Have you ever left a conversation with someone regretting what you said? What about regretting what you didn’t say?
Unfortunately, misrepresenting our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, wants, and needs seems to be a human specialty. We allow our concerns for what others might think about us, or how we might make them feel, to sway our honesty and clarity in the relationship; OR sometimes we’re so adamant about making a point known that we don’t care how it comes out---as long as it does. Often, either approach leaves some very important information unshared, misheard, or dismissed by those we claim to love and value most in our lives which, in turn, puts these relationships at risk for conflict, resentment, and even failure.
Three major components of the kind of clear emotional expression we need for keeping our relationships healthy are:
WHAT we say
HOW we say it
WHAT we say: The actual words that come out of our mouths when explaining what we feel and what we need from others are our responsibility to think through to the best of our abilities before letting them loose. If we don’t take a moment to pause and consider our valuable messages, we are likely to send incorrect or mixed ones that have the potential to worsen otherwise minor issues. Typically, we are most at risk for being either deceptively-nice, or deceptively-harsh.
For example, we might be quick to people-please rather than speak up about how we’re really feeling, perhaps forcing a laugh each time the sister-in-law makes a “harmless” joke about our cooking, or telling our partner “it’s no big deal” when he/she is late for dinner each night (when really, it is). It’s important that we don’t assume others will realize the errors they make with us on their own without us having to TELL THEM, but we have to first be honest with ourselves before ever expecting to be honest with them.
Unfortunately, the more we deny/hold back our true feelings for “the good of the relationship” the more we are at risk for things going bad. We like to think that we have so much control over how we’re feeling and how well we’re tolerating frustration, but seems the more we claim to “let things go” the more we are actually just harboring hurt and delaying emotional release. With this, all too often it ends up being in that moment of the straw breaking the camel’s back, when we’re completely fed up and passed our boiling points, that we finally get honest with others about what we’re feeling. Really honest. Like FILTER-FREE honest. This runs the risk of us letting loose on the sister-in-law with, “IT’S PROBABLY A GOOD THING THAT YOU DON’T LIKE MY COOKING BECAUSE WITH YOUR WEIGHT YOU COULD STAND TO MISS A MEAL OR TWO,” or unleashing on the significant other who comes home late again, “DON’T EVEN BOTHER COMING HOME AT ALL ANYMORE.” This opposite extreme occurs when we lose track of the LOGIC in what we’re actually meaning to say and while fueled up with emotion, just start spitting out words that are poisoned by that longtime-harbored anger and hurt.
HOW we say it: Most of us have heard the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Our use of tone, sarcasm, joking, sugar-coating, etc., certainly does have a lot to do with whether or not our intended messages are getting through.
Let’s consider jokes for a moment. Perhaps the popular phrase, “behind every joke is some truth” comes to mind? Well, joking about our truth (e.g. wants, needs, frustrations) may seem easier than just communicating them outright, but more often than we think, this method actually tends to backfire. One problem with giving our truth a funny and lighthearted mask is that it becomes easily overlooked and downplayed by others instead of realized as something actually meaningful to us. In turn, this pattern is likely to build resentment in the joker until the joker becomes fueled with frustration and---well, let’s just say at this point the joker (to everyone’s shock) ain’t jokin’ no more.
In certain contexts, joking can actually be considered a passive-aggressive tendency as well. Even if not intended, making jokes about the annoying habits/behaviors of others, or teasing/playing pranks on others to “give them a taste of their own medicine” often ends up making those we care about uncomfortable, or confused. A joke, especially one that is repeated throughout a relationship, is likely to be identified at some point as something bigger and more serious. Upon finding this out, others are often resentful of the joker not being upfront and for robbing them of the opportunity to correct unintended offenses. In some cases, this can actually lead to trust issues in regard to what other thoughts/feelings the joker might be withholding.
CONSISTENCY: Finally, in order for others to understand and respect our wants/needs we have to be able to share and model them in a consistent manner. This means, if we don’t like how someone is treating us we can’t yell at them for that treatment one day and then laugh about it another. Sure, nobody likes to be the stick in the mud, party-pooper, or whatever other name there is for it, but when it comes to our feelings we all have limits. Being clear about these limits and being careful not to make exceptions to these limits is key in getting others on the same page with us. Otherwise, how can we be angry with others for not recognizing/respecting our boundaries when we don’t consistently respect our own boundaries ourselves?
In keeping these three points in mind when we’re communicating with those we care about we are already off to a healthier start in taking care of our wants/needs and in turn, bettering our relationships overall. Taking responsibility for what we say, how we say it, and the consistency we maintain for both, will likely not only improve results during and after conflicts, but can even decrease future conflicts as well!
Many experiencing communication challenges in a relationship often find it helpful to practice this exercise:
Grab a piece of paper or a page in your journal and draw a vertical line down the center of the page (from top to bottom). This will give you two columns to work with, one on the left and one on the right.
Label the left column: “What I said” and label the right column: “What I wanted to say”
In the left column, list the points you made in a recent conversation with someone (try to record the exact words you said if you can recall)
In the right column, list what it is you actually wanted to/meant to say in the conversation (be sure to match up with the related point listed on the left)
Read through, starting with the first point in the left column followed by the statement next to it in the right column. Notice, are they the same? Different? Which do you feel fits best for the kind of conversation/relationship you’re trying to have?
*Recommended: Once you start recognizing your communication patterns, the best use of this exercise would be to better prepare for an upcoming conversation with someone about something important by labeling the left column “What I want to say" and labeling the right column “What I said.”This allows the chance to think through what your intended message is BEFORE having the conversation and ways for getting this across most clearly, as well as the chance to process the conversation afterwards and see how well you were able to maintain this. Tip: It's OK to jot down multiple variations of what you want to say before finding the best words. Allow your thoughts and ideas to evolve to the message that seems most fitting before approaching the conversation in real time.
Feel free to shoot me a message letting me know how you relate to this post and/or how this exercise worked for you!