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The words you use affect relationships and self-esteem

Sharon M. Rivkin, Marriage and Family Therapist, has worked with couples for 27 years. She is the author of The First Argument. Her unique insight into the first argument was featured in O: The Oprah Magazine and Reader's Digest, and ha...

The effects of language

That old phrase, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" is not really true. Words may not inflict visible bruises like sticks and stones, but they pack a punch nonetheless.

Married Couple Arguing
Words injure our insides, our feelings and our self-esteem. External bruises are tangible proof that we've been hurt.  Internal bruises from verbal attacks are harder to prove, harder to acknowledge, and harder to talk about. 

Words and how we say them do matter, so it's very important to be careful how you speak to your partner and others.  The misuse and carelessness of how you speak are two of the main issues that undermine and can eventually destroy a relationship. 

There are many positive and compassionate ways to get your point across to someone you care about.  For example, a judgmental statement such as, "I feel like I'm walking on eggshells and can't say anything to my partner without him/her getting upset," can instead be reframed to "I want to show my partner respect and love by speaking to them with compassion and awareness." That doesn't mean you can't speak your mind, it just means you're being respectful and mindful of another person's feelings and vulnerabilities.  It lets your partner know they're not a bad person, but you truly want them to hear you.  Use of attacking language, such as "You're a jerk," "You always," "You never…," is guaranteed to get a negative response from your partner who has no choice but to be react defensively.

When communicating, keep the following four tips in mind:

1.) Use "I" statements.

2.) Have compassion for yourself and your partner.

3.) Listen before you speak.

4.) Speak as you would like to be spoken to.

Another example of reframing negative, judgmental language to positive and compassionate language includes:

Your partner is angry and yells at you for no reason.  You could say, "Shut up, you're always yelling at me for no reason.  You're awful!"

OR you could say:

"It's not okay to talk to me that way.  I don't deserve it and it is hurtful."

Because this is a more neutral and uncharged way of speaking than the first accusatory example, it's going to be much easier for your partner to hear you, to reply in an understanding manner, and maybe even change his/her behavior.  You're speaking your feelings without raking your partner over the coals.

Good communication means expressing your feelings without making another person defensive.  What this ultimately means is taking responsibility for your feelings and expressing them in a way that is clear without blame, shame, or damage.  The goal is to speak with consciousness and awareness.  Remember: When we are compassionate in the way we speak, we can say even the hardest things to someone and still communicate our caring, love, and displeasure – altogether. 

Before you speak, remember:

1.) Listen to yourself.

2.) Think about your partner and use words that he/she will understand.

3.) Cool down before you talk.  Don't talk in the heat of the moment.  Try to express the feelings (hurt, anger, disappointment) that are hiding underneath the shame, blame, self-righteousness and judgment.

4.) Remember you want resolution and peace, not necessarily to be right.

5.) Kindness and compassion go a long way.

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