It started innocently enough—but what should have been an easy conversation about our weekend plans turned into a difficult one. The resulting discussion was a good reminder of how emotions affect communication. In particular, it highlighted why it’s necessary to have good emotional control before communication is going to work well.
The surface issue
Last week, wanting to be a good husband, I asked my wife, Lynn, if there were any projects I could help with at the weekend. She said that she wanted to remove the dead plants in a very soggy part of the landscaping. Could I give her a hand with digging them out and replacing some of the heavy clay soil with better dirt?
Now, Lynn is a hard worker—but because of medical issues, we both knew that shoveling dirt was not something she should do. This meant she really did need my help, and more than a little of it.
I started to push back and asked if we could do the task some other time. I knew from experience that what she was suggesting was going to be a lot more work than she realized. On top of that, I had a backlog of my own jobs I wanted to catch up on, so adding this felt like too much.
But from Lynn’s perspective, we’d already discussed this project several times and it was still unfinished. What’s more, she’d promised her sister she’d replant some irises from her yard into ours in that spot. She was frustrated about having to wait, and negotiate with a resistant husband, to get the job done and keep her word.
Inner thoughts and emotions affect the conversation
My anxiety started to rise, and emotions affect communication. Truth be told, I was already getting tense when I realized the conflict between getting through my to-do list and pleasing my wife. I could see in her subtle but unmistakable body language that she was disappointed and annoyed with my response—and that seemed unfair.
Was she dismissing my “expert” evaluation of how much work this was going to be? Didn’t she appreciate how many other important things I had on my list? Did I not get credit for wanting to be a good husband and offering to help, even if I couldn’t at that exact moment?
Lynn’s heightened emotions began to affect the conversation, too. Keeping our home looking nice is a matter of pride and creates the sense of calm and restfulness she needs. She’d been asking diplomatically—not nagging—for weeks, and now wondered if what she wanted really mattered to me. On top of all this, keeping her word is one of her most deeply-held values—and by dragging my feet, I was making that difficult.
At this point, the conversation could have gone in two different directions:
- Fueled by our rising levels of discomfort, we could have let our emotions affect communication and pushed harder to defend our positions. Our subconscious goal would have been to “make” the other person understand or give in, so our uncomfortable feelings would go away. This is how conflicts escalate.
- Alternatively, we could have noticed our emotions affecting communication and paused to ask—what was going on inside us? More importantly, did our feelings reflect reality, or were they generated by distorted self-talk? By identifying these thoughts and feelings, and then soothing ourselves, we had a chance of keeping the conversation on track.
Fortunately, we followed the second path. This was not by accident, however.
In years past, I would have let my negative emotions derail the conversation and automatically switched to attack mode. “No way am I going to let this go!” I’d think. “I’m right, she’s wrong, and no one is going to rest until she sees it my way.” When you’re not involved personally, it’s easy to see how this sort of thinking can lead to disaster—and it often did.
Through years of practice, I have built my self-awareness and reduced my likelihood of getting emotionally flooded. Does this mean the conversation proceeded with textbook precision and poise? No—I caught myself several times getting upset and needing to regroup, and found it hard to determine exactly what my thoughts and feelings were. Lynn also found it hard to keep her emotions under control and avoid fleeing the conversation.
But despite these challenges, I was able to identify and then share my thoughts and feelings calmly. And I was able to ask about and listen to my wife’s thoughts and feelings, too. We came to a solution that worked for both of us, and felt closer together after seeing that we respected each other’s needs and wants.
The issue is not the issue
This conversation shows some of the realities of real-world communication and why we often argue over what seem like trivial matters. It shouldn’t be a big deal to discuss what we’re going to do over weekend, or when to fix the wet spot in the landscaping. But that’s not really what the conflict was about. Those were just the surface issues.
Beneath them were big, important questions. I was wondering: are my knowledge and experience respected? Does my partner care about my personal desires and commitments? Is my effort appreciated?
Lynn’s deeper questions were: Do my needs matter? Do I have an equal voice in our relationship? Will my partner support me as I try to uphold my promises?
None of these are unimportant or small questions—in fact, they can produce big emotions that affect the conversation in big ways. This is why we “fight like our life depends on it” over things that, to outsiders, appear meaningless.
Messy emotions affect communication
Messy communication is the result of messy communicators. We become messy communicators when we have these kinds of messy, unresolved thoughts and feelings. This is why having good emotional control is vital.
However, good emotional control only comes when we’ve identified and healed our core hurts. If we don’t feel good about ourselves, even everyday issues will have the power to flood us with painful emotions. That can lead us to sabotage the conversation—or worse, resort to harmful behavior.
To improve conversations, stop letting emotions affect communication
Dirty fighting, lying, or refusing to open up about our fears are all signs of sensitive spots—that our emotions are affecting the conversation. What’s more, making our partner think they’re crazy, using physical violence, or even threatening violence cross the line into abuse. These tactics hurt our partner, our relationship, and also us.
If you’re getting enraged during arguments, limit the damage by taking a time-out and returning when you’ve calmed down. This doesn’t mean storming out of the door, stonewalling, or disappearing for days on end. It means coming back to a conflict with reduced adrenaline—ready to listen, explain how you feel, and get the outcome you really want.
Getting a handle on emotions
We can collect our thoughts even better when we use a journal. Writing out how we feel (or felt) helps us see what’s really going on, like I have in this blog post. Use your journal to ask: what big questions did this conversation trigger? What core hurts came up? Why did I react in this way?
Talking to someone other than our partner, like a counselor, pastor, or just a good friend, will also relieve some of the pressure. It’s easier to say how we feel, and process our thoughts and fears, without getting triggered or emotionally flooded. An outsider’s perspective, especially a professional one, will clarify what’s going wrong and what we can do to make it better.
Once we stop letting emotions affect communication, we’re better able to handle the inevitable challenges of resolving differences. That’s because by learning to manage our emotions, we make room for our rational brain to take the mic. Then, and only then, can we use the good communication techniques that we find in books and articles.
Building communication skills
Good communication is regular, open, honest, and based on trust and respect. Both partners need to feel safe and heard when they share their thoughts and emotions. Without trust, we’re unable to experience the best parts of a relationship, like connection and intimacy.
I’m no expert, but I do know that the following time-tested best practices for communication will dramatically improve your relationships. If these are foreign concepts, then there’s no time like the present to learn. And if you know them, but fail to use them in the heat of conflict, go back and work on those emotional control techniques we just covered.
- Start tricky conversations in a “soft”, non-threatening way.
- Use “I feel” statements rather than “you did” statements. This subtle switch really makes your partner less defensive. Plus, no one can effectively argue with what you feel, because only you know how you feel.
- Check to see if your message was heard as intended. If not, gently repeat it. If your partner is not in a place mentally or emotionally to hear your message because they are upset, try again later.
- Pay attention to your tone of voice and body language. 70% of what we communicate is non-verbal. If our tone and body language don’t match our words, the message will be lost.
- Listen to your partner patiently and attentively. Check your understanding by repeating back what you think they said in your own words. You don’t have to agree with what they said to do so. Sometimes when our partner hears what they said, they’ll realize it was wrong. Other times, we learn that we heard it wrong. Either way, this helps ensure you and your partner are starting from the same place.
- Respond thoughtfully to difficult topics instead of reacting with anger or deflection. This means we might have to take some time (or a time-out) to process our elevated emotions. When they subside, we will be in a much better state to think clearly. Plan your reply so it will help you achieve a good, long-term outcome that builds trust, connection, and intimacy.
Don’t expect good communication to happen overnight – it requires practice. By talking regularly with our partner, we build the trust and respect that, in turn, make our communication even better. If your partner is open to this, try daily check ins to take each other’s “emotional temperature.” These are a great way to kick start that feedback loop between you two.
Remember, all of us are somewhere on the spectrum of being good communicators. Even the most skillful public speaker will have some things they’re not so good at talking about. Wherever you are on this journey, adopt a growth mindset and be kind to yourself.
Our words have enormous power to either hurt or help people. It’s not surprising, then, that God gives us a lot of guidance about how to use this gift responsibly. He commands us to “be quick to listen but slow to speak.” When we do respond, we should be careful we’re past our anger and use thoughtful, kind words.
Ultimately, God reminds us that we need to check the condition of our heart, and get that right, or our communication will never help us build the close, wonderful relationships he intended for us.