Every communication has two parts. There’s the words and there’s the music. There’s the content of what you say, and there’s how you say it. There’s the thought expressed, and there’s the feeling.
In my last two posts I’ve been writing about how giving and receiving feedback is an essential part of working through conflict. It’s necessary to demonstrate you understand what your partner is trying to say before you can be sure you understand it. You need your partner to prove comprehension before you know that she gets it. However, you might think that if you just paraphrased her words correctly you have grasped the message. Often that’s not the case. Many times it’s the emotion that she is most interested in conveying.
So, your wife comes home from work and says to you, “I’m sick of it! I work all day while you’re home playing video games! The least you could do is pick up your shit so I don’t have to do it! And where’s dinner?”
If you were to paraphrase just the words, you might say something like this, “You want me to pick up the house and make dinner for when you come home because you think all I do is play video games.”
That paraphrase is likely to be technically correct, but misses the main point. It fails to grasp the sense of urgency she’s trying to express. If you were to paraphrase the emotions as well as the words, you might say, “You’re angry and disgusted with me because you think all I do is play video games. You’d like me to pick up the house and make dinner, instead.”
See, you reflected back what you thought you saw in her emotions, that she was angry and disgusted. You didn’t agree with her. You didn’t say, Yeah, I know, I’m a lazy and disgusting pig. You simply acknowledged her emotions. This is important for a number of reasons.
First, you are reacting to her emotions as well as her words. When she comes in the door and screams, you would react differently than when she says those same words sweetly, right? Therefore, you would want to check out your perception of her emotion to see whether it is correct.
Secondly, she’s trying to say something with her emotions as well as with her words. When you acknowledge the emotions, when the message is accurately received, she may have no reason to continue to express them. Most of the time when emotions are acknowledged, people can let go of them. She won’t need to convince you that she’s angry anymore, when you show that you understand her emotions.
Finally, people’s thoughts and emotions are often out of sync. When you acknowledge her emotions, it’s like you are putting a mirror up to her and showing her just how she looks to you. She may not realize she’s coming across so strong. This might help her tone it down a bit if she doesn’t mean to come across as a raving maniac.
So, acknowledge the emotions as well as the thoughts, even if, especially if, you don’t agree with them.