What Did You Say . . . ? Understanding what others are communicating

With last month’s article, Self-Talk, in mind, here is a supplement to that column.

Now that you have some information about speaking to yourself in a kinder, more supportive manner, it’s time to focus on how you hear what others are saying to you. What you perceive depends upon how you were raised and what you heard growing up, what you say to yourself quietly inside, as well as the history you have with the person with whom you are communicating.

Communication is one of the essential components of creating trust. Without trust, there’s very little of anything productive or positive that can occur within the relationship. Mastering skills which enable you to interpret conversations in the manner in which they are intended leads to a more fulfilling connection to others.

How often have you misinterpreted another’s concern for you simply because you became triggered by what they said? Could this be due to a hurtful or thoughtless experience from your past of which you are unaware? This is a primary cause of conflict among friends, couples, coworkers or family members.  What you hear and what was said may be different. “That’s not what I said or meant…” is a common response from the stunned speaker. They become perplexed as to how the conversation went in such an unexpected direction.

Here is an example. Several years ago, as I was sitting in the food court in the St Louis airport awaiting the departure of my flight home, I overheard a conversation between a husband and wife (the tables were so close together that it was impossible to ignore them).

“Honey, I’m taking the camera case and the duffle bag and I’ll meet you at the gate… I’m taking the camera case and the duffle bag… I’ll meet you at the gate …now remember, I’m taking the camera case and the duffle bag… I’ll meet you at the gate…” After the husband repeated this message several times, he walked away.  The wife, noticing that I had obviously overheard the conversation, turned to me and disclosed, “…my husband thinks I’m an idiot…he thinks I’m so stupid…” In that moment, I had several choices: I could ignore her, nod politely or communicate what I heard her husband express, which was the option I chose.  “Wow! That surprises me... I heard what your husband said so differently than what you expressed...”  Clearly, her interest was piqued. “What do you mean?…” she asked. The words that came out of my mouth were as follows: “What I heard him say was how much he loves you…his desire was to make your load lighter and that he wanted to make sure you will not worry when you gather up your bags because he took the two items…” The expression on her face was one of utter amazement.  “Oh my God! I would have never gotten that in a million years…I much prefer your version than my own…” she said. “Thank you so much…From now on, I will hear my husband talking to me more positively in my head instead of my own critical voice…”

Obviously, I knew nothing about who this woman was or what her relationship was like with her husband.  However, witnessing the exchange between the two of them helped me to realize how unaware the wife was to her husband’s true motive, which was to make her life easier by reducing her anxiety.

When we become frightened, our brain is hard wired to activate our primitive survival mechanisms. Fear can be paralyzing whereas anger generally is activating. Becoming enraged enables you to create enough energy to take action instead of feeling stuck. Be aware, however, that the choices made while in survival mode may cause an unintended and distressing outcome because those choices are based on an automatic reaction. When you give yourself two seconds to respond instead of react, the outcome is usually more beneficial.

Have you ever had an experience, for example, where you came home later than expected and your partner yelled at you? “Where have you been… who were you with…how stupid could you be coming home this late especially because you have to get so up early tomorrow…?”  If you were to give yourself a breath (so you can respond instead of react), you’d likely recognize that the harsh tone was more out of fear than anger. If your partner was able to slow down enough and breathe, there could be acknowledgement that the reaction was likely based on their concern that something was terribly wrong; what if you were in a car crash or worse…dead!  Reacting to anger by raising one’s voice would seem reasonable once you’ve realized it was more out of panic than rage.

Understanding what the person is intending to convey is valuable. Consider reframing what you are hearing from your loved one. How about giving yourself a breath and acknowledging to yourself, “I’ll bet s/he is afraid something was terribly wrong…s/he loves me so much that if I were injured or dead, that would be devastating to him/her…” Wouldn’t your response be so different once you’ve realized that their reaction was out of concern for you and their anxiety that there was something wrong? Might you feel some compassion for them? Rather than yelling back, give yourself a moment to breathe (enabling you to respond rather than react), and then acknowledge their emotions; “…You seem really upset…I’m sorry to have worried you…next time I’ll call if I’m going to be more than 15 minutes late…” The outcome of that conversation will be much more productive and possibly even bring the two of you closer.

Last winter, I returned home from my office later than expected. My husband arrived home before I did. “Barbara, you left the garage door open…” he informed me. Because our house had been broken into a few years ago, my husband’s distress was even more understandable. Considering that I had been practicing effective communication skills for a long time, I still fell into the automatic, defensive trap. “No I didn’t... “ I blurted out, even though it could have been no one other than  me.  After I gave myself a breath and moved past survival (defensive) mode, I realized that there had been snow which accumulated under the garage door so when I closed it, the snow  prevented the door from remaining down. My next action (now that I could think rather than react) was to ask my husband what ideas he had to prevent this from ever happening again. “How about if you stay in the driveway until the garage door is closed?” he suggested. “What a reasonable solution!” I acknowledged. “Thanks for your suggestion…” finally came out of my mouth.  When I was able to engage my rational brain instead of my panicked brain, hearing the concern my husband was expressing then became possible. Since that experience, asking for his input and suggestions has become easier. As my mother always said, “two heads are better than one…” and she was right. Asking for another’s perspective can open up far more possibilities. Rather than viewing yourself as incompetent, consider recognizing yourself as quite clever by asking for assistance from others.

Transforming your usual method of assuming and functioning will take effort, no doubt. Initially it may feel uncomfortable or unnatural. Do it anyway. It’s worth the effort. Remember, practicing the new patterns will serve to reinforce the changes to the way you perceive experiences as well as to how you act. Now  that’s a rewarding change!