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    How Should We Talk to Each Other? First Step: Remember Intentions

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    Tom Moon, MFT

    Rubin and his partner Alan are trying to resuscitate their dying relationship by doing couples counseling. Rubin begins this week’s session with a long, angry monologue detailing his partner’s faults. He is, by turns, snarky, self-righteous, shaming, accusatory, self-pitying, sarcastic, and demanding. I interrupt him to suggest that he examine the way he’s talking, and he hotly objects. Everything he says is true, he tells me, and besides, Alan talks to him in exactly the same way.

    He’s right on both counts. He does describe every “fact” accurately, and Alan does talk to him in the same hostile and combative style. He is speaking “my truth,” he tells me. It’s a free country, and he can say whatever he wants. Right again. But I remind him that his stated purpose in coming into therapy was to heal his relationship, and I suggest that he’s about as likely to arrive at that destination by talking like this as he is likely to get to Hawaii on his bicycle.

    The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” may be a brave retort for a kid who is being taunted in the school yard, but it’s completely untrue. We can all remember times when another person hurt us deeply solely with words. Hostile and careless speech regularly destroys relationships, divides families, and all too often leads to violence and loss of life. Human beings evolved to be highly sensitive; not only to what other people say, but also on how they say it. When speech is hostile, it activates the same threat circuits in the brain that physical violence does. If you’re in a crowded restaurant, for instance, just notice how people stop talking and become alert and tense when they overhear somebody speaking angrily.

    And yet we’re so careless about how we speak to other people. So many of us seem to think, like Rubin, that as long as we’re “telling the truth,” it’s perfectly fine to say whatever we want. They tell the truth on The Jerry Springer Show too, to the delight of people who like to watch “guests” use “the truth” to humiliate and destroy each other.

    The phrase “polite speech” almost sounds quaint these days. When we’re out walking, or on our bikes, or driving, for example, it now seems to be perfectly acceptable to yell, swear, flip off or honk at anyone who inconveniences us or gets in our way, because, of course, anyone who does that is a “moron.” It’s as if we have a collective intention to make each other’s travels around town as stressful and unpleasant as possible.

    Some of the debasement of speech in our culture must be due to social media, where self-righteousness, accusations, sarcasm, name-calling and ridicule are accepted tools for conducting debates. I’ve found that, whenever I participate in discussions anywhere in that manner, I always come away feeling agitated and not particularly happy with myself, even when I think I “made my point,” or that I “won the argument.” The conclusion is straightforward: if my intention is to be happy, then I need to understand that effective speech is more complicated than just telling the truth.

    I think that we can call speech effective, or appropriate, or wise, when ends and means line up, when what we say serves, rather than thwarts, our intentions. Rubin and Alan do sincerely love each other, and do want to return to trust and harmony in their relationship, but they’ve lost sight of the prize. The short-term goals of protecting their egos, winning arguments, and getting even have eclipsed their deeper intentions. They’ve forgotten why they ever wanted to talk to one another in the first place, and if they want to save their partnership, that is what they need to remember.

    The first step then in speaking more productively is to constantly remember what our deepest intentions are. I want to be happy and contented. I want to give and receive love. I want relationships with others to be mutually satisfying and fulfilling.

    How must I speak with others if I sincerely want to attain these goals? Next time, I’ll discuss some tried and true guidelines for bringing our speech in greater alignment with these intentions.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.