It is about what you say, and it’s also about how you say it
The other day, my 5 year old and my husband got into a snit. This put my 5 year old in her bedroom for a nice long sulk. Eventually, she stopped sulking and started drawing pictures. That’s when she realized that her latest masterpiece was in need of orange, and the orange magic marker was not in her bedroom where she was drawing, but rather in the living room, where her daddy was surfing the Internet.
“Mommy, can you go get my marker for me?” she pleaded.
My husband can be a big grumpy bear at times, so I completely understood her fear. Heck, there have been moments when I haven’t wanted to walk past him either.
But I knew this was a good learning experience. After all, if she could learn how to assertively face down her father, then she would be able to eventually face down anyone.
“Look, honey, it’s easy,” I said. “You just walk into the room like nothing ever happened. You walk past Daddy and say, ‘Hi Daddy!’ as if you are ever so happy to see him. And then you get your marker. Are you ready to try it?”
She said she was. She slowly walked out of her bedroom and into the kitchen. Within just a few seconds, I heard the quick thump thump thump of her feet. She ran back through the bedroom door, put her hands on her knees and breathlessly said, “I didn’t do it. I got too scared!”
“Alright. Maybe we should practice,” I said. “Pretend I’m Daddy. Walk past me and say, “Hi Daddy!’”
She hung her head, stared at her little feet, and whispered, “Hi Daddy.”
“Okay, again, but with more enthusiasm!” I said, as if I were some sort of cheerleader.
This time she stared past me with an expressionless face and monotoned, “Hi Daddy.” She sounded as if she were the saddest human on Earth.
“Alight, one more time!” I said in this strange perky voice that I didn’t even know I had.
“Hi Daddy!” she said with a smile.
“Perfect!” I said, giving her a high five. “Now let’s do it with the real Daddy!”
Things with the real Daddy didn’t turn out so well, I’m afraid. Somewhere between the bedroom and the living room, she lost her nerve again and reverted back to the whisper. She did manage to retrieve her marker, though, and she and her Daddy eventually made up—with no intervention from me.
I tell you this story because it illustrates the importance of tone of voice and body language. Even if you manage to say the right thing, you can still fail to achieve your purpose if you say the right thing in the wrong way. You might not verbalize the fact that you think your spouse is an idiot (or worse), but your tone of voice and body language broadcasts that you are thinking it.
The Night Daggers Emerged From My Eyeballs
This very thing happened to me Friday night when I realized that my husband had planned to work on Saturday, be away all day Sunday, and then proceed to be out of town for four days the following weekend. This was after he had been out of town for a few days the week before. This realization was made worse by the fact that he smugly reminded me that I’d agreed to all of this.
I said, “I wish you would take my needs into account before planning so many trips so close together.”
Good wording, right?
The problem was that invisible daggers were flying out of my eyeballs as I said those words. My aura was a fierce ball of heat, and he retreated for dear life.
I’m embarrassed to say that I remained a fierce ball of heat all weekend long, which is probably why he ended up getting all snippy with our daughter (can you spell d-i-s-p-l-a-c-e-m-e-n-t?) and why the two of them got into a fight and… well, that’s enough of this self blame, don’t you think?
My Tone of Voice Tips
Now, after reading that story, I’m not quite sure why you would trust me to give you tone of voice tips. Really? Me? The Queen of Sarcasm is giving you tips on tone of voice? How could that be?
Let me just say this. I’ve been making a lot of progress in this communication department. That’s almost entirely due to the Karma Project, which I will be writing more extensively about in the coming weeks.
For now, here are some pointers.
State the obvious. If you have to communicate when you are angry, then state that you are angry and apologize for any ramifications. For instance you might say, “I’m really angry right now, so I might accidentally roll my eyes or something. I really do love you, even though I might not believe that myself right now. Once we solve this problem, I know I will love you again, because I always love you again once we solve problems. I’m sorry that I can’t seem to calm down, but I feel we must discuss this now.” Or something like that. If you manage to crack a joke, you’ll lighten things up and chances are you might even be able to improve your delivery.
Chill out. If you don’t have to communicate when you are angry, then retreat. This past weekend, after I delivered the eyeball daggers, I retreated for days. It took a run, a full night of sleep, and an incredible amount of self-talk for me to calm down. But once I was able to calm down, I was finally able to look at my husband with a warm smile and ask, “Are you okay? Do we need to talk?” And from there, we fell back in love with each other again.
As you chill out and talk to yourself, remind yourself of the following:
I loved my spouse before I got mad. I really did. As soon as I shed my anger, I will love my spouse again.
I want to warm things up between me and my spouse. It sucks that I have to be the big person, but this is how it is. I can either get past this and make it right between us, or we can both be miserable forever. Which way is it gonna be?
Meditate. I’ve written about black and white breathing before. I’ve found this technique incredibly helpful at releasing anger. Once I do it for a while, I can usually bring my mind to a compassionate place. Once I’m there, I mentally wish my husband happiness and I keep wishing him happiness until I really mean it and feel good about it.
Do a mental practice run. I visualize myself saying what it is I want to say, and I visualize myself delivering the message with love and compassion. I keep at it until I look and sound happy in my mind.
Remind yourself of this important fact. Compassion breeds compassion. Surliness breeds surliness. Most of us resort to a surly tone of voice out of fear—fear of rejection, fear of our spouse’s anger, fear of failure, you name it. Yet, it’s the surliness that will bring about all of the things that we most fear. Only the compassion will get us to our happy place.
This post was brought to you by your request. I only have 20 more of these to go! You can see my progress here. Let me know how you feel about this series in the comments, will you? Also, let me know if you think I should have just gotten that orange marker for my little girl, or whether you have tone of voice tips to share.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.