Imagine that your daughter is late coming home. It’s 3 AM and she hasn’t called. The roads are wet–it’s pouring rain. You are terrified. The minute she finally walks in the door, you’re angry. You scream about how inconsiderate and irresponsible she is. Then she’s back out the door, yelling that she hates you. You sit with your head in your hands. So many times you’ve been through this and promised yourself you’d handle it differently. But you can’t just let her walk all over you, right?
Were you justified in being angry? Of course. Were you effective in your communication? Not at all, unless your goal was to have her leave home and be back out on wet roads in the early morning hours, driving while upset. Being effective in communication means that you express your emotions in ways that help you get closer to your goals. Your goal was most likely to keep her safe and increase her responsible behavior.
Many times people attempt to influence others and change their behavior through anger and judgments. Most of the time it doesn’t work and often makes things worse. Sometimes it may appear to work in the short run as others will comply with what you want because of fear or your authority. That doesn’t mean the other person has truly embraced the ideas you wanted to convey. In addition, expressing yourself through yelling and judging builds resentment and damages relationships.
Accurate Expression and Effective Communication
Alan Fruzzetti, Ph.D., suggests you focus on Accurate Expression. Accurate Expression means you are mindful of what you are feeling and express yourself accurately. In the example of your daughter coming home late, your initial emotion was fear. That’s your primary emotion.
The secondary emotion was anger. Most often accurate expression is stating your primary emotion. If you had expressed your worry, that might have been more effective. You could have said, “I’m so glad you are safe. I was so worried.” That would have been accurate and would have likely resulted in her going to bed rather than back out the door. You will want to discuss the issues about responsibility, but that can wait until the next morning when you both are calm.
Two Step Model
Accurate expression is the first step of a two-step model of effective communication developed by Dr. Fruzzetti. The second step is validation. When you express yourself accurately and the other person validates your emotional expression, that is healthy communication. Their validation helps you express yourself accurately and embrace the vulnerability that requires. When you express yourself accurately, it is easier for the other person to validate you. For example, when you say you are scared and worried about someone when they arrive late, it is easier to validate your emotional expression than if you attack them with anger about their character faults.
Imagine you come home from a difficult day at work. You are beyond hungry and want attention from your loved one. You walk into the kitchen and dinner is not ready. Your spouse is no where to be seen. You finally find her in the garage painting an old bureau. You walk away and refuse to talk to her. She says, “Why are you being such a jerk?” Is this communication effective? You succeed in letting her know you are upset, but you are unlikely to get nurturing attention from your spouse in this way. Accurate expression would be saying, “I am so hungry and I had a really difficult day.” Your spouse is more likely to say, “What happened honey?”
Most of the time you are unlikely to express yourself accurately when you are emotionally dysregulated. Emotion dysregulation is more than being upset. You are emotionally dysregulated when you cannot control or influence your emotions and the way you express them. In those cases you are likely to withdraw or to attack those you love and care about.
When you are dysregulated, wait before expressing yourself. Take a break. Dr. Fruzetti suggests you go to the bathroom if you have no other way to be alone. There you can calm yourself and try to remember that this person is someone you love. Remember the importance of the relationship to you and that you don’t want to damage it. Think about what your primary emotion is (usually fear or sadness or disappointment) and think about the most effective response you could have given that you love the other person. Stay on the same side.
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