A trend that I hear from people in every form of therapy (individual, couples, family) is that they have problems communicating their feelings effectively. Often people tell me they said hurtful things to their partners, family or friends during an argument and now the other person is acting differently towards them.
Picture that your relationship with any person in your life is a car. Every argument or unpleasant experience that occurs puts a dent into the car. You can only cause so many dents before the car is no longer drive able or is dented so badly that it is then totaled. Whenever we hurt someone, there is no magic eraser to make them forget how bad it felt. Once you put words out there, you are completely unable to retract them.
I realize that when people are fighting, they are in the heat of the moment and it is very difficult to slow down the pace to think about your words prior to letting them out. So you have two options:
1. You can learn to be more mindful in the moment and keep the idea of irrepairable damage in your mind prior to letting your thoughts be heard
2. You can practice effective communication in everyday situations with others or in interactions that are less difficult.
Unless you are someone who can pump the brakes quickly in situations where you are feeling passionate about your position, the second option is most likely the one you may want to explore. To keep it simple, here are some suggestions to improve your communication with others:
- Use “I” Statements– Example: I feel that when I hear you raise your voice that you may be extremely angry with me and it causes me to shutdown VERSUS When you raise your voice you make me shut down. The difference is that you are not accusing someone or blaming them for your actions, rather, you are expressing how you interpret their specific actions and how you react to them. This gives a person the opportunity to hear why you present the way you do in the situation as well keeps them off of the defensive having to justify themselves and focuses on helping strategize together on how to deal with the issue moving forward.
- People Are Not Mind Readers– When issues come up, you may not be in the place to address them that very moment, however, one of the most detrimental things you can do is hold in information and then have it spill over into a different argument in the future. Example: You were upset at your friend for not inviting you to an event that week. A few days go by, and your friend is going to an activity with other people not including yourself. You then confront your friend about that particular situation and afterwards throw in something along the lines of, “you never invite me to things just like this time and then the time a few days ago when you excluded me”. Your friend may not consciously be excluding you and maybe did not realize they were acting that way. Had you told them how you felt when it initially occurred, it would have resulted in a conversation and possibly made your friend more mindful for the next time an event came up. While we think about ourselves constantly, other people are doing the same about themselves and are not always thinking about how their actions make others feel. While lacking this is not an excuse for negative behavior, everyone makes mistakes and the only way to learn from them is to be aware of them.
- Steer Clear of Low Blows- When we have a relationship with anyone, we learn their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers. In times of arguments when you may be feeling backed into a corner, one of the most harmful things you can do is hit that person below the belt with your words. Example: Your partner lost their job and is having a difficult time finding a new one despite searching tirelessly. You have an argument where you are accusing each other of not following through with a task you might have taken on and you say something along these lines to your partner; “No wonder you can’t do _________ if you were actually capable of accomplishing things you wouldn’t still be unemployed.” OUCH!!! No one likes to be kicked while they are down or have a knife dug deeper into a wound. No matter how helpless you may feel, try as hard as you can to not pull this card out. The satisfaction of coming out on top of an argument is not worthwhile when it leaves you high and dry and results in someone you care about being extremely hurt.
- Defense Mechanisms- Everyone has their way of putting their guard up to protect themselves from being vulnerable if they are feeling too exposed. Some of us shut down, some of us dig up old dirt to throw on the person, I myself use sarcasm. There are several other ways in which we try to protect our hearts. Example: You tell someone that you miss them and they don’t reciprocate the sentiment towards you. You then say something like, “Oh you are obviously so busy hanging out with cooler people so it makes sense that you don’t miss me back, no big deal”. WRONG. It is a big deal! It hurt your feelings and you need to express that rather than make the other person feel bad or make them feel that they created negative feelings. If you tell someone how you feel, they will be able to explain or be more conscious next time you express similar sentiments. If you use a defense mechanism, such as the sarcastic approach, you create a negativity turning the person away from you rather than towards you and create an uncomfortable atmosphere.
There are several other Dos and Don’t of Effective Communication. The aforementioned strategies are a good place to start. Need or want more ideas? Agree or disagree? Want to elaborate? Shoot me some comments