Words Matter

What you say matters a lot: The way you talk matters, and the words you use, matter too.

Saying “have a nice day” sounds friendly. Saying “enjoy the next 24 hours,” sounds threatening.

Getting your message across is a way of connection, whether it is verbal or nonverbal. It’s a powerful tool in relationships that can be used to make or break relationships.

Also, the fact that you need to clearly share ideas and thoughts as part of  communication is very, very important and I probably should have clearly communicated that first.

What I am trying to get at is the idea of communicating to connect, which may seem really obvious but actually (surprisingly?) is less obvious than you might think.

Susie sat on the couch with her arms crossed, glowering at Noah. “I don’t think I need to state something that's so obvious,” she muttered. “If I need to get stuff for the house, I’m not going to run every last purchase by you.”

“You think I’m an ATM,” Noah retorted. “Do I really need to spell out to you that your spending habits are well out of our means?”

There are many unknown factors that could have played into this conversation, but the part we are focusing on, within the context of connection, is not judging the right/wrong aspect. If we zoom in on what is being said, how it is being said, and what is not being said, and tweak the responses, this can become a scenario of connection.

Things would look very different if Susie and Noah would state their feelings and needs clearly.

Susie could clarify, “It puts a lot of pressure on me to figure out how to budget, so I just buy what works and hope we can afford it. I think it would relieve a lot of the pressure if we came up with a better system so we don’t fight about this.”

Noah might say, “I know you are in charge of shopping for the household items and the children’s clothing. I get really stressed when the bills that come in are higher than we can afford, and I need to be able to cover our expenses. Is it possible for us to discuss this together?”

Each of these phrases, clarifying feelings and needs, could be used to put Susie and Noah in a place of connection, of bonding and teamwork, rather than pitting their needs against each other.

Tensions rise, feelings get hurt, and there are many misunderstandings when details or expectations are not clarified.

Liam and Natalie were discussing summer plans for their family. Liam said, “Let’s keep the kids home this summer, and we can use all the money we save on camp to take the kids on a week-long trip at some point in July.”

“We are definitely not doing that,” Natalie refused. “It makes no sense, and  it is a terrible idea.”

“You are not even considering it, you automatically!” Liam stormed off angrily.

This scenario can go in a much better direction if Liam and Natalie are open to sharing their feelings and needs.

This might sound like Liam saying, “What if we kept the kids home from camp and used the money to go away? I would be so excited to take the kids somewhere really special this summer. I could really use the break myself, too.”

Natalie might respond, “I’m not sure I am up to running mommy camp, I really need some time to myself every day, but I love the idea of going away and you having a break. Can we discuss how we could make this work for both of us?”

Alternatively, after Natalie refused, Liam might have clarified (instead of storming off), “It is hurtful for me when my ideas get shot down, and a family vacation is something that is important to me. I need to be able to discuss this, and I want to hear more about your perspective.”

This way of talking may seem stilted and unnatural at first, which makes sense, as many new skills take getting used to. It is the clarification of one's own feelings and positive needs, which, when shared with one another, changes the track of the conversation and leads to connection. If you are looking to turn problem solving into a united effort, this is the skill to focus on.

People have different norms and expectations. Even as an independent adult who does not need to ask permission, the act of deciding on things together, coordinating with one another, and asking if the other person is okay with your choices are all positive ways of connecting to your partner.

It’s less about permission or powerlessness and more about recognizing that in a partnership, one person’s choice may affect the other, so connecting through clear conversation can be a way of solidifying to each other: You are important to me. Your thoughts and opinions matter to me.

Words can create emotional safety, so becoming comfortable with communication is a power not to be underestimated. Part of intentionally creating a safe space includes letting a loved one know that you want to be open and giving. Using language of connection demonstrates your availability to be emotionally present in the relationship and clarifies the desire for what you want in the relationship (goals).

Here are some ideas for phrases that communicate connection:

  • I’m here for you.
  • I would love to hear more about that.
  • I’d like to be supportive.
  • You matter to me.

One of the best things you can do for a relationship is become comfortable with your own emotions. Since connection is dependent on sharing feelings and needs, self awareness is a prerequisite to connecting through communication (as is emotional regulation).

Self awareness allows for phrases such as:

  • I feel helpless right now and I could really use a supportive hand.
  • I am anxious with everything that’s on my plate and I just need some time to myself.
  • I am having a lot of feelings right now and I need space to process them.
  • I feel lonely and would love for us to spend more time together.

Making space for the self, which includes an awareness of what is going on inside, and accepting and working with those feelings, will in turn lead to an openness to connecting through communication.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times.