Sunday, March 10, 2013

What we say without words

Language is the most valuable communication tool we have.  Still, we manage to say a lot without using words, sometimes without even realizing it.  A recent incident really drove this point home for me.

My husband and I had gotten into an argument.  A day or two later, we sat down to talk about what happened and how to prevent such disagreements from getting out of hand in the future.  "I was angry," my husband said.  "I know that when I get angry like that, the best thing for me to do is walk away.  That way, I won't end up saying something I'll regret later."  

Of course this is a good strategy.  In fact, it's exactly what I tell my patients to do.  When you're too angry to think rationally, take a break and come back later.  In this particular instance, however, I had a problem with this technique.  

"You became enraged as soon as I brought up the problem!" I exclaimed.  "How are we ever going to talk about our problems if you get angry the moment I bring it up?" On the day of the argument, I'd carefully chosen my words in an effort to avoid being blaming or confrontational.  I'd spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach my concerns without sounding critical or making him defensive.  Despite my efforts, my husband immediately became angry when I tried to discuss the issue.  

From my perspective, my husband was completely out of line.  He needed to work on not getting so angry.  Otherwise, how were we ever going to resolve conflict in our marriage?  I conveyed my thoughts to my husband.

"I didn't get angry because of what you said," he replied.  

This was certainly unexpected.  "What do you mean?" I asked.

"It was the look on your face!" he explained.  "Your words were fine.  But you looked at me like I was the most disgusting thing on earth."

I had no doubt that what my husband said was true.  I've never been able to hide my emotions; I'm too nonverbally expressive.  I apologized to my husband.  I also made a mental note to pay more attention to my nonverbal communication.


  1. My partner rarely changes his face, part of it was life long conditioning of his culture, and when I get overloaded with input from the outside world and get that face....he tells me that we all die and there is no reason why we should remind the world, so lose that face. With strokes or no strokes we encounter aversion.

  2. I have the opposite of poker face. It's great when I am excited and happy. Not so great in a work meeting and I disagree with the boss! I kind of think it's related to the part of me that values honesty. I am very honest. And that is one of the things that my husband loves most about me. Good or bad, I don't wear mask that hides my emotion. There is no guessing what I am really thinking or feeling. What you see is what you get.

    PS: I bought the book you so highly recommended (How to be an Adult in Relationships.) I haven't read it yet, but it's sitting on my night stand.


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