for the other person and gives them an opportunity to defer until a better time.
In a committed relationship, this empowerment comes with some conditions. If you refuse the conversation, you have to schedule a time to have it, and preferably not more than half an hour in the future. If you are concerned about being attacked based on past conversations, you get to bring that up.
But if the person assures you this isn’t about attacking you, you can give them the benefit of the doubt, with the understanding that if they are lying to you, you can terminate the conversation after the first words, and announce that you would be willing to consider having the conversation again only if it can be done without an attack.
Set Up Ground Rules
One of the main pitfalls of any argument is that when people get upset they don’t fight fair. When we are angry or anxious, we literally lose the capacity to reason clearly and to bond well, so we can’t make wise choices about our words or actions and we forget we care about the person we are talking to, or by this point, yelling at.
Here are a few ground rules for adult conversation, but feel free to make up your own:
- Stay on Topic – If the conversation is corrective (if someone is bringing to light some failure or shortcoming on the other person’s part), the conversation can be only about that thing.
No one gets to deflect by throwing up an equal failing on the other person’s part or bring up ANY incident that happened in the past, even if it is glaringly obvious the past incidents and the current incident are the same kind of thing. Too many conversations devolve into a laundry list of past disappointments and then the item of concern never gets addressed and nothing is accomplished.
- Framing – This technique can be used to prepare the other person for what is about to follow. “I need to talk to you about something that might be upsetting. Do you think you can handle that right now?” If the person says no, it is on them to reschedule sometime in the next 20-30 minutes.
No one likes to have these kinds of conversations, but we have to become skilled at containing our fear and hurt long enough to have them. Framing can also take the form of your fears about the conversation. “I need to talk to you about something, but I’m afraid you’re going to yell at me and leave.”
This gives the person a chance to steel themselves a little bit to the likelihood that the other person is about to say something upsetting and try to hang onto an adult position that will allow them to NOT pitch a fit and stomp out like a six-year-old.
- Meta-conversations – These are conversations about conversations. They usually take the form, “When you said _______, what I made up about it was ________, and I felt __________” For example, “When you left the toilet seat up, what I made up about it is that you don’t care if I drown, and I felt sad.”
This can be done by raising a hand to pause a conversation and saying, “Can I tell you how that landed on me?” If the answer is no, the other person is either too angry or too disconnected to continue an adult conversation anyway, and it may be time to agree to pause briefly and resume a little later.
- Beware of over-responsibility – We have a tendency to blame others for our emotional state, “You made me so angry!” and to take responsibility for the emotional states of others. When someone we care about tells us they are upset about something we said or did, any number of negative emotions are normal and to be expected. We will likely feel remorse, some sense of shame, and often sadness.
We may also, however, experience anger, resentment, outrage, even fear. This second group of emotions come most often from younger places where maybe we didn’t feel safe, seen, known, loved or like we deserved kindness.
When a loved one says we hurt them, we feel shame and that may trigger us in these wounded places, make us feel one down (just like Mom did, or Dad did, or sibling did) and we may lash out from this place of hurt and shame.
You are not responsible for the feelings of others. I will say it again, you are not responsible for the feelings of others. If you care about them, you may have the privilege of trying to improve their emotional situation, but you are not responsible for their happiness. You can behave in a manner that creates an environment where happiness is the result, but you are not responsible for that outcome. It happens or it doesn’t.
Imagine a parent who gets a child a lavish toy for a birthday, but the child rejects it. Certainly, this is disappointing, but the child gets to have his or her own response to the gift. If the parent lashes out in anger at the child as ungrateful or spoiled, even if it’s true to some extent, that parent was owning (expecting, counting on, in essence, responsible for) that child’s reaction.
Disappointment is normal. Lashing out in anger because we feel rejected is something else. We feel rejected, which means our sense of self, as being a good parent or good person, was somehow tied up in the giving of that gift. In those situations, we are very likely to be repeating emotional narratives from our own childhoods. These are the kinds of things that are best processed with a licensed mental health professional.
- Body awareness – One of the first things we disconnect from in traumatic situations is our body. It’s a wonderful defense mechanism that helps us not to shut down entirely. Unfortunately, we are not wired to exist like that on a day to day, moment to moment basis.
It may feel like the most natural thing in the world to be disconnected from our feelings, and while it may have kept us safe, it also has kept us from strong, healthy, mutual relationships with the people who are important to us.
When you are having a conversation, check in with your body periodically. How am I feeling? Is there tightness in my chest? Is there tightness in my stomach? Do I feel nauseated? Tingling in my fingers?
These and others are normal signs of increasing anxiety. If you notice you are getting anxious, hold up a hand to pause the conversation. Tell the other person your anxiety is up, or spiked or whatever, and you need a few minutes to calm down so you can continue.
Use that time to employ deep breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth, until you can slow your breathing to a 3 count – 3 count inhale, 3 count hold, 3 count exhale. When you exhale, purse your lips a little like you’re blowing out a candle. Breathing like this tells your parasympathetic nervous system it’s okay to calm down.
Few things will torpedo a conversation as quickly as escalating anxiety. If you check in and notice you are disconnected (dissociated) take a moment to locate yourself in the room, pick up something and notice the texture, or play catch with a pillow. These kinds of things will help you stay present to the moment.
- Anyone can push the pause button – If we can pause a conversation to use the bathroom, certainly we can pause a conversation because something is upsetting. If someone is yelling, pause the conversation. If someone is sobbing, pause the conversation. If someone is using abusive language, pause the conversation. If someone has stopped listening, pause the conversation.
Identify the problem as simply as possible using “I” statements, “I feel like I’m not being heard,” “I feel like you’ve left the conversation,” “I feel like your words are intentionally hurtful,” whatever the issue seems to be. If you can agree ahead of time that you don’t want the conversation to escalate into an argument, you can agree to pause and use these tools to keep things cool.
Once we have a history with someone that history includes frustrations, hurts, sadness, if we haven’t processed them, they will likely get triggered in conversation. This is why it is good to find a licensed therapist to help you navigate the waters of healthy conversation until you have done enough work to use these tools and others more consistently on your own.
“Romantic Young Couple”, Courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Couple on a Bench”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Coffee Shop Confrontation”, Courtesy of Rawpixel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Hunter Newton, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;