An adolescent girl was once interviewed by the author Carol Gilligan. The young girl said, ” If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking, no one would want to be with me. My voice would be too loud.” And then she said, “but you have to have relationships.” Gilligan observed: “In other words, she was having to choose between having a voice and having relationships.” —Or at least she thought she was.
As women, we sometimes believe we have to give up our “voices” in order to maintain our relationships.We worry that if we say what’s really on our minds, no one will like us anymore. This is not a problem men generally have. They are rarely socialized to think that way.
While it’s true that no one needs to, or even should, voice absolutely everything that is on her mind, we can lose who we are, when we lose our ability to express our thoughts, feelings, and opinions. So how can we “say it out loud” and still maintain positive connections with others?
1. Use “I” statements
No one likes to be accused. Don’t begin sentences with the word “you,” as in “You never listen;” “You don’t care what I think;” or “You did that on purpose.” Those kinds of accusatory statements are ineffective. Instead, take responsibility for how you feel and begin with the word “I,” as in, “I don’t feel like you’re really listening to me, when you interrupt me while I’m talking.”
There are 3 components to this statement: How you feel, a short description of the behavior you find unacceptable, and the impact that behavior is having on you. Does this always work? No, but it typically beats the alternative, and it can be a good place to begin the conversation. But remember, no one can really “make” you to feel a certain way. How you internalize other people’s behavior is up to you.
2. Avoid the use of “war words”
War words are words such as always, never, or constantly, such as “You always take your brother’s side.” They’re called war words, because by their very nature, they incite conflict. Very few of us ALWAYS do something ALL the time. And we don’t like to be accused of extremes. Address the behavior at hand, in the moment, and resist the urge to overgeneralize.
3. Don’t cash in all your emotional stamps at once
Eric Berne coined the term “emotional trading stamps.” The term referred to the way some supermarkets once gave out colorful stamps along with food purchases. After you collected enough of these stamps, you could put them in a book and trade them in for a gift of some sort. While this is an outmoded practice today, the idea of saving up angry feelings over time and then “trading them in” all at once in the form of an explosive argument is not.
No one can go back weeks, months, or years and effectively address all the feelings that you’ve stored up over time. Deal with your feelings as they arise in the moment, and express them respectfully. Never, ever resort to name calling.
4. When you’re finished speaking, listen
“First seek to understand, then to be understood,” said author Stephen Covey. That doesn’t mean you can’t speak up, or speak first. It means that when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and really seek to understand his perspective, he is much more likely to listen to yours.
For ideas on how to implement this in your marriage read: How to improve communication in your marriage.
Try this simple exercise
Sit down facing each other and state the problem from the other person’s perspective, as you think he sees it. Then check for understanding. Did he agree with what you said? Now ask him to do the same thing for you. If you’re both willing to set aside your defensiveness over the issue at hand, this can be a fun way to understand another person’s point of view.
Don’t be afraid that your voice is “too loud”As women, we want learn to develop our own voices and find ways to speak in that voice. We need to speak out on our own behalf, without the fear of losing the tender feelings of important others. The answer to this dilemna is not to remain silent. Or to be afraid that our voices are “too loud.” The answer is to learn to communicate openly, effectively, and respectfully with others.