Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
Most of us are familiar with the experience of getting into a quarrel without knowing how it started. Many married couples complain about this, each complaining the other started the argument. Often, each will give a complete description of the argument, the topic, when it started, what the issue was and how it spiraled upward and out of control. Each will blame the other for having started the conflict and each will protest that they were misunderstood in what they said.
This type of misunderstanding happens in all types of relationships, including at work, in school, as a team member and in politics.
Why does this happen?
The fact is that we communicate with a lot more than just words:
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- The human face is extremely expressive of what we are feeling. Emotions of anger, disgust, fear, worry, anxiety, rage, love, happiness, contentment are each expressed without having to say a word. We smile, frown, flare our noses, lift our eye brows, smile, smirk, purse our lips and etc.
- Our voices are extremely expressive of what we may be feeling regardless of the words we are using. Our tones of voice can sound relaxed, happy, irritable, tense, angry, fearful, anxious, worried, superior, rejecting and so on.
- A lot of emotion is expressed through “body language” such as crossing our arms and legs at a meeting, sitting with our legs spread out and are arms down, having our hands open and relaxed or having them fisted, and etc, just as the other non verbal communications.
- Eyes express a lot. In fact, Shakespeare said that “eyes are the window to the soul.” A man starting at a woman may express attraction, an interest in getting to know her, but a leer expresses a wish to molest or rape. Two men staring at one another may express a threat and a wish to self defend. A stare may be interpreted as all of things while the person staring is doing so blankly and absent mindedly because of being self absorbed.
- Tears may express happiness, sadness, anger or any other variety of emotions.
When considering the fact that all of these things occur in combination with one another, including the use of words, is it any wonder that we easily misinterpret what the other is communicating? In fact, is it any wonder that we may find ourselves accused of being angry, hostile, contemptuous, etc, when we had no conscious wish express any one of those emotions?
In this way, a wife may complain that she simply asked her husband to lower the sound on the television when he became angry at her. In response to his expression of anger, she reacted with an angry retort and they were off and running in a major battle with one another.
When this angry episode is explored in marriage therapy the husband states that his wife sounded nasty and sarcastic when she “told him to lower the sound on the television.” After some initial denial, she acknowledges the fact that she was angry at him for some other issue unrelated to the sound of the television. She thought she was hiding her irritation with him but had to admit that her tone of voice must have betrayed her feelings. Then, after he got angry at her it was easy for her to respond in kind.
How to Minimize the Chance of Misinterpretation:
There are a variety of ways that people can use to help clarify the emotional situation without getting into a quarrel.
- If the wife in the case above was irritated with her husband because he failed to take out the garbage this morning after she asked him to, she could state: “I was upset that you did not take out the garbage.” This is likely to get a better response than if she said: “You did not take out the garbage and you never do what I ask.” Expressing one’s feelings with “I” statement rather than using the accusatory “you” works a lot better in possibly avoiding conflict. Also, drastic statements conveyed through adjectives like “you never,” “you always,” and so on, are very provocative and best avoided. They are also “never” completely accurate.
- If the husband had said something like, “Sure, I’ll lower the television but I sure would feel better if you did not sound so angry or if he had asked her if something was wrong because she sounded angry, it could have prevented the quarrel and given his wife a chance to clarify the issue.
- Before expressing an emotion it is often better to pause and consider how one wants to verbalize their feelings. There are always consequences to what is said and a brief pause to consider the consequences can avoid a lot of pain. The wife might have thought to herself that she wanted to tell him she was upset but decided to express it more in the way described above, using “I statements” than being accusatory. The consequences of expressing unvarnished anger can be to create alienation and distance between husband and wife.
- All of this presumes that an individual knows or is aware of their emotions. It is possible to do a check of one’s thoughts and feelings to see if an emotion is being harbored somewhere underneath not quite in full consciousness. Doing this can help to then do an assessment as to how important it is to express that emotion.
Of course, all of this has to do with the importance of regulating and modulating one’s emotional state. A lot of what happens emotionally is automatic. However, this does not mean that we cannot modulate. Taking a pause, thinking of consequences, weighing how something is expressed, and checking with the other by asking if it’s true that they seem angry, sad, etc, are all modulating skills that help to improve communication and relationships. Therre is always a better way to express things than what may be our immediate reaction. This does not imply that we should hide our feelings. As stated earlier, what we feel gets expressed non verbally anyway. What it means is that we express what we feel in ways that reduce damage and hurt.
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