Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

"I Can't Believe You Said That?"

July 31, 2000

I've seen many couples laboring with poor communication skills. They recognize it. They know that their efforts at problem-solving don't get anywhere.

One or both partners may come away from a failed effort at communication feeling abused and not respected. Why is that? I believe part of the problem is the way things are said. The language used is much too direct, too forceful, too opinioned and too judgmental.

Here are some examples of judgmental statements:

"That's not true!"

"That's not what happened at all!"

"I disagree. What it's really all about is . . . "

"You're wrong."

"I don't know how you could possibly think that."

"That's a bunch of B.S!"

Then there are the "you" messages. These tell the other partner how he or she really feels. The speaker makes him or herself the authority on the feelings and opinions of their partner - something impossible to do.

"The way you feel is . . . ," or "How you really feel is . . . "

"You haven't heard a thing I've said."

"That's not right! What you meant to say was . . . "

Other responses express outrage, total lack of credibility and dramatic disbelief.

"I can't believe you said that!"

"That couldn't be true! If 1 thought for a minute that was true, I'd . . . "

"Why don't you say the truth?"

"What's wrong with you? Don't you remember . . . "

"Here we go again. You and your stupid idea that . . ."

"That's dumb. That's really, really dumb. There is no way in hell that... "

Forceful vs. respectful. To observe opinionated speakers in action, watch TV talk shows where guests with opposing points of view are pitted against each other. Whoever shouts the loudest, interrupts the most, drowns out others or is the most rude and obnoxious, wins. (I have noticed that Crossfire and some of the other "interview" shows have toned down - thank goodness, but the confrontation shows like Jenny Jones, Maury, etc. have real yelling going on.)

I believe that by changing the way something is said, a tone of respect and openness is communicated. This is done by qualifying one's comments, by using tentative language and by acknowledging the validity of another's point of view. I spend time helping people become comfortable with softening up their language and opinions. Here's what I mean:

"I may be wrong, but this is how I see it."

"It seems to me, and you may feel differently, . . . "

"For what's it's worth, here's how I feel."

"I'm not sure I'm right, but this is how I see it."

"I might be off base and, if I am, please help me understand. At any rate, here's what I think."

"It's my opinion, which you may disagree with, . . ."

These expressions concede that the truth is open to question and there are other points of view. It shows the speaker is open to new information and the points under discussion can be negotiated.

By using this phrasing, the speaker tells the listener that it is truly a two-way communication and that mutual influence can occur. The listener, hearing respectful phrases, relaxes his or her defenses and can really listen to what is being said.

By using tentative or qualified language, the feelings of a strongly opinionated person will eventually catch up to the way he or she talks. The language we use has the potential for controlling the attitude we have toward the listener. That is a lot of power.

Softening up. By changing the way opinions are expressed, the reality and legitimacy of another person's opinion is automatically assumed. Using these kinds of phrases is difficult for a person who is judgmental and opinionated. He or she is usually so sure of the "rightness" of their opinion that efforts to soften it aren't felt to be necessary. The effort required to use these phrases is an education in itself about how rigid and closed one may be.

I suppose it's possible to use these expressions as manipulation or to disguise an inflexible close-minded position. However, it wouldn't take long for a listener to detect that they are words only and there is no real respect of another point of view.

There is a place for strong opinion in communication. Nothing is lost by first recognizing the possible validity of the listener's point of view.

"I've heard what you have to say, but I feel . . . "

"You may not agree with this, but . . ."

"I agree with part of what you say, but I strongly feel . . . "

"We may have to agree to disagree because I still feel . . . "

If politeness and respect become a part of the language we use, the door is open for genuine communication. At least, that is the way it seems to me.