Our limited mobility is straining relationships, especially for those who feel they are carrying the mental load of worries, guilt, and checklist responsibilities for their families. The more we intimately know people, the more we tend to unload on and wound the relationships with our words and gestures even when we deeply care about them.
Whether in the role of leader, coach, spouse, or friend, you must be mindful of the emotions you carry into a conversation. The more stressed you feel, the easier your emotions will hijack your good sense and caring heart. When your over-protective brain senses a need to defend yourself, even one word in retaliation can cause permanent harm to your relationship.
When we sting people with our words, there is a loss of trust and safety. The relationship may remain but the sense that you won’t hurt or shame the person again may never fully return. Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Words are events; they do things, change things.”1 Saying you are sorry can help but the scar may remain intact.
We have all used the stingers described below in our lives. As you read the list, try to remember what triggered these behaviors in you. Be honest with yourself. Then seek to catch your reactions in the future to strengthen instead of scar your relationships.
- Punish someone with insults if they disrespect, irritate, or disappoint you.
- Use the excuse of being authentic and speaking your truth to criticize someone when you feel resentful.
- Shut down or angrily respond when they roll their eyes, smirk, or use some other gesture to show their negative reaction to you without telling you directly.
- Interrupt before they complete an idea you think is ridiculous.
- Rehearse in your mind what you are going to say while they speak, then over-explain why you are right and they are wrong.
Be careful of spontaneous expressions that serve as counterattacks meant to demean the person’s behavior. Share if something they did offended you so they know the impact of their words or actions. Say, “When you did/said that, this is how it landed for me whether you intended it that way or not.” Give them space to digest what you share. No one likes to feel bad or wrong. They may get defensive before going away and thinking about it. People often need time to think before they are willing to do what it takes to improve the relationship.
Creating Psychological Safety
When you use a respectful tone even when you feel put upon or belittled, people feel it is safe to be with you. There is comfort in knowing that no matter what they share with you, they won’t feel shamed, hurt, or embarrassed by your reactions. They will be more willing to see and understand you in return. Psychological safety maintains trust and harmony, strengthening your connections over time.
To maintain safety, you must be willing to listen with the intention of understanding them as well. You will not be seen as fair if you expect to be understood without formulating your empathy for them.
Here are five guidelines for maintaining healthy relationships when you have conversations:
- Remember how much you care for someone before letting words leave your lips. Seek to understand the intention of their behavior before you judge it as bad or insensitive.
- Make sure your words are congruent with your gestures. Your facial expressions and posture have more impact than the careful words you choose.
- After you speak, listen with an open mind and heart. When you close yourself off from others, you disconnect from them. Remember that everyone speaks and acts based on their unique life experiences which differ from yours.
- When your body tightens up, pause and breathe to release the tension. Relax before you share how their words or actions made you feel.
- Temper your honesty with tact. If you need to share how their behavior felt hurtful, tell your truth with care. Be kind, not cruel.
Manage Your Energy
The mental baggage you lug around weighs you down. Add physical drains to your mental pains and you may venomously dump your exhaustion, exasperation, and anger-laced fear on the ones you most love.
Your ability to be thoughtful and manage your reactions is hurt by sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, noise pollution, excessive conflict, lack of money, and a shortage of friends. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will have a difficult time being careful with others.2
Take mental breaks—five minutes or more—every day. Let go of your thoughts. Relax your body. Detach from the world as best you can with exercise, reading fiction or poetry, or getting absorbed in a hobby you love. Ride the wave of relief and lightness as long as you can before going back to your work and responsibilities.
Also, be careful of taking on other people’s emotions in these trying times. Negative emotions are sticky.3 If you embody other people’s emotions, you will live with their suffering. If instead, you notice how they feel, and with compassionate curiosity, hold the space for them to safely express themselves, you can better help them find solutions to their dilemmas.
Every conversation has the possibility of creating mutual understanding and feelings of being cared about. There is also the possibility of being misunderstood and hurt. Even with the best intentions, outcomes are unpredictable. Take care with your conversations. We humans are social animals—we survive through healthy relationships. Regulate your emotions to neutralize your stinger.
1 Ursula K. LeGuin. (2004) “Telling is Listening” an essay in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Shambhala; 1 edition.
2 Marcia Reynolds, Outsmart Your Brain: How to Manage Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel, Covisioning, 2017.
3 Klodiana Lanaj and Remy E. Jennings, “The Costs of Being a Caring Manager” HBR blog, January 6, 2020.