Finding the Words

In the moments that we experience the strongest feelings, the most desperate needs to be understood, we can struggle to find words adequate to our situation and purposes. It’s a common theme at home and at work, in intimate relationships and with those with whom we must get along in the workplace.

And a vital insight is noticing just how much cross-over there is between the demands of interpersonal communications at home and at work. Admittedly, they may cue different attitudes, emotions, actions, and expectations because we define them as separate sectors of life and apply different norms. We may even find virtue in maintaining a near-hermetically sealed barrier to keep them separate.

However, what I would like you to consider is how the challenge of finding the words and cultivating social-emotional fluency gives us reason to leverage this interpersonal cross-over to promote and to accelerate our development.  

We must learn from our quarrels and differences. That is what distress is telling us, that we need to learn about ourselves and how to better communicate.

We must learn from our quarrels and differences. That is what distress is telling us, that we need to learn about ourselves and how to better communicate.

Feeling Stuck, Finding the Words

Whether we are feeling captive to an emotional storm of anger (reactive/defensive tendencies) or overwhelmed with sadness, hurt and confusion (passivity and felt helplessness), we can find ourselves at a loss for words adequate to any constructive purpose. We may, in the case of anger, be tempted to spit expletives and bristle with intense frustration. Or we may, with sadness, simply go quiet.  

I believe we can agree that neither of these reactions express the meaning of our experience to another person whom we have reason to care about and want as intimate partner or a committed colleague. So, what do we do? How do we find ways to connect, communicate, and nurture these relationships?

First, recall that we’re talking about an interpersonal situation. It implies felt needs to communicate with another person. It also suggests that we may need to use the relationship to fix the relational problems.

So, how do we help one another find the words? They must be the right words, and they must be the right words for him or her, words that express with greatest accuracy and completeness the felt meaning he/she wishes to convey. This suggests a need to respect the other person’s agency and individuality as a person.

It’s Adumbrational: Trying Out Words

To adumbrate, in this context, means to signify in words gradually, progressively, and iteratively the felt sense of something we’ve experienced. Knowing full well that no one word or series of words will be wholly adequate, we must try out words and word pictures that express our experience enough for an attentive listener to get a better sense of what we’re feeling, what’s motivating our behavior.

Especially in the case of angry and frustrated emotions, it important to for us to suspend judgment and to not make too much of any one word spoken. Each of us will choose different words; it’s the overall meaning that is critical. If we are the listening party, our role is to allow the breathing space for the other to do this trying-out of words:

I think I felt threatened, rushed, frustrated, misunderstood, and then just overwhelmed. I began grasping for words and ways to fight back. I just couldn’t stand your persistence and continuing to argue. It felt like the fighting would never end. I felt ready to scream and put my fist through the wall…

And I know that is not what you intended, not what you were trying to make me feel. It’s just so hard for me to function when things get that hot. I just wish we could stop!

The Breathing Space

The listening party really does not need to say anything while this trying-out process proceeds. And it could all be occurring with n 15-30 seconds. It’s amazing how quickly, given the right conditions, we can deescalate our emotions and gain a sense of calm sufficient to find words to express what we’re feeling.

Now, at this point, we are better able to see each other as two persons each with our subjective center of experience. Soon, too, we come to appreciate that we each bring a historically distinct and dispositionally shaped set of individual differences to how we interpret and respond to interpersonal situations.

The breathing space is an act of care that humanizes us. It makes it safe for us as persons to make our experience known without the need to justify our feelings. When we reciprocate this practice, we become more able to be there for one another as a safe and helpful presence.