Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

“I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”

This is a pretty basic statement, right? A statement that implies that the other person is willing to respond. And intends to. As soon as possible. So what’s the problem?

Well, here’s what a client I’ll call Ann experienced. Ann asked her husband, Frank, to take down a heavy baking dish from a high shelf in the kitchen cupboard. Normally, Ann would stand on a stool and do it herself, but she wasn’t feeling her best that day.

Sure, Frank let her know that he was willing to do what she asked. But the tone of his response? As Ann described it, he didn’t say it, he “barked” it.

Ann felt hurt at the way he responded. She felt like she was being a bother. And she wondered if Frank resented her for not always being able to do things on her own.

And Frank’s perspective? In his words, he didn’t mind helping her at all. But he was watching a sports show, waiting for the scores for his favorite team to flash across the screen, and he didn’t want to miss them.

But Frank missed, alright. Miscommunication.

Words are only part of the message

Communication is more than the words we use to get a message across. It’s also about how we say those words. So it’s not just the message, but how that message is delivered. As Ann and Frank were reminded.

And when the delivery is off, not only is the message not heard in the way it was intended, but hard feelings can result. Along with the need for more communication to undo the damage. Sounds like a lot of work, right?

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been in Ann’s shoes and had a message come at you that made you say, “Whoa, where did that come from?” Along with the feelings that resulted. Sure, you probably worked it out with the person who delivered those words. But the best way to react to a delivery that seems to come out of left field is by being mindful of how you are reacting. Here’s how:

Be aware of your hot buttons. Like when you feel you are being ignored, or treated like a nuisance. Also, keep in mind that living with a chronic condition like diabetes, and having to rely more on other people, can cause you to be that much more sensitive to how people speak to you.

Take a step back and breathe. When the way a message is delivered causes you to have those feelings you always get when your partner or other family member talks to you in a certain way, give yourself some self-talk that will help you to be aware of how you’re reacting and why. Focus on your breathing, and say something to yourself like, “I always feel this way when somebody speaks to me like I’m ______ (in the way, annoying them, not important enough to acknowledge, etc.).”

Consider the source. Chances are you know your partner well enough to have an idea about what his/her intention was. For example, is this someone who gets preoccupied, like Frank, and isn’t always so conscious of the tone of their voice? Or who can be moody, and may respond, or not respond, because they’re not in a good place emotionally, and not because of something that you did? This is also known as giving the benefit of the doubt.

Ask for clarification. If you’re concerned about the way a message was delivered, it can help to simply ask your partner to clarify their intention. You can say something like: “The way you answered my question sounded to me like I am getting on your nerves. Is that right?” Better to ask than to make assumptions.

Speak up for yourself. If your partner, or someone else in your life, consistently has a way of delivering messages that are hurtful or confusing, it might be time to speak up for yourself. You can do this in a way that promotes communication, rather than making the other person feel accused. Try this: “I want us to communicate in a way that’s clear and brings us closer. When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel like _____.”

Ask what you can do. It might help to let your partner know you want to do your part to communicate better. They may have some ideas for improvements on your end, too.

You and your partner. A misdelivered message doesn’t have to wreck your day. Step back before you react. Regain your perspective. Work on improving how you communicate. We’re all in this together!

What helps you when you have communication issues at home? Share your tips in a comment below.

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