Watching the Words We Use: 6 Foundational Steps to Improve Your Conversations with Your Loved Ones.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is a lie we tell ourselves and the little ones in our lives. When was the last time you thought of your word choice? Especially with those we cherish? We carefully choose our words with new clients more than with our loved ones – the ones closest to us. We can be callous that way. 

What do you mean I can be callous with the people I care about? In the comfort of our familiar surroundings and familiar people, we tend to blank out and not think about the words we use with the ones closest to us. We then add our own sinful tendencies towards selfishness that elevate our priorities. This tendency is most on display with the people we are comfortable with. Within you and me, are very active hearts and minds. When we are not loving God and others, we are usually loving ourselves and our priorities.

What does this look like for you and me? Imagine you’re on your way home from a draining workday. Nerves and frustrations have taken their toll. The result is, you are worn thin. On days like this, you long for a welcoming sanctuary that can be your home, spouse, and young children; but when you walk in the door, that evaporates and the more frequent, realistic welcoming sets in. Your spouse has had an exhausting day too, including chasing down two young toddlers. Both parents are frustrated.

Typically, this plays out with both you and your spouse not being on your “a-game” in loving each other well. Conversations become adversarial, especially with inclinations towards selfishness. We do not check our hearts and are not intentional with our words. Awareness and intentionality with our hearts and words are critical, especially here. How can this be redeemed? Can it be? Yes, on both counts!

Increasing our awareness. 

What is awareness? Aware is defined as, “having a knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.” So having awareness is, “concern about and a well-informed interest in a particular situation or development.” We need to watch our motives and our words. Proverbs 4:23 says:

“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

Being aware is key to good biblical communication skills.

That’s a lot of words!

Do you know how many words you say in a day? Not to be stereotypical, but on “average” a woman says 15,000 – 20,000 words per day while the “average” man says 7,000 – 10,000. Either way, that is a lot of words! When was the last time you thought about the words that come out of your mouth? Especially with the ones near-and-dear to us? Do we pay attention to those words that can build up or tear down? Think about that for a minute. How intentional are we with our words?

Don’t forget intentionality.

Awareness is the first step, but we need something else, don’t we? We have to be intentional in how we love the people around us, especially in how we talk or use our words. Back to the scenario of arriving to a hectic home from a frustrating day at work; you arrive to a hectic household with a frustrated spouse having to deal with two busy young toddlers. Instead of a typical negative reaction – having a lack of understanding of ourselves and spouse, and the foresight in the situation, and then expressing that in unfiltered words – wouldn’t it be nice to be constructive and uplifting by bringing the 1st and 2nd Great Commandment to bear into the situation?

Being intention is an important ingredient to good christian marriage communication.

The 1st and 2nd Commandment is (Matthew 22:37-4):

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

What follows, will put this into practice by increasing our awareness and intentionality through our communications with others.

6 foundational steps that will improve your conversations. AIM WITH YOUR WORDS!  

  1. Stop or slow down and
  2. Look around and ask, “What is happening around me? What is the situation?”
  3. Check the inside now, by asking yourself, “What am I feeling?,” and
  4. Ask, “What am I thinking?,”
  5. Determine whom will you love? God or self? Apply the 1st and 2nd Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) or will you be selfish?
  6. How can I best express #5 in words?/Under this current situation?/In this current context? The goal here is to aim with your words. 
Aiming with our words is a key biblical communication principle.

Let’s unpack this: Steps 1 – 4 will help us build awareness, while steps 5 and 6 will help us with intentionality (to help with aiming our words/speech).  

Steps 1 – 4 help with awareness.

Step 1: Stop or slow down. Often when situations get heated, they speed up, both in the situation and within ourselves – the situation around us heats up and speeds up to whirlwind speed. At the same time within us, our emotions and thoughts swirl about. We need to slow things down. 

But how can we do this? Often it is too late when we notice the conversation is in an awful state of affairs. How can I head this off? Well, I am glad you asked. There are two natural reactions that you will notice within yourself and the other person you’re speaking to. Number one: things will heat up and speedup. Or, number two: things will get cold and distant. (Teaser: there is a third reaction that is not natural, but is Spirit led, intentional and redemptive, which we will talk about in the last step, step 6.)

Slowing down is key to having good conversations especially in stressful situations.
Sometimes we simply have to…

Sometimes we simply have to….

When you notice one of these natural reactions, the key is to STOP or SLOW DOWN on the inside. Put on the preverbal breaks. This leads us to the next step.

Step 2: Look around, on the outside, what is happening? What is the situation? Ask yourself what was said? What did I say? Look and use the surrounding situational data you have. What does it tell you about the person you’re dealing with? Are they frustrated? Hangry? Tired? Wanting to talk to another adult because they were around a 3 yr old and a 5 yr old for the last 10 hours? Look around and look at the circumstances. This will tell you a lot! 

Let’s take the scenario from earlier. You arrive home; this time you have your radar up – looking around: What is the condition of your spouse? You notice your 3 yr old is crying and your 5 yr old is yelling. You are greeted with words, “Finally you’re home!” This is when slowing down and having situation awareness matters. Wars have started in similar fashions – thrusted into a tense situation, assumptions being made, and actions taken on those wrong assumptions; Gulf of Tonkin incident, aka “USS Maddox incident,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_incident.

Emotions and thoughts - we have both and understanding that is key to communications.

Now what is happening to you? I mean, on the inside? Step 3 and 4 will help with that. First, let’s talk about distinguishing our emotions (or feelings) from thoughts. What is the first thing that a person experiences? What hits a person’s brain first – emotions or thoughts? Emotions hit first,specifically, our amygdala region of the brain. Besides coming first, emotions can often be nonlinear, meaning they intensify if your mind links the current experience to some past event. Similarly to how the smell of apple pie can take you back to your grandmother’s porch when you were 12, emotions often ignore time and space – that is- they can be triggered. Thoughts come second, slower than emotions, from within our prefrontal cortex. This is by God’s design. The first thing that anyone experiences is an emotion, then a couple milliseconds later, is the thought. Another fact to remember is that you can experience more than one emotion and have more than one thought about an experience.

Emotions and thoughts can be intertwined.

So this brings us to Step 3: What are you feeling in this moment? Back to the scenario when you enter your house with your often unrealistic vision of a welcoming sanctuary being dashed with a bustling house of young children and an equally worn-thin wife greeting you. (Plus, all the residual baggage you’re bringing from work.) When you feel the heat of irritation/annoyance/anger (pick one), stop and slow down (Step 1). Assess the situation, what is happening (Step 2). What are the feelings you’re experiencing right now? If it’s frustration and/or anger, name it to yourself and realize there are other emotions behind them as well, like dashed expectations. At this point, it will do you some good to remind yourself that you can feel multiple things at the same time, and they can go in different directions: you are glad to be home to see and be with your wife and children, but  at the same time, feel frustrated when you encounter them. Take an inventory of your emotional state, giving yourself some understanding that you may feel an odd mix of emotions. The emotions may not be directly connected to the event at hand but were triggered or linked to a past related or non-related event (speaking to the non-linear nature of our emotions). At this state, the key is to identify. 

Now what are you thinking? Step 4, thoughts come after the emotions and you too often have multiple thoughts about the situation that may not all be going in a nice, orderly fashion.  They may be jumbled as well. Do the intentional work of inventorying your thoughts, just like you did with your emotions. Remember, the key is to identify.

Step 1 – 4 increases our awareness. This is the first part of the biblical principle, taking all thoughts captive in the statement, “taking all thoughts captive and putting off our old selves and putting on our new selves.” In 2 Corinthians 10:4b it says,

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,”

and Ephesians 4:22-24 states,

“to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

What will follow is the second part of this principle, putting off our old selves and putting on our new selves.

Steps 5 and 6 helps with intentionality.

The remaining steps, 5 and 6 are all about being intentional. With the help of the Holy Spirit, as Christians, we can take those captured feelings and thoughts and put them through the filter of loving God and loving others as He calls us to, within the context of the situation. Loving God and loving others? I am talking about having the 1st and 2nd Great Commandment work about in our hearts and minds so that it comes out of our mouths, hands, and feet. (The 1st and 2nd Great Commandment) Matthew 22:37-39:

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Now that you’re home and you realize it is less than your idyllic picture of sanctuary and solitude and your wife/friend/mother of your children is stressed out, too-this is when the both of you can be careless with your assumptions and words – this is where step 5 comes in. Determine whom will you  love? God or self? Will you apply the 1st and 2nd Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) to this unfolding situation or be selfish? This step (this decision) is usually the fork in the road of conversations where it was proactively redeemed or spun out of control in anger, frustration, and further relational strife. This time, you are determined to love God, your wife and children – to honor and not to turn selfishness into anger or manipulation.

Aiming with our words is key to having good communications.

Step 6 is: How can I best express step 5 in my words, given the current situation that I am in? The context? (Frustration with a hard day at work and my wife as well, as she struggled to handle 2 toddlers.) The goal here is to AIM WITH MY WORDS! How can I apply all this emotional, cognitive, and situational information from myself and my wife wisely? What is applied wisdom? Well, it is discernment! 

First, we will use self-control, which is thinking and acting out steps 1-6. Second, desire and pray to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) as God calls us to. In part, this is how He redeems situations. It is not saying the truth harshly. Not just flattery and being avoidant and calling it, “using loving language.” It is having the hard conversations while the other person knows, although it may be hard to hear, you care. You’re “doing” the 2nd Great Commandment. Your focus is building people up, instead of tearing them down. 

What has to undergird step 6 is step 5: making the determination to love God and to love others creatively and intelligently within your current situation. This can change anger or frustration into something redemptive; it takes an unpleasant situation and makes it better. This mindset changes the tone of the entire conversation and trajectory of the relationship, for the better. So, when arriving home and encountering an also stressed spouse using these 6 steps we can constructively love God and honor our loved ones in the details of lives lived in a fallen world. Think about it; how does change, for the better, happen? It is Christians acting incarnationally-loving others like Jesus loves them – intelligently and creatively within their given situations. We can turn potential conflicts into moments of growth, healing, and reconciliation, together. 

If you need more personalized help with how to improve communication in marriage, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for counseling from a biblical perspective at https://www.providencebiblicalcounseling.org.

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