©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Throwing on her robe, Marilee closed the bedroom door softly and climbed down from the loft being careful to walk quietly among the slumbering cousins sacked out in the family room. Thirteen visiting relatives plus her own family of four meant a host of hungry mouths for Sunday breakfast. One large kettle of roman-meal porridge and four-dozen blueberry muffins later she allowed herself to slow down long enough to take a deep breath, only to let it out in a startled squeak as Jake’s mother appeared in the doorway. She walked to the stove, lifted the lid from the kettle, and asked, “You’re not making waffles?”
“What’s wrong with porridge?” Marilee asked as she braced her arms against the counter and groaned inwardly. Here we go again!
“I didn’t say there was anything was wrong with porridge,” her mother-in-law replied stiffly.
“You know I can’t make waffles for 17 in this vacation cabin,” Marilee stated as calmly as possible. “Pancakes maybe; not waffles.” And, she thought to herself, if I’d made pancakes she’d have said porridge would be healthier! Pasting a deliberate smile on her face Marilee asked, “Would you like some juice before the rush begins?”
The older woman shook her head and headed for the wide porch that overlooked the lake, murmuring just loud enough to be heard, “Why do you always have to be so defensive? I just asked a simple question!”
Or had she?
Spoken language has at least two levels; the actual cognitive words used in the communication and the underlying message, the meaning that isn’t conveyed in words and the one that often mirrors our emotions and intent, albeit subconscious. Deborah Tannen refers to these two levels as the word message and the heart message. Based on our past history we usually react most strongly to the heart message.
On the surface Jake’s mother had asked a simple question. However, had the woman been satisfied with the porridge she wouldn’t have mentioned waffles. It’s a big deal to Marilee because her perception is that she can never get it right, can never please the woman. Plus she’s pretty sure that her mother-in-law will use the incident to complain to her son about his testy wife. That will put Jake in the middle again. If he sides with Marilee then his mother gets upset; if he agrees with his mother then Marilee feels betrayed. It’s going to be a very long week she mused and, with a sigh, went to wake up the rest of the family.
No human being can go through life without some emotional pain. Unfortunately, families, the very structure intended to help family members deal with pain, often are the source of much of it! Family members share a long history and much of what they say to each other contains echoes from the past. This can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for a type of verbal shorthand because of the common-knowledge-in-the-family factor. On the other, conversations rarely stand alone. They’re part of the overall web of communication within the family. They often trigger reactions that seem to occur even more frequently when interacting with family members. Of course the cumulative affect of negative interactions can undermine relationships.
For example, if we had difficulty turning out the light at night because our brains really get going about 8 o’clock in the evening, we may have been repeatedly subjected to the old adage early to bed and early to rise, or we may have been scolded about the need to get to sleep earlier. In adulthood if someone asks us what time we got to bed the night before our brains may connect that question to earlier pejoratives and we may respond defensively with What’s it to you? I know how much sleep I need!
Reactions can be further magnified when conversing with family members who assume they have a duty to be critical (helpful is the word they would use). After all, they care about us, don’t they? Or with those who try to boost their own level of self-worth by deliberately finding fault, often couching their criticism in questions or comments that sound innocent enough. Regardless of our actual words, however, our intent oozes through in the underlying message whether or not we are consciously aware of this. Depending on the intent (conscious or subconscious), the receiver usually reacts to the emotional (or heart) message while the sender, when questioned, usually sticks by the word message and ignores the emotional message. This mismatch can create a dysfunctional communication loop that often intensifies with time.
The only really effective way to get out of a dysfunctional communication loop is to address the emotional message. One of the parties must break the cycle! Marilee could respond to her mother-in-law’s questions with, “I feel like you’re unhappy with my choice of porridge.” If there was some intent to be critical, this response could gently put Jake’s mother on notice that Marilee was aware of the underlying message. If there was no intent to be critical, this could give Jake’s mother the opportunity to understand how those words had been perceived and she could respond with, “I know porridge is the best choice out here, but I’d like to put my order in for waffles next time we’re at your place. I love the way you make them.” Above all the goal is to have the word message and the emotional message match. That’s often a good place to begin.
Ask yourself, “What do I intend to convey? Covert criticism or caring affirmation?”
Speaking of waffles...