War of the Words

If you’ve never argued with your spouse, kids, partner or family members, then I don’t know whether to write to you for advice, shout “…pants on fire!” or campaign to get you acknowledged by the religion of your choice! Most of us have hurt others with our words at some time, and even though we may be trained coaches and linguists, I’m convinced that most of us still don’t fully comprehend the power of the words we use to shape – or destroy – our lives.

I had a foul exchange with my husband the other evening, but even while I was in mid-rant, our consistent language patterns kept standing out in sharp relief, as if I was watching a soap opera. I drive him wild  by constantly analysing, mid-argument, the words and intonation he’s been using. He sees it as an annoying diversionary tactic and proof that I’m not really interested in what he’s saying. I naively think it might help us see how we’re snowballing into hell. We cover lots of unpleasant ground in our arguments, from raising our voices and talking over each other to intensifying the language we use.

My husband’s most hurtful argumentative language pattern is to exaggerate his adverbs of frequency and the intensity of the words he uses. “You’re always attacking me for…” “You find fault with everything I …” “Everyone hates it when you…”

Most of us crank up our adverbs of frequency to some extent but I’ve started to notice my daughter doing the same thing, and that really worries me. I’ve started gently asking her if she knows it to be true when she begins a complaint with “She never….” or “You’re always…..”. I’ve also tried to discourage her from answering everything with “OK.” So many words available to her in her rich vocabulary, to describe her days, her experiences, her feelings yet how much teenage indifference and misery can be expressed in those two syllables! I’ve also tried drawing her attention to how often she peppers her speech with sarcastic ‘actually’s.

And what kind of messages do we send our brains when we dress the relatively undramatic events of our daily lives in the most colourful, intense language we can, convincing ourselves that we’re doing it simply to be more expressive? Did he do something without telling you that mildly disappointed you or did he ‘stab you in the back’? Did she say something that peeved you a bit and made you vaguely sad or did you ‘take great offence’ at the way she ‘attacked’ you? Are you ‘shattered’, ‘terrified’ and ‘heartbroken’ or simply very tired, a bit worried and feeling hurt and sad?

How often do we torture ourselves with ‘should’s when a ‘could’, or an honest, authentic ‘want’ could turn our lives around?

 How often does a sloppily worded email cause unintentional offence?

Another area of language that can truly change lives is first to notice, then change how often we cancel out the best of intentions with a ‘but’. “I love you but …” “I’m sorry but ….” “I’m good at _ing, but I’m useless at….” Try, just for a week, to listen out for the phrases we tag on after a ‘but’ – then leave out part two! Let’s try loving and apologising unconditionally, or revelling in our strengths for a micro second before we cancel them out with a ‘but’!

I created this piece in my head as I stood at the kitchen window, watching the falling snow bend our trees in the eerie orange glow of a street light in the middle of the night. I’d gone to bed mid-argument, couldn’t sleep, my husband  came to bed, I got up, so I’d decided to go and make some camomile tea. I stood at the window, mesmerised by the swirling orange snowflakes and wondering how something as delicate as a snowflake had the power to bend and break the branches of trees. As I stood watching, I saw one supple branch rebel under the weight of the thousands of snowflakes heaped upon it,  catapulting its burden with surprising defensive venom. I went outside in my bare feet and dressing gown and gently swept the snow off the remaining trees with a broom, knowing it was too late to take back the thousands of tiny thoughtless comments I heap on my husband over the days, weeks and months until he feels he has to lash back at me about my lack of appreciation and my seeming obsession with perfecting details. I hoped I could at least save some of our branches.

The morning after our argument – we never usually go to sleep angry – my husband apologised graciously and we narrowly avoided having a fight about who was most sorry! I’d like to leave you with a great tip for apologising. We’ve taught the kids to do it, and although it’s really hard, it can cancel out huffs and resentments with the positive power of language and empathy. We call it the three part apology.

First, we say sorry for what it is we think we’ve done. Then we try to empathise with how the other person might be feeling; if we get these firsttwo  parts wrong, it’s still useful because the other person has the perfect chance to explain kindly and simply what was going on from their point of view! The third part is to ask if there’s anything we can do to fix things. So, an example might be: “I’m sorry I criticised you for buying things at the supermarket that I didn’t want. It must be really frustrating for you that I didn’t empathise with how tired you were and that I mentioned the things you got wrong without praising you for everything you got right. How can I fix it?

 And by the way, bare feet in the snow? PAINFUL!!!