Lesson Number Four

You are responsible for what you say, and how you say it.

Stephen reported that, “I’m constantly assessing – like a Geiger counter – what the impact of what I’m going to say or do is.

I was reminded of this thought later that same day when another patient described the basis of his philosophy of choosing his words cautiously.

Be very careful of the words that leave your mouth, because you can never breathe them back in.

Swahili Proverb

The importance of awareness of the impact of what you say or do has been passed on to me in many forms. Perhaps more graphically, the cost of not doing so was given by one of my patients who had worked as a waiter during his university days. As I often do (asking this particular question has provided me with some of my most interesting insights), I asked, “What was the most important thing you learned as a waiter?

The most important thing I learned? I learned that you should never ever cheese-off or belittle someone who could possibly spit in the food you have ordered.

I am so often struck by the fact that individuals give themselves permission to say what they want and how they say it – independent of the impact of what they are saying or doing has on somebody else. The belief seems to be ‘I am me, and I need to express myself regardless of the consequences.’

Another of my patients, Gail, pushed this envelope of self-determination to the absolute limit. In front of me she told her partner “Look Jon, when I scream and shout ’til I am exhausted, it’s because I’m insecure – it’s not an attack upon you.”

Jon’s response was fairly predictable: “It doesn’t feel like that to me!

Apart from revisiting the theme of the first lesson on the site (‘It’s the other person’s world that counts.’), this dialogue asks an important question. Is it Gail – the person transmitting – who has the responsibility to get their message across as they mean it? Or is it Jon – the recipient – who bears the responsibility of translating the message into terms that reflect what the transmitter is trying to get across?

In other words, is it my obligation in transmitting, to communicate the tone and content of what I say in a way that gets across exactly the message that I am trying to give – taking into account what the other person is like? This means choosing my approach carefully, taking into account my own style and theirs: how are they likely to translate the message?

Or is it up to the other person to try and identify correctly why I have said what I have said, and to accommodate that accordingly?

Certainly, as Jon himself reported, on his list of possibilities, his last interpretation of Gail’s performance was that she was expressing her feelings of insecurity. What should he have done? If he couldn’t work out what was going on – or what to do – he could have asked what he might offer to help her when she was screaming at him under these circumstances.

Alternatively, Gail herself could have told him what was going on inside – and what she needed from him. Part of the problem for her with doing that was that she felt that he should somehow know what to do – and that, if she told him what to do, it was all spoiled. He should know without her guidance!

It is one of the saddest features of partnerships that individuals will say – often in an argument or under the influence of alcohol – things that are destructive, undermining and which have long-term consequences. So often I hear individuals say things that they would have been better off thinking about before articulating – and then both having to pay the price of the damage of the uncensored presentation.

I have learned that my own best bet is to be always aware of the impact of what I am saying has on others. Responding in line with my feelings of being irritated or angry is expensive – and it is when I am feeling either of these that I am at my most vigilant.

I spent many years in a country (Australia) where messages were delivered bluntly and with virtually no consideration of their impact upon the other person. This was described as ‘telling it like it is’.

I found this a somewhat bracing philosophy. It certainly didn’t seem to lead to an improvement in relationships. It certainly didn’t seem to lead to better communication. The message that this was somehow more ‘honest’ worried me. Since when did honesty mean that you had to deliver messages painfully? I could give my messages just as honestly by using words and a style that took into account the self-esteem and the value to me (and to themselves) of my partner.

We need to be more careful and circumspect in our interactions with others. It is the search for the result we want – but with having both of us feel happier – that has to be forefront.

Therefore both speaker and the listener share the responsibility for the outcome of their interaction. Both are accountable. The receiver’s responsibility is to make sure that they have understood where the other person is coming from; and what the best caretaking response is. The transmitter’s responsibility is to choose carefully how they give messages based on the response that they are looking for. And, if one of the pair can’t guess or work it out, the best bet is to ask the other for feedback and direction.

The idea that we have to be free to say whatever we want, and behave as we want in our closest relationships (whereas we are often better behaved with others in our social world or at work) – is one that never quite made sense to me. My own view is that my best performance should be reserved for my wife. After all, she is the one who, I hope, is going to be taking care of me in my old age! Therefore, there is no point in alienating her. And, besides, why should I want the person I love to feel worse about herself – even if I might be able to argue (badly) that I would feel a bit better on a temporary basis if I let it all out?

Names have been changed.