Getting in touch with your feelings helps you to understand yourself. And sharing your feelings helps others to understand you better.
Being understood and accepted are universal human needs. So, when you share your inner experiences and feelings, you’re more likely to connect in deep and meaningful ways. You’re also more likely to get your needs met, leading to happier and healthier relationships.
Sharing your feelings can be a daunting proposition. When you share your feelings you allow yourself to be vulnerable. This vulnerability can be scary; it leaves your open to the possibility of being hurt, but it can also lead to the deepest connections.
There’s no way to completely avoid the risk of being misunderstood, ignored, or judged when you share your feelings. However, using the strategies below can help you communicate effectively so that you’re more likely to be understood and validated.
#1 Understand your feelings
Before you can express your feelings, you have to know what they are. For most people, it helps to have some quiet time to reflect. Our busy, noisy lives don’t lend themselves to connecting with our feelings. Try taking ten minutes per day for the sole purpose of contemplating your feelings. I find going for a walk helps me get clarity, but you can experiment with sitting in different places, simply thinking or writing down your thoughts. Try to identify your feelings, remembering that you can have more than one feeling at once. Explore what’s been happening in your life that may be related to your feelings.
After you understand your feelings, you can figure out what you want/need and this can be communicated. Here’s an example: Ryan identified that he feels angry in response to his girlfriend working late every night for the last week. When he thought about it some more, he discovered that he’s also feeling neglected and lonely. This clarity helped him decide to share that he’s feeling angry and lonely and ask his girlfriend to spend more time with him.
#2 Be discerning about who you share with
Your feelings are intimate parts of yourself; they shouldn’t be shared with just anyone. Proceed slowly and begin by sharing feelings that feel safer and less vulnerable. If they are received well, share a little bit more and so on.
#3 Respond don’t react
Sometimes we make the mistake of trying to communicate our feelings in the moment. This tends to result in blurting things out before we’ve processed them or had a chance to calm down. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask to take a break from a heated conversation or wait until you’ve had time to prepare before beginning a conversation. It wouldn’t be productive for Ryan, from the example above, to give his girlfriend the silent treatment or accuse her of not caring. When he allowed himself time to figure out his feelings and needs he set himself up for effective communication.
If you’re wrestling with uncomfortable feelings and need to have a difficult conversation with someone, I recommend trying these strategies before the conversation: process your thoughts in a journal or with a supportive friend; rehearse what you want to say (out loud and/or in writing); do something to de-stress and calm yourself.
#4 Find the right time
Be intentional about when you try to communicate your feelings. Often people try to communicate their needs at the wrong times – when the other person is distracted, busy, drunk, sleepy, or in a bad mood. Be sure to approach the other person when s/he is available and willing to give you his/her attention. Sometimes this means planning ahead and asking for time to be set aside.
In general, try to communicate face to face. Technology is convenient, but it’s still hard to communicate feelings effectively over text or email.
#5 Be direct
Effective communication is clear and direct. Again, it’s easier to be direct when you’ve already figured out what you’re trying to say. “I statements” are a commonly-used way to express your feelings and needs while decreasing defensiveness. There is a simple formula for an “I statement” that goes like this: I am feeling ____________ (angry and alone) because __________ (you’ve been working late this week) and I’d like ___________ (to schedule more time to spend together).
At first this may feel awkward, but with practice, you may find it’s a clear and non-confrontational way to express your feelings.
#6 Pay attention to body language and tone of voice
Body language and tone are just as important as what you’re saying. It can be surprisingly hard to gauge your own tone of voice. Has anyone ever told you that you’re yelling and you didn’t even notice you’d raised your voice? When you get caught up in an argument, you start sending the wrong messages. You want your body language to convey that you’re interested and open to understanding. You show this in part with your facial expressions, eye contact, body position such as arms open or crossed, whether you’re standing or sitting, facing someone or turning away.
#7 Be a good listener
Of course, communication isn’t just about expressing your feelings and needs. It’s also about listening attentively and trying to understand the other person’s feelings. You can give verbal cues that you’re listening such as “yes”, “uh-huh”, “OK”, “I see” and nodding to show you’re paying attention. Asking questions in order to more fully understand is also a great communication skill. Another technique that therapists often teach is reflective listening. One person shares and then the other person reflects or paraphrases back what s/he understood and asks if s/he missed anything. The first person then clarifies or adds anything that was misunderstood or omitted and this continues until the first person feels completely understood. Again, reflective listening may seem unnatural, but it works by insuring that both parties feel understood and it will become more natural with practice.
Sometimes, communication still doesn’t work.
I wish I could promise you successful communication by following these steps, but people are complicated! First, remember that communication is a skill and it needs lots of practice. Hang in there and keep trying. Also, sometimes professional help (individual and/or couples counseling) is helpful. If you try all of these things and you continue to have communication problems, it’s time to do some soul-searching.
Sharing feelings is a part of all close relationships. In healthy relationships, people care about each other’s feelings and strive to meet each other’s needs. Sharing needs to be reciprocal; it’s not satisfying when only one person is open and communicating. It’s painful, of course, if you realize that someone you care about isn’t interested in or capable of honest communication and emotional intimacy. If this happens, tune into your feelings about the relationship problems and let them guide you to what is best for you.
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©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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