Communication is a skill, and all of us have had intense training in communication. But it was not called communication training; it was called “childhood”!
That is, we were trained daily in our homes when growing up, and the lessons we learned were based on the skills and understanding of the adults, and to a lesser degree siblings and peers, who were given to us. That is not an ideal kind of training.
The result is generally that we learn to handle most situations in our adult lives, but there are holes in our abilities to express ourselves effectively, which become especially visible in emotional situations or situations that are under pressure.
There are, however, ways of communicating that can be learned and that really work. The particular topic of this blog, namely some words to use with caution, is based on nonviolent communication principles and on my own experience in relationships and in my work, and in the latter role has been helpful for couples to start to communicate without fighting as they did previously.
Good verbal communication between people should express the needs, feelings, and requests of the speaker, while also welcoming the other person to join in dialogue, without shaming or blaming them. For readability, I will keep this article fairly short, but will provide examples that like a good picture may be worth a thousand words.
The specific words to be used with caution are: always (and its opposite, never); just; and but. Note that none of these words are necesarily “bad”, but in communication involving sensitive, emotional topics, they are often used in a way that is hurtful, limiting, and non-productive. So let’s take a look.
The “Always-Never” Dilemma
If someone says to you “You are always talking to your mother on the phone!” or “You never listen to me!”, you are likely to respond with counter-examples or simple statements of the opposite: “I don’t talk to my mother that often!” or “Of course I listen to you!” At that point, the discussion may well spiral into additional exaggerated claims and counter-claims, ending with bad feelings on the part of both participants, and with no resolution.
What if the initial statements were, instead, “When you were talking to your mother on the phone yesterday for over an hour, I really wanted to speak to you about going out to dinner so we could enjoy a change of pace. Then it got too late, and I felt frustrated. And this has happened in the past, as well, although we don’t need to talk about those past examples unless you want to.” The differences are: 1) the speaker speaks mostly about the specific incident on her/his mind, and avoids a blanket generalization, and 2) the speaker shares their own experience of frustration which came about because they wanted to do something meaningful together.
Similarly, rather than “You never listen to me,” a more expressive and engaging statement might be “Several times this week I was in the middle of saying something important to me, and you interrupted and totally changed the topic. When that happens, I feel that you don’t care what is important to me, and I get upset.”
Using “always” and “never” in the negative context mentioned in the initial statements above can leave the other person with a sense of hopelessnes: the speaker has already decided that the other person is a persistent, 100% violator of principles of decency! It does not contribute to a sense that there is room for discussion, clarification, and repair of any hurt feelings. And hopelessness can lead to a counter-attack, or silent resentment.
So, rather than be guided by your own frustration or anger as an opportunity to use harsh and absolute language, it is helpful to be careful and find specific and vulnerable ways to express what is important to you.
When “Just” is Unjust
This is a bit more subtle than the always / never dilemma: have you ever had a phrase directed to you resembling: “Just tell the boss he is wrong and convince the board of directors to do it your way”? Or another example, “Just carry the box on the bottom, it just weighs 150 pounds.” These are not very subtle examples, but I have noticed that about 2/3 of the time, the word “just” acts like a red flag for a situation where the speaker using the word either overrates my abilities or underrates the difficulty of a particular course of action.
Suggestions for re-phrasing these two examples might be: “How would you feel telling the boss that you have a really good solution that improves on the current plan, and then hopefully getting to present it to a bigger audience such as the board?” or “Can you carry this box, or is it too heavy? What if we carry it together?”
These suggestions remove the direct statement that the boss is wrong, and asks whether it feels doable to take action on speaking up or lifting up, rather than applying subtle pressure to “just do it” despite the risk of job injury or back injury.
“But” as a passion-remover
The word “but” is often used to dilute a person’s meaning and feelings. This comes up very frequently in the course of psychotherapy, but also in daily life and in the inner messages that we carry around.
For example, “I was so hurt by what my father did… but I know he was doing the best he could.” The problem is that the speaker in that case has not experienced the genuine hurt, AND has not experienced the potential true forgiveness of his/her memory of what the father did.
Instead, what if the speaker were to say “I was so hurt by what my father did. It happened 30 years ago, but I still wince when I think of how he hit me. Why couldn’t he be loving and just tell me what he wanted from me?”
By exploring in that way, the speaker can start to allow the sense of injustice and a sense of what kindness and love would have felt like, and can start to restore a self-protective self-love that was damaged earlier on. Notice that “but” is used in the replacement example to support the validity of the speaker’s experience, instead of denying and diluting it.
As that work progresses, the individual starts to realize this her/his father was an independent human being, with a life and with flaws and pains of his own that caused those flaws. That is when forgiveness becomes real and healing.
The original statement with the “but” was a form of self-contradiction and distraction from the raw experience of hurt. Self-distraction allows us to avoid insights and internal experiences that are anticipated as being painful; that negative anticipation and the choice of self-distraction prevent one from fully coming to terms with the past issue and then moving on. That said, as with all things, we CAN learn to do it better.
At times, a person communicating may not be aware of those places where they most need to communicate more effectively. Of course, that lack of awareness is exactly why we are using that ineffective or counter-productive communication!
Depending on the recipient of that communication, it can result in hurt feelings and other negative responses. By paying attention to one’s own feelings while communicating, and to the other person’s responses, it is possible to become more attuned and to feel more in harmony with others, even when viewpoints or goals are different on a specific topic.
That is the true and hopeful final point, one which gives us all room for growth and gives us an invitation to practice the skills of good communication!