How do we change the way we say things to others?

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Can we learn to change how we say things to others? Like working on our tone?

What I love about this question is the way it recognizes our contribution to a conflict. It’s not just about what the other person says or does; we are responsible for our own behavior as well. As I often say to couples when I’m teaching them communication skills, we must learn to (a) listen in a way that helps the other person feel heard, and (b) speak in a way that makes it easier for the other to listen. This post is about the latter.

Words, of course, are important. When we’re angry, we’re apt to spew hurtful, hateful words. But even if there’s a good reason for our anger, this kind of speech is never justified (e.g., Matt 5:21-22). It will immediately send the conversation off the rails, and will cause the kind of lingering pain that will make the next conversation more difficult. Thus, if we want to do better at responsible communication, we can begin by editing insulting language out of our speech.

(Side note: yes, I know, sometimes friends and family members tease and joust with each other using insults, supposedly all in good fun. This can be harmless. But it’s often difficult to know when it stops being fun for one or both people, and the slope gets more slippery by the second. If you’re at all uncertain about the strength of your relationship, it’s best to stay away from that kind of talk, even in jest.)

As communication experts will tell you, however, what we say with our words is less important than how we say them. Others react not just to our words, but our tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. We break eye contact, or else stare the other person down; we frown, roll our eyes, cross our arms, or sigh in exasperation. The other person will react negatively to all these signals, no matter how reasonable we think our words may be.

And we may not even be aware that we’re doing it.

Sometimes, of course, we are aware, and add or exaggerate such gestures for effect. (A friend once told me that she caught her granddaughter standing in front of the mirror, looking at her reflection, and practicing rolling her eyes.) But even if we don’t know we’re doing it, cultivating a different attitude will help change our unconscious non-verbal behavior.

First, we need to be honest about what we really want out of the conversation. At root, everyone wants to be heard. We want to be able to look others in the eye, express our pain, and have them respond with understanding and compassion — even if they’re the one who caused the pain in the first place.

That, of course, would be wonderful. But we tend to clothe that pain in angry, blaming words. And very few people can be confronted that way without becoming defensive.

So consider: what do you really want? Be honest. Do you want to hurt the other person — even just a little — for hurting you? That’s understandable, but acting on that impulse is likely to cause even more pain for both of you.

Instead, can you recognize that your deeper need is to be heard and understood?

And that the person across from you has the same need?

Such a shift in perspective is difficult to create out of nothing, especially in the moment of anger. Compassion, for yourself and others, has to be cultivated when you’re calm. Meditate on God’s love for you specifically, his compassion for your pain. Pray for the person with whom you have difficulty keeping your composure (Matt 5:44-45). Learn to see them as people who have their own pain — some of it caused by you — and as people who are also deeply loved by God.

Then imagine: what would the next conversation look like if you were able to hold onto this way of seeing yourself and the other? How would you feel? What would you do differently?

A renewed attitude and perspective can help you change how you feel and act in the midst of conflict. But don’t wait for conflict to happen before trying to make the shift. In the onslaught of all the old feelings of anger, resentment, or shame, you won’t be able to do it. Exercise your compassion and self-compassion muscles when you’re calm, and they’ll be stronger when you need them.

It might even help with your tone of voice.