What if you had a nifty little treasure chest of magical words you could reach for to help smooth over all those rough conversational edges you experience in relationships? Ta-da! You’ve come to the right place. For contained right here, in this article, is my prize collection. Mind you, it’s not just any collection, but rather one that has been tried, tweaked, tested, and proven true — numerous times. My husband can definitely testify to such.
Words have the power to fuel or destroy our relationships. The art of choosing the right words is essential in decreasing conflict and increasing connection. Talking is one thing. Conversation is another. A truly meaningful conversation has the ability to calm and stabilize one’s heart and brain. A destructive conversation, on the other hand, can trigger a flash flood of cortisol and adrenaline in the body. Stressed individuals will seek to protect and defend themselves. Either way, our words have an impact — for better or worse.
A rich, five-star conversation, to me, is one of listening without judgement, speaking without criticism, and connecting with compassion and empathy. Easy to say, not always easy to do. Yet conversations, when done well, allow us to connect beyond our differences. For me, that’s a key intention. The words we use, as well as the style in which we utter them — our tone, reading of cues, and even the timing of our pauses — are all such elements that play significant roles in the outcome of a diamond-delicious discussion.
Imagine yourself coming to your partner or a dear friend with the best of intentions for a meaningful conversation about a hard topic. There’s a lot to keep in mind. For starters, remember you are both wired differently, with unique psychological backgrounds, personal histories, and relational competence levels. Given these factors, I suggest first setting an intention to simply stay open and creative coming to the table, vs. the temptation to polarize around differences.
Next, create a spacious atmosphere for listening. One can do this by simple checking in to see if the other person is available to discuss a topic. Ask your partner, “Are you open to hearing something that’s been weighing on me?” If the timing isn’t great, agree together on when might work. Ideally, you want to enter the conversation mutually prepared to have it. The alternative is that one or the other feels cornered or caught off-guard, thus entering the conversational ring feeling unsafe from the get-go. I once heard it said that conflict is “growth trying to happen.” Nice, right? So prioritize listening. It’s best if you can start tough conversations by creating fertile ground for that growth trying to happen.
Choice of Words Matters
Let me share a few of my favorite words and phrases that have the power to infuse goodwill and positive energy into conversations. My marriage, for instance, has been delightfully transformed by the phrase “I have a request.” I love this opener, as it immediately communicates that the person of whom the request is being made has the freedom to choose a response. They can agree to meet the request…or not.
Making a request is different than saying, “I need…” When you tell someone you need something, it can feel, to my ear at least, more demanding, constricting — or, depending on the tone, even clingy. And, truth be told, under most circumstances, we all have the capacity to meet our own needs, even while longing for another’s support.
Requesting something is a beautiful way to express a desire, big or small. Requesting also offers a way to nicely, and without criticism, let someone know you prefer one behavior over another. For example, “I have a request: Can you please keep the opened mail in a separate pile?” This request rings lighter in the ear than, for instance, “I hate it when I have to sift through a pile of mail to get to what’s important.” The latter, of course, can indirectly imply criticism.
Then there’s the intriguing but/and duo. Both of these little three-letter words pack a powerful punch. They’re called conjunctions, and they serve to join two statements. And joins two ideas in an inclusive way. But joins opposite ideas.
That said, let’s consider the impact that using one or the other has on a conversation. In my experience, if a friend tells me they long to be in a relationship, but aren’t sure they’re ready, I hear a contradiction. The first part of the sentence feels weak, hard to believe, or just plain gets canceled out. If instead they say they want to be in a relationship and aren’t sure they’re ready, I take both elements to be true — their desire and their feelings of being unprepared.
In an effort to foster strong relationships, I suggest staying very conscious of when you plop a but in between two thoughts you are sharing. Using and seems a more inclusive way to roll — both your ideas will more likely be considered, with far less resistance to either.
Next, let’s consider practice of mirroring, a conversational tool that has long been thought helpful, yet one I personally don’t see utilized much. I, myself, am guilty of frequently skipping over this wisdom nugget. Mirroring is simply the skill of repeating back, in your own words, what you’ve understood another to have said. It’s an invaluable skill in that during the delicate interplay of conversation, one is too often more focused on preparing a follow-up response. It’s better to first confirm you have heard correctly what has just been shared. Not mirroring someone might indicate lack of attention. A commitment to paraphrasing what you’ve just heard ensures you’ll stay fully present when someone is holding forth. To not do so opens up fertile ground for misunderstandings, and sometimes even deep unintentional woundings.
One way to counter misconstruing someone’s words is to repeat back your version of what you heard, then asking, “Did I get that right?” Taking just a wee bit of time and giving attention to the details that matter, namely understanding another with care and precision, go a long way to foster powerful, rich relationships. Make sure you are comprehending another’s perspective before offering your own.
I’ve saved the best for last.My all-time favorite conversational sparker is the “Tell me more” request. Magic happens on so many levels when these three words come into play. They empower both the speaker and the listener. The speaker realizes that the listener cares about and values what’s being said, and that they desire more information. There’s also the indirect implication of a longing, on the listener’s behalf, to understand further. The listener, in asking to hear more, is additionally exhibiting the capacity to wait before responding. And the speaker, invited to carry on, can delve deeper into fleshing out ideas, feelings, or experiences. This automatically enhances the deliciousness of the moment for both parties!
Everything we do effects others. We are interconnected beings always and ever impacting each other. Conversations are a central vehicle for furthering connections. Words are the linchpins in the process. Allowing yourself to be authentic and vulnerable, to expose the inner workings of your heart and mind to another through carefully-chosen words, forms the core of a healthy relationship. Our sense of aliveness is enhanced through our capacity to successfully express ourselves and feel truly heard.
So, my friend, I invite you to continue honoring the wisdom of words, and all the wonderful ways of speaking them!
This article was also published in The Brick Magazine