Pausing to think before saying something requires self-control in the short run but long-term results will prove very satisfying.
We all say hurtful things from time to time. Sometimes we lash out from anger, unleashing mean words on purpose with the intent to hurt.
Sometimes we just don’t think before we speak. We do not mean to cause hurt. But, it is easy to forget to use empathy, which tells us to be aware of the impact we are having on the person with whom we are communicating. When we say things without thinking, we can inadvertently cause hurt.
When someone hurts my feelings, I find it helpful to question if that was the intention of the one who hurt me. I ask myself, “What do I think was his (or her) intent?”
For example, Richard was irate with Jack, his partner, for exceeding their budget last month. They had agreed on a monthly spending limit and Jack exceeded it. Jack saw a pair of jeans he wanted and impulsively bought them. This is the kind of infraction that could start a fight in any relationship. One person makes a promise to the other and then breaks it.
Seeing the Crossroads
So what happens next? Jack and Richard are at a crossroads where they could either have a huge fight or not. Here are examples of two possible conversations each with a very different approach and outcome:
Possible conversation 1: Intent is not considered and anger is not managed well. This approach leads to a rift.
Richard: You did what??? You’re such a jerk. How can you be so inconsiderate? Now what are we going to do if we can’t make rent this month? I don’t think this relationship is working.
Jack: (Feeling totally attacked) You’re always yelling at me. You’re not perfect either you know? Maybe you’re right about this relationship not working!
They both storm away feeling angry and miserable.
Possible conversation 2: Intent is considered and anger is skillfully managed.
Richard remembers to pause. He knows he needs to first calm his anger. Then he will be able to think things through BEFORE he acts or speaks.
Richard: Give me a minute. (Richard breathes. He takes a walk outside to cool his emotions. After the storm inside calms down a bit, he wonders to himself why Jack would do this? He thinks about Jack’s intent. Did Jack do this to hurt him? No. Then why? Anger now calmed, Richard’s curiosity kicks in. He returns home ready to talk calmly. Richard starts a conversation from a place of curiosity and a willingness to understand so long as Jack is honest with him.)
Richard: I don’t understand what you were thinking Jack. Can you explain?
Jack: I’m so sorry, Richard. I was feeling low and I just impulsively reached for something to cheer me up. You’ve heard of retail therapy? I’ll work extra hours to pay for them.
Richard: I’d appreciate that Jack. Next time if your feeling down, call me at work. I’m here for you.
A Conscious Decision To Be Constructive
I am not a fighter. I like having peaceful and loving relationships. As a student of emotion science, I’ve learned that emotions pull for very specific reactions, impulses, and behaviors. When we react from an emotional place, we are by definition not being level headed. That is because in an emotional moment, we lose balance.
It is best not to start conversations or make important decisions until our emotions have calmed and our “thinking brain” is more in charge. An emotional reaction to an already tense situation has great power to be destructive. In contrast, when we calm down, the chances are better that we’ll solve problems constructively.
Conversation 1 above is destructive. In this example, Richard allowed his anger to dictate his reaction. Richard’s anger very predictably led to Jack’s anger and then Jack’s withdrawal. Jack too had an opportunity to take the high road and manage his reaction to Richard’s attack constructively. If one person loses his temper, the other has an opportunity to turn the conversation around by suggesting they both calm down before they resume a conversation. This approach prevents fights from escalating out of control.
Conversation 2 is constructive. Even though Jack started the conflict with his “bad behavior,” Richard chooses to take the “high road.” Richard exerts strength and energy to stay cool, thoughtful and not to react to make things worse.
Thinking about the intent of your friend, coworker, boss, spouse, partner or child doesn’t mean you condone their hurtful or bad behaviors. But fighting never solves anything. You can respond in a way to solve a problem or devolve together into more hurtful and destructive places.
Erupting into anger, taking a hurtful jab (metaphorically) or giving someone “the silent treatment” provides momentary relief because you expel or “act out” your anger, discharging the energy from inside your body. But once the fight is over, and you and your loved one have retreated to each of your proverbial corners, often the immediate pleasure of punching back is replaced by self-punishment, sadness, fear, regret, loneliness, and anxiety.
Questioning intent before you fight can help resist the biological pull to react from an angry place. If someone hurts you on purpose, anger is important for setting limits and boundaries. It is not OK to hurt others on purpose. More often in close relationships, we don’t mean to hurt each other. Typically, the needs and wants of each partner have come into conflict. And negotiating conflicting wants and needs is always hard and at times very painful. Calming anger by thinking about whether your partner intended to hurt you will benefit you. Pausing to think before saying something requires self-control in the short run but long-term results will prove very satisfying.
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