Tweaking Your Speaking:

Love, Family

Tweaking Your Speaking: Paying Attention to the Words We Speak To the People We Love the Most

by Debby Gullery

Because even the smallest of words can be the ones to hurt you, or save you.

- Natsuki Takaya

All couples struggle with communication at some point. It's inevitable that there will be misunderstandings and hurt feelings in any committed relationship. But what if we could take stock of our skill set? What if we took the time to notice where we're getting it right and where we're not?

Remember that saying from our childhood: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." That never rang true for me. My experience has been that words can really hurt.

Most of us can remember a time or two when someone's words hurt us deeply. Perhaps we can also remember when we've hurt someone we cared about with our words. A time when our words came out unfiltered in a moment of anger, and then, when we saw their impact, filled us with shame and regret.

And words have staying power. Think of the body of literature, poetry, song lyrics and movies that we have digested over the years. Some one-liners have practically become part of our DNA - depending on our age of course! Lines like, 'All You Need is Love', 'I Have a Dream,' or 'May the Force Be With You'. One sentence we hear can stay with us for a lifetime. Similarly, one sentence that we speak can stick with the person we speak it to for just as long.

Since we know our words have impact, and because most of us spend a lot of time talking,  it makes sense us to pay more attention to what comes out of our mouths! This is especially important with the people we love the most - our partners and our children.

Sometimes it's the actual words themselves that have impact. Think of the words 'home', or 'divorce'. These words conjure up specific emotions in us, regardless of the context in which they are spoken.

Sometimes it’s not the words we use but the way we say the words that matters. Remember when we were kids and our moms made us say we were sorry to our sibling even though we didn’t want to? Remember the way we used to say 'sorry' with that insincere tone of voice? We said the right thing, but our tone of voice gave us away.

Think about the different tones we could use with a simple sentence like, "Did you remember to pick up the dry cleaning?" Our delivery can be hurtful or kind. Our tone of voice can determine whether the sentence arrives with lightness or with daggers attached. The heart behind our words speaks volumes.

Clearly, when we're not careful, the way we speak can get in the way of the deep connections we're looking for. So what can we do to improve those connections? To begin with, let's look at some of the bad habits we have picked up along the way. I'd like to highlight two that are very common and particularly unhelpful.

The first one is preaching, or telling someone what we think they should do. Preaching is often done under the guise of helping, making it difficult to notice when we're doing it. But if we're not careful with the way we give advice, the people we're giving it to can end up feeling disrespected by us. And if we jump in too soon with our advice (ie interrupting!), then they can end up feeling that we're not listening to them very well. And they might be right!

It can be helpful in these moments to remember how we felt the last time someone gave us advice or told us what they thought we should do. A good rule of thumb is to remember that before we offer any advice, however wise it may be, we make sure that our partners feel heard. In other words, we want our partners to feel that we understand where they're coming from, and how they're feeling.

Another common thing we do is to praise with criticism. This is when we compliment someone, but add a criticism at the end of it. For example, we might praise our daughter for getting a great report card, but ask her, in the same sentence, “what happened with algebra?” This, of course, cancels out the compliment!

It's much more effective when we separate the compliment and the criticism – at least into two sentences, but preferably with time in between to allow the good of the compliment to really sink in. Current research shows that healthy relationships flourish when there is a 5 to 1 ratio of compliments to criticisms. This is an area we can all work on!

If these things sound familiar to you, join the club! We're all guilty of not being careful with our words sometimes. The hope is that once we become more aware, we can reduce the number of times we allow ourselves to slip into these ineffective ways of communicating. And better still, we can increase the number of times that our words have positive impact on those we love.

Real growth comes in bite-size pieces. So here’s a challenge that can help you to notice your communication style and the power of your words:  Make a goal to stop yourself from making any negative or critical comments to your partner for one week. Be mindful of what you are saying and the power of your words. I guarantee that if you make a goal like this, you will quickly notice how often you want to be critical! Or how often negative things want to spill forth from your mouth!

A note of caution – there will be a learning curve!  This is a process of developing awareness and restraint and it happens gradually over time. First, you’ll notice the critical or negative comment just after you say it! But don’t be discouraged because if you keep at it, you’ll start to notice it just as you are saying it! And then you’ll catch yourself just before you say it and you can decide not to!

Remember that all growth requires a decision, perseverance and practice! But it's worth it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could hone our speaking skills so that we uplift and honor our partners and shower them with love and respect? Let's do it!

Suggested Experiments:

1.  Make a goal to refrain from making critical comments to your partner for one week. Notice how often you’re tempted to be critical, and note your progress as you practice refraining.

2.  When you feel you’ve made adequate progress, try making a goal to compliment your partner every day for one week. Notice if doing so makes a difference in your connection with each other.

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Debby Gullery is a relationship coach who loves to teach people simple strategies they can use immediately to improve their most important relationships. She is also passionate about helping single adults prepare for lasting love and commitment. She is the author of ‘Small Steps to Bigger Love’, a practical, easy-to-use book for couples who are seeking to be more intentional and loving.