Communicating and Cleaning Out the Cupboards

Your body can tell you a lot if you listen to it.  It tells you when it’s hungry and when it’s full. It tells you what food tastes delicious and what food doesn’t taste so good. It tells you what food helps you feel energized and what food depletes you. It tells you when you’re thirsty.

But, beyond these obvious signals about food and drink, the body also tells you when something is creating fear, anger, or dis-ease in some way. These messages can show up as tension in the body, increased heart rate, increased heat, and racing thoughts. In fact, this happened to me this morning as I was having a discussion with my husband. He said something that hit me the wrong way and it took me a moment to figure out exactly why. As a result, I thought about how challenging good communication can be and ways to improve it.  

Particularly when you’ve been triggered with emotion, it is a good idea to think about these following tips before talking.

1.  Know when to talk

When you are operating under the fight-or-flight response, the part of your brain associated with making good decisions is not activated. It would be a great idea to pause and breathe and take a few moments to let the reaction settle down before opening your mouth. Not only do you need to be in the right frame of mind to talk but the person that you’re talking to needs to be in the right frame of mind to receive what you have to say. Two angry, triggered people is a recipe for hurt feelings.

2. Know how to talk

Taking a little bit of time helps you to figure out what it is you really want to say. You might not know what is bugging you until you let the emotions settle a bit. Today, it took me a moment to understand that when my husband gives a particular reason (“I don’t have time”) for not doing a household chore, this seems inaccurate to me. I think he says it out of habit rather than it being true. He would really just prefer not to. Believe me, if he enjoyed cleaning out the cupboards as much as he does playing golf, I would have the cleanest cupboards in town.  

You also want to talk in a calm, respectful manner and be willing to listen to what the other person has to say. I’d also recommend reading the book Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg for a whole primer on how to approach communication. This nonjudgmental ideology helps you to take responsibility for your feelings and needs and helps you generate empathy for the other person.

3. Know who to talk to

Don’t talk to your best friend or confidant about the situation. Talk to the person that needs to hear it. In this case, my husband and I needed to talk. Don’t avoid conversation because you are afraid of conflict. I did that for a big part of my life and it is really destructive to hold things inside. “Conflict” is not a bad thing. Conflict means that you have an opportunity to broaden your perspective, heal a difference, and come to a better understanding.

4. Know when to let it go

I talked to my husband this morning, and I let him know that my need for clarity was not being met when he said “I don’t have time.” He agreed when presented with the evidence (e.g., he had 4 hours for golf on Sunday) that it wasn’t factually true.  And, we agreed that the truth was he just didn’t want to do it. I could accept that much more, because it is true. And, his tolerance for dirty cabinets is much higher than mine so if I wanted them done I ought to go ahead and clean them.  I feel much better with the honest understanding that we came to. Then, I need to let it go. It is true that I do more around the house, but he does more in other ways that are just as valuable.

5. Know when hold your own

If you feel very strongly about something, learning how to set appropriate boundaries or hold to a decision that is important for you may be needed at times. Realize that your truth is not the same as “the” truth, but know that there are some things you do because it aligns with your values and what you hold dear. I don’t really need my husband to clean the cupboards, but I do value clarity. Knowing what was the most important part of that conversation was important to having resolution.

After writing this piece, I went on a bike ride and had a couple of other thoughts I want to share. My husband’s habit of saying “I don’t have time” was developed in a prior relationship as a way of trying to avoid conflict and as a result of not feeling like he could ask for time for his own self-care. I believe that many of us fall into both of these traps. I already mentioned the avoidance of conflict as a reason communication breaks down. But, asking for time for self-care can be a challenging thing for many of us to do as well. You might feel guilty doing something just for you, but that is misplaced guilt. If you don’t take time to care for yourself, no one else will.

I also wanted to acknowledge that there are inequities in every household and in life overall. My guess is you already know this, and you know that these are places that cause friction in our relationships at home and work. However, these inequities are opportunities for you to discover, hopefully through open and honest communication with yourself and your people, the right balance of responsibility and the value that is placed on each person’s giving. The unfortunate realities of gender, job, and race inequity in the society at large is something I will not see erased in my lifetime, so how can I be at peace and find balance in the midst of it all? (This would require a completely new blog to discuss further. So, enough for now.)

I hope this helps in at least some small way in your future attempts at communication. While it seems like it should be easy, we all know how to talk and listen, to some degree. But, it is actually one of the most challenging things we do on a daily basis. Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself puzzled at how to do it well.

Note: My husband has read and approved this message.