Saying exactly what you want, think, or need in words can be a remarkably challenging activity, particularly in emotionally charged moments with those we love. This is because strong emotions flood the analytical brain with chemical suppressants, so you literally do not have full access to your mental faculties (really!). If you are struggling to express yourself, you may just want to take a break and revisit the topic later. If the situation is recurring, though, or if the stakes feel high, a more intentional approach may help. Here are three strategies I’ve used at home to clarify my thoughts and communicate them to my nearest and dearest in ways that I feel good about:
1. Write it Down
Have you ever had that experience when something makes perfect sense “in my head,” only to have it come out very differently (and less clearly) when you open our mouth to speak? Yes, we’ve all been there! If this is happening to you on the regular, or if you’re worried that it might, it may help to write down what you are thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing in private before you next interact with the person you’d like to share with. One reason it’s sometimes hard to be clear with others is that we’re not yet clear with ourselves. That act of translating thoughts into printed words is an exercise in meaning-making and story-telling. Spending time alone with pen and paper can help get your story straight.
2. Call it Out
Sometimes you don’t have the time or privacy to write in a journal alone. I’m happy to report that I’ve also had success speaking clearly in moments of emotional flooding, with certain safety measures in place. The key, in those moments, seems to be granting myself and my partner permission to say things that don’t make rational sense, and having a prior agreement to allow those non-rational expressions to emerge without getting attached to them. This is crucial because, when you are expressing your emotions, things will rarely “make sense” in the way that the analytical mind is accustomed to. Still, emotions have their own valid logic. “It’s not fair,” “You don’t love me,” and “I’m angry that you dropped the fork,” all make perfect sense in our emotional system, if not in our rational mind.
To that end, we practice verbalizing the fact that we’re feeling emotionally charged. For example, “I’m having feelings.” This signals to the other person that the realm of the non-rational is active. I use the term non-rational very respectfully. The worst thing that we can do to ourselves and each other, in my view, is to diminish our feelings. Therefore, emotional logic gets as much respect as rational logic. We just need to know which world we’re in and respond accordingly. Sometimes just calling it out is enough to remind us to exchange defensiveness for empathy.
This one is my favorite – we invented it as a strategy early in our relationship when we both realized how much we hated arguing. It worked like magic, so we kept it! If we’re having a difficult conversation and one of us says something that isn’t clear or that causes confusion or conflict, we can call a “do-over.” A do-over means we both mentally delete everything that was said immediately before and pretend it wasn’t said. This willingness to mentally delete is very important! Just let it go. Your partner and your relationship are more important than a few accidental words. The speaking partner then gets to try again. Almost always, this trick breaks the tension and results in more clarity and understanding.
Got your own strategies for compassionate communication at home? Share them in the comments!