Communication — 11 April 2004
Words that hurt and words that heal

Why is it that some good, wholesome and kind people are inclined to say insensitive words to their partners while others seem to always know the right words to use? Is it a matter of innate talent, a learned skill or a special wisdom

The correct answer is all of the above. These four categorie-orientation toward self and others; reaction without self-censorship; values communicated; and positive view of others – can be used in analyzing the differences between the “Mis-Speakers” and the “Right-Sayers”.

1. Orientation toward self and others is probably the most significant difference between those who unintentionally offend and those who soothe others.

People who are “Right-Sayers” are often ones whose concerns lie first and foremost in the best interests of others. They consider their own needs later. For example, a husband who was involved in a car accident while driving his wife’s car, kept talking to the nurse about his concerns for his wife’s inconvenience rather than about his own injuries.
Those, who are most concerned about other people first, are more likely to use words of compassion earlier than are those who have their own internal cues as a basis for dialogue.

The “Mis-Speakers'” basis of responding to the world is their own self-perceptions. They sort out information and react primarily and instinctively by how it affects them. They may be very caring and sensitive to other people as a secondary response. In every situation the self-oriented people react to the anticipated impact a situation may have on them. For example, a wife who just heard that her husband lost his job reacted by saying, “There goes our family vacation I have been waiting for a whole year.” This wife saw her loss first before she was able to console her husband about his pain. This type of response is pre-programmed in this woman’s nature and is intended to keep her safe. Much of her energy is spent on protecting her interests for a better life.

2. Reaction without self-censorship is another factor that causes some people to misrepresent their true loving intentions.

People who take a moment to delay their spontaneous impulsive responses and focus on the appropriate ones are more likely to rephrase their reactions in a more sensitive and reasonable way.

The spontaneous eruption of words that other people use leads to an uncensored delivery that may be offensive. When confronted they say, “that’s not what I meant” and indeed it was their instant reaction rather than their deep intention. One woman told her friend that her boss’s wife has just died. “Great”, said the friend, “Now you can date him”. This reactive response was certainly inappropriate.

3. Using positive values in our communication pattern also creates words that heal.

The desire to please others is a value that propels certain communication style. People who want to be seen as kind and caring use language that is supportive. They please others and gain a sense of well being at the same time. This underlying value requires efforts to guess what others may appreciate hearing and provide it.

Other people are bent on being “totally truthful and honest” in expressing their opinions and feelings. They take pride in their authentic and forthright ways, regardless of the impact on others. They believe that others also want to hear the full “truth”, even if it will hurt them. This interpretation of communication ends up being insensitive and hurtful. People do not need to lie, but phrasing their opinions with kindness does not detract from their honesty. “Do you think my hair looks terrible now?” she asked, “Yes” was the reply. “Your hair looks a little less wonderful than usual and you are still very pretty” may be an honest and kind response.

4. How positive one is in viewing others is another factor that impacts appropriate words.

Those who know what to say often have a positive view of others and separate the kudos from suggestions for change. A “Right-Sayer” wife, whose husband completed cleaning the garage after some delay, may stress the positive work by saying: “Thank you for cleaning the garage, it looks great”. This response will feel positive and complimentary to the partner and may motivate him to complete his projects sooner in the future.

Some people choose to encourage other people by pointing out their errors to them. They tend to give a compliment and then end it with a discount. “You finally finished cleaning the garage after all my nagging and begging.” The listener may end up feeling criticized rather than valued.

If you are not yet one, you can become a “Right-Sayer” by using your wisdom with some practice to adapt your innate nature towards the right, healing words.

  • Decide to think of others first when communicating with them.
  • Pause before you respond to check out the appropriateness of your words.
  • Check how you would feel if this was said to you.
  • Be honest and proud of it, only if it does not hurt others.
  • Be kind. Facts, history, other people’s faults are not solid motivators, love is.
  • Think about the intended motivation for the comment and assess whether this delivery will achieve it.
  • Using words that heal enriches you, your partner and your relationship.

April 11, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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