“Let’s not complicate our relationship by trying to communicate with each other.” — Ashleigh Brilliant.
Once, when oldest granddaughter was 3, she was enthusiastically telling me about her new Cinderella doll. In the process, when she mispronounced a difficult word, I said, “No, you should say it like this.” Never one to be demeaned, she gave me a dirty look and walked away. Now, 27 years later, her almost 3-year-old daughter is finally talking our language. For a while, when she was 2 or so, she would look at us with a very serious expression and inform us in some strange gobbledygook what she was thinking about. I guess she assumed that we knew what she was telling us but, from experience, I knew better than to criticize her efforts so I just smiled and gave her a big hug when the occasion arose.
Of course, hopefully, communication with adults is quite different from that with 3-year-olds, but recalling this made me think about what we say and how we say it can make a big difference in our relationships with others. Do we give enough thought about the impact of what we say and how we say it? Do our words cut, bite, confuse and/or hurt or do they show evidence of empathy and understanding? Do they cause distancing, or do they bring us together and improve our relationship? The way we communicate can make a great difference in how much satisfaction we get from life.
Empathetic people think before they speak about what kind of reaction their words and how they say them will arouse. They do not expect the other person to always be able to live up to some standards of perfection they have arbitrarily set. They look for reasons behind other people’s behavior and even when none is apparent, they give the benefit of the doubt.
As Carl Rogers wrote in ”Some Significant Learnings”: ‘It is necessary to permit oneself to understand another. Our first reaction to most of the statements we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. ... I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change.”
Yet sometimes in spite of good intentions, we may say the wrong thing — even hurtful things — often to those closest to us. For instance, if we feel ourselves surging with anger, we can ask: “Am I taking my anger from some other source and transferring it to this person?” Suppose at work you felt unjustly criticized by a superior. You couldn’t let off the steam that built up as a result, so you repressed your feelings. You went home, thinking that the matter was behind you, but a completely unrelated episode set you off in a tirade of criticism against someone innocent. “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” — Dorothy Nevill.
It helps to keep in mind how precious a person’s sense of self-worth is and how fragile it can be. We need to keep reminding ourselves that how we talk and what we say can have devastating effects upon others, especially children who rely on the adults they love for their self-image. As Robert Fulghum wrote: “sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”
Maybe we can put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and look for reasons for his/her actions. On first glance, what someone says or does may seem stupid, antagonistic or thoughtless. But often, when we stop to consider what the reason for the action may be, we will react differently.
When we have problems with communication, we can ask: Do I have to make someone else feel humiliated to bolster my ego? Are my expectations too high, or unrealistic? Am I stressed and tired from my busy life? When we feel pressured by too much to do or there are too many demands made upon us, it’s more difficult to think before we speak. Am I painfully deprived of satisfaction in my life?
At any rate, we can all benefit from paying attention to the quality of our verbal interaction, especially with our loved ones. As the old saying goes: “Think before you speak.” But alas, we still may relate to Mr. Brilliant’s problem. “I always think of the right thing to say after the right time to say it has passed.”
Since 1984, Dorothy Dimitre has written more than 750 columns for various local newspapers. Her email address is email@example.com.