I don’t think I learned to talk – to really talk – until I hit 50. That’s a difficult admission coming from a woman who spent most of her career in communications.
But I’m not referring to a professional context. I’m referring to a personal one – talking to our partners, to our friends, to our kids. Knowing how to pick the right words, the appropriate tone, and possibly more critical, the right moment.
So how did I finally learn to speak my mind effectively?
I’ll chalk it up to the necessities of the Harried Single Mother gig – the juggle that makes us stronger (if it doesn’t kill us), and teaches us a life lesson or two while we’re at it. And that includes how to open our mouths and deal with our kids in ways to maintain our sanity, how to improve our words and manner when diving back into the Big Bad Dating Scene, and in general – trying to survive.
It’s no small feat to speak your mind effectively. It takes guidance, skill, practice, and a receptive audience. It takes recognition that choosing words carefully may still result in unintended consequences – like bruised feelings, misunderstandings, or possibly, opening up a can of worms you aren’t prepared to deal with.
It’s More Than Words
Speaking clearly requires an awareness of the audience. And by that I mean reading the face and body language of the person you’re speaking to, or knowing if they’re under stress or in a bad mood.
For instance, if I’m irritated with one of my sons, I’ve learned to scan the scowl or the smile, and observe the stance. If I know there’s been no sleep, or some issue at school, I’m likely to defer the conversation to a better time, or to adopt as gentle a tone as possible when I speak.
But getting through to another person is also about trust. It means knowing the sort of relationship that exists, and maintaining it through clear and appropriate communications.
In love, ideally, it’s about establishing and maintaining intimacy.
Speaking Clearly Protects Relationships
When I think back on my marriage, I’m painfully aware that the communication was lacking. There was chatter and conversation – when the family was together at the dinner table, or at more public gatherings. But in private, there was silence. Surely, my ex-husband and I had perfected the art of not talking – though I doubt we realized how it was eroding the relationship.
When there wasn’t silence, conversation centered on the children or my spouse’s career. Generally, I didn’t speak of my writing (and I was writing at the time, of course). And I only spoke of my work peripherally (his took precedence). More importantly, we rarely discussed feelings or dreams; that wasn’t his cup of tea and I understood that from the beginning.
What I didn’t comprehend was that we both may have needed to communicate in a more intimate way, and neither of us knew how to do it.
Communication is a Critical Life Skill
Divorce changed everything in my life. These have been hard years. Lonely years. Crazy busy years. I’ve had to examine my motivations, my needs, my actions, my triggers. I’ve had to develop new skills, including how to speak my mind, and how to listen more effectively.
My children have been the primary focus, and through parenting them, I’ve come to approach language differently.
Most mothers and fathers watch their words around their children, but some of us go beyond that, required to make our way through tiny emotional openings in order to ferret out nuggets of information. We try to stay cool. We try not to lecture. We learn to encourage our children to speak when they would rather not talk – and sometimes, we encourage them to question us, assuring them that it’s safe to do so.
We slip up (I sure did). We apologize (if we’re smart). And we try again, calmly, until we sense that we’ve been heard.
We carry these skills into new romantic relationships if we can – specificity, lack of accusatory language or tone, and a genuine willingness to listen to the response, and then act on the consequences.
I was raised in a household where hiding feelings was a must, and articulating them, foreign. And that has meant that my adult relationships required a slow and imperfect process of undoing the protection I mastered early in life. That protection was about the fear of revealing too much of who I am, being seen in my imperfection, and of course, worrying that I wouldn’t be liked – or loved.
It’s a common fear, isn’t it?
How many of us hide behind our self-erected public face? Our many layers of image we’re projecting? Trying to camouflage a sense that we aren’t enough, that we aren’t “good” enough?
What if women genuinely believed we could open up our mouths and speak – expressing what pleases us as well as what we don’t want or we don’t like? And do so in a way that is fluid, frequent, and doesn’t burn bridges – unless we choose to?
Talk, Talk, and More Talk
When you’re talking with someone you love, sometimes, you get lost in “me, me, me.” We all need to express “me,” but if it’s too much, where’s the other person in the mix?
You’re talking at the other person, not with him.
Looking back, that’s how I felt in my marriage. I felt as though everything was about him – his stuff, his needs. For all I know, he would say the same about me. And that’s another example of how askew (or deficient) our communication was at the time.
I never said anything about how I felt. He never said anything of a similar nature.
I should have been attuned to his body language, but I wasn’t. I should have recognized the distance in everything, but I chose not to see.
You + Me + Us
Sometimes, we’re talking about “you” in the couple, and sometimes, about the much neglected “us.”
If the person you’re talking with isn’t responsive – if he’s walled up and distant, even the most persuasive voice may eventually weary and decide it isn’t worth the trouble.
If some willingness exists, then speaking clearly can move a relationship forward. It may be uncomfortable, but with practice, if the relationship is worth its salt, it can work.
Recently, I’ve needed more time to myself, to pursue an abundance of pokers in the fire, and still take care of me. I cannot devote as much time to the man I’m dating as I have been; I’ve had to say no. Clearly, and kindly, no – to spending as much time together as he would like.
Free Flowing Words
This sort of clarity in a relationship is new for me. Part of why it works is because he is an exceptional communicator. He listens. He says what he needs. My necessity for more hours to myself is about me – not him, not us. I say the words, and he “receives” the message as intended.
Honestly? I don’t know if this is an age thing, a stage thing, or a matter of the right person at the right time. Naturally, I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. (Don’t we all?) There were signs before I married that the man I was marrying was emotionally off limits. I doubt I realized the power of the silences to come, and likewise, the extent to which a constant and mutual exchange is essential to me.
- Do you express yourself clearly to your partner? To your children?
- Do you give as good as you get – leaving defenses behind when your partner speaks to you?
- Can you read the receptivity of the other person – judging what to say, when to say it, and to what level of detail?
- Do you feel safe speaking your mind, or more vulnerable than you care to be?