How Colorful is Your Family’s Communication?
Who remembers mood rings? Mood rings were a fad during the 1970s. They changed color to enable the wearer to have awareness of how they were feeling. How everyone loved mood rings, and still do! It’s funny how we all enjoy having a ring that tells us how we are feeling. The truth is, however, we all could benefit from having a ring that tells us our feelings and the feelings of those around us. In working with families in counseling sessions, I often see how family members are aiming for good communication, yet get derailed by their lack of accurate emotional expression and their misunderstanding of other family members’ emotions.
In my work with individuals and families in counseling, it is common for conflicts to arise from being misunderstood or misunderstanding others while trying to communicate about a tense topic. These conflicts often flow out of assumptions regarding the motive behind a statement, a question, or the lack thereof.
What I often see when working with family members arguing during a family therapy session is this: The listener responds based on his or her perception of the mood of the speaker, and the talker (or communicator) may misread or miscue the listener by not fully understanding his own or the other’s feelings. For example, a husband might assume a question was a subtle criticism, or a mom could perceive silence from her son as an act of avoidance. Most of us deny the ability to read minds, however, we often believe that we have a gift for accurately reading and responding to others’ emotions. On the contrary, we may actually be responding to our very own emotions.
The first step to gaining insight and preventing miscommunication is to slow down our immediate response. When we are the listener, we must give our attention, remain silent, and listen with our whole selves–our ears, our mind, our attention, and and heart, or in short–Our Feelings! Often the act of just listening is hard, because the speaker may trigger an uncomfortable emotion within us, either directly or indirectly. I want to emphasize that this emotional response may have nothing to do with the conversation or the speaker. It may be a triggered emotion! What is a triggered emotion? It is an emotion that originates from other past experiences, patterns of interactions in relationships, or a similarly “felt” experience as to what we are feeling when triggered. This triggered emotion has the potential to derail the conversation and prevent the speaker from being heard and the listener from understanding. And then there goes that same old argument that we often have in families!
Another prime opportunity for derailment occurs when we don’t express our emotional needs. A concept from a method in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) states that all human actions are an attempt to satisfy a need. We can consider these needs to be our values that we are trying to fulfill or protect. As speakers, we usually are unaware of these needs—we just want to get our point across. Yet, we risk communicating unclearly when we don’t stop and consider the following: what are my needs in this conversation? And, how am I feeling right now as I enter into this two-way conversation? Without being clear for ourselves, we lose clarity with our listener. And how do we typically cope with feeling misunderstood? Rather than take responsibility for our feelings or ask our listener how they are feeling or what they are hearing, we end up blaming our listener. And there goes the fight!
Emotional expression is essential for better communication; however, it is not easy to do. Why? Because knowing our own emotions and reading other’s feelings accurately is not as easy as wearing a mood ring! It requires that we own our values, take responsibility for reflecting on our emotions, and risk being vulnerable enough to share our own needs with someone who could judge us negatively, not hear us, or deny our request. It requires that we ask others about the tone and tenor of their mood, and get really comfortable reading the color and flavor of our own emotions.