In my previous two blogs posts, I have focused on the importance of using our voice in relationships as well as discussing the challenge of finding the right words that best describe our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. I guess one thought leads to another; these posts got me thinking about some of the things that we DO say to one another!
I was in session some time ago with a Dad and son, both are wonderful people and they had both worked hard on their relationship. During one session, however, the Dad said to his son “it’s really hard being your Dad.” The son broke down crying, clearly hurt by this statement. I asked the Dad what he intended for his son to hear when he made this statement. The Dad looked at me completely stunned. He said he did not know and never thought about it in that way. I think that he was trying to say that parenting can be challenging, which is understandable. However, it felt personal toward his son, which was hurtful. Do any of us think about what we want the other person to hear when we talk? We may know that we want to be understood, validated, and empathized with, but do we think about how our words might impact another person?
The words “mindful communication” came to mind when I was thinking about this topic, and for me this means that all of us can think about our intention behind what we say to another person. Can you imagine conversations where we truly take the time to think about our intention behind what we say to one another? Here are some examples…
When I work with couples, it is often the case that one person speaks as if he or she is an expert about their partner. Meaning, “he’s this or she’s that” e.g. selfish, controlling, arrogant, nagging, dramatic and so on. I’m sure, to some degree, these statements might be legitimate. However, when we say to our partner “you are controlling” we can ask ourselves, “what is my intention by saying this to my partner”? Are we asking our partner to be less controlling? But what exactly does this mean? In what way are they controlling and how does this affect you? Do you feel that your partner is controlling about finances? Does your partner make sarcastic and disapproving comments when you make a purchase?
A conversation might look like this:
Person A: Look what I bought today! Isn’t it beautiful?
Person B: How much did that cost?
Person A: I got it on sale!!!
Person B: (in a snarky tone) How nice that you can treat yourself as you do.
Person A might think that their partner is conveying to them that they spend too much money. But, what is the intention of Person B? It could be that they are trying to convey that they are worried about finances. Or it could be that they haven’t treated themselves for a long time and feel a bit jealous. It could be that they wanted to do something as a couple, but funds are too limited to both treat oneself AND do something as a couple. I could go on and on with possibilities.
What tends to happen if we don’t make our intention behind our words clear…our partner will make an assumption and then draw a conclusion. And the conclusion is often negative, such as: “He or she is cheap and doesn’t want me to spend any money”. I sometimes think that relationships are based more on assumptions than they are on reality!! I wonder what a relationship would look like if we made absolutely no assumptions?!
I know that it is challenging to be mindful with regard to communication. However, I do think that you and your relationship would benefit if you were aware of your intention behind your words as well as what you ‘hope’ your partner will hear. Also, you can ask your partner about their intention behind their words and what they wanted you to hear. Keep in mind that they may just repeat the same thing that they’ve already said – having someone ask what it is that they wanted us to hear is a new idea. It takes time to even hear the question properly, and then longer to think about the answer and come up with a reply.
Let me give you one more example that may help.
If your partner says to you:
“You think you are so perfect”! (I just heard this statement on a TV show!)
and you ask your partner “what do you want me to hear when you say that to me”?
They may well reply, “well, I want you to hear that you think you are perfect”!
That will get the two of you nowhere!!
You might say, “This sounds like an accusation and my response is to feel defensive, so I’m not sure what you want me to hear.”
I can say to you that I’m fairly confident that the person who makes this kind of “you’re perfect” statement feels “less than”, “inadequate” and “inferior” to you. They feel vulnerable about expressing these terribly uncomfortable feelings. Maybe they are hoping that you will share your feelings of imperfection and inadequacy. They want to see your vulnerability so that they can connect with you in some way. But if we don’t think about our words, what it is we want the other to hear, what it is that we ultimately want from our partner and how our words will affect them – dialogue will stay in accusations, defensiveness, assumptions and false conclusions.
One more thing, all of us say hurtful things to our partner in the ‘heat of the moment’. The key is to take a breath or time to think about what you want to convey to your partner. I think that you can revisit a moment as well. For example, if you say to your partner in the heat of the moment, “You are selfish and don’t think about anyone but yourself!” Take some time and give thought to want you want your partner to hear. Maybe you wanted to convey, “I know your work is important but I need us to spend more time together”!
I realize that it is super challenging to think this way. I think that you can start with thinking more about your intentions behind your words and what you want your partner to hear from you. It is harder to ask your partner their intention, however; they may follow your lead if you let them know that you are truly thinking about what you want to communicate to them!
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One more thing…..I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. I know it is not easy to do! Believe me, I know, it took me a very long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you! When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. Thanks for reading!
Details of the stories told in my blog have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
Photo Credit Wesley Fryer@flickr.comShare