If you have ever heard those words directed toward you, you know one of the first things that comes into your mind is dread. This could be followed by anger, frustration, defensiveness, and maybe even, depending on your relationship history with that person, the feeling of “here we go again.”
Nobody wants to hear those words. But when we do, there are some very important things to remember that will ease the impact of such a phrase, and help build healthier relationships.
Know that physiological reactions kick in first.
We must accept that the body has physiological reactions that we cannot control. For example, when something suddenly scares us, our hearts may begin to pound involuntarily, we may take in a sudden deep breath, we may yell out or scream, and we may even run or fight. These are physiological reactions to sudden fear. The same types of things happen when someone utters “those words.” By understanding that our initial reactions are autonomic, we can begin to separate those reactions from our true feelings and take a moment to calm down.
Assume positive intentions.
When someone says “those words,” it may be because they are fed up with something you have done or not done, in which case their tone may come across as angry or upset. No matter how it comes across, we can assume positive intentions to soften the blow. The person may be angry because they are fed up, and should have probably said something much sooner and not let it get this far (that’s another blog post for another day). But just know that they are bringing up the issue because they want a FIX to the problem so you two can continue with your lives happily. If the person wasn’t bringing up the problem at all, that would be a bad sign that they don’t really care about you or your relationship any more.
However the message is delivered, and no matter how difficult, hear them out. Clearly, whether they’ve let it get too far in their own heads or if it’s just something that has come up suddenly, they have something they feel is important for you to hear. Take a few deep breaths, clear your space from other distractions, and really hear what they have to say without interruptions. Often, our automatic response is to interrupt and want to address every point that is brought up as they are brought up. This does not allow the person addressing you to get out all they need to say, which may lead to further frustration and an emotional blowup.
Ask if you may share your reactions.
After the person is done sharing their concerns, ask politely if you can share your reactions.The mere politeness of you asking if you may share your thoughts may throw them off enough that they may become calmer, and more open to listening to your response.
Let down defenses, and soften your voice and language.
When you do respond, be aware of your tone of voice. We sometimes are not completely aware of how our tone of voice comes across, especially when we are feeling upset or defensive. Be deliberate about your delivery, and your calm, soothing voice will help calm and soothe the other person as well.
If necessary, ask for a breather.
If things get heated or you don’t feel like you’re really being heard, or even if you just need to compose your thoughts, kindly ask for a breather. You can suggest that perhaps you each take a few minutes’ break and go to another room in the house before coming back to the discussion. Sometimes those “breathers” need to be longer. Perhaps you need to think, do some things, take a long walk, or go for a drive. Ask for a hiatus to the conversation, and agree on a time when you will get back together to discuss again. If you’re an introvert like me, we need time to think and process before we can pull our thoughts together enough to respond. Be willing to ask for that needed time if necessary.
Think of other ways to respond.
If responding to the concerns right away is difficult, and you’ve asked for a breather, think of other creative ways to respond. Perhaps write a letter, an email, or have a text conversation. I know that may sound kind of impersonal, but if you are writing your responses to each other, no one gets interrupted, each person gets their say, and there is no tone of voice involved. Another advantage to writing responses is that you can also go back and re-read the conversation while you process. (One of my preferred ways to have a “discussion” with my husband is via text for this very reason!).
Being on the receiving end of “We need to talk” is not a fun place to be, especially if the person saying it hasn’t learned to say this in a less threatening way. However, if we take these suggestions to heart and know that the person bringing up the issue has something on their heart they would like to share with us, we can soften the blow for ourselves, and help the conversation be more productive.
Accepting the other person’s feelings, listening to what they have to say, and reacting in constructive ways can lead to a better relationship and continued growth together.