It is possible to reduce the distress and discomfort that comes with negative experiences by making some simple shifts in our words and language. Often, we shrink what we are communicating because we want to communicate more quickly and easily. This causes us to communicate using generalisations and make assumptions in our responses. This can lead to problems if we over-generalising and dilute the original intended message.
For example, let’s imagine that I asked my colleague to go to the shops and get a bag of sugar because we have guests coming this afternoon who may want tea or coffee. My colleague is from a family of bakers which means that there is always icing sugar in their house. Instead of buying granulated sugar, my colleague buys icing sugar. I then get frustrated because she didn’t follow my instructions. However, I did not express my instruction with the detail and specificity that would fit in with the way that she thinks and that was my responsibility as the communicator.
We don’t always know what and how other people think and oftentimes assume that they think in the same way that we do. Sometimes we need extra levels of detail that we are not used to giving in order to get our message across in a clear way.
When someone is in a negative state or a state of anxiety, we should minimise our communication. Not just the amount and degree of what we say, but also the terminology and statements that we use.
If you know that you have a tendency to be a little bit dramatic when things are starting to go horribly wrong (even if you only do that in the quiet of your own mind) if you know that you have a tendency to jump straight to the worst-case scenario or to over-amplify things then this tactic is going to be really important for you.
The reason why it’s important to do this is that we need our brains to see problems and anxieties as being simple and solvable so that we are motivated to find solutions. If we represent problems to ourselves as being big scary complicated and overwhelming, then our brains will want to ‘hide under the duvet’. So instead, think about problems in as logical, small and least significant wording as we possibly can.
A few weeks ago I came home from work really tired with a certain level of stress and anxiety. I needed to do the washing up, so I resentfully did it and then noticed a plate that I’d missed. By this point, I’d already emptied the washing-up bowl of water and since I had psychologically checked ‘washing the dishes’ off of my list, I was then annoyed that the job was not finished yet. I caught myself saying to myself inside my head “Damn it! There’s a whole other plate that needs washing up and now I’m going to have to fill up the entire bowl all over again!”
Luckily, I caught myself in the flow of this internal dialogue and interrupted myself by thinking “I’m just washing up a plate though. It isn’t really a big deal is it?!”
I made myself giggle because I realised that I was doing something that I always warn my clients about which is to over-amplify the severity of the issue. Even when you know this stuff you can still get caught out by it!
The most important thing is that you catch yourself in times like this and then correct it. Over the coming weeks and months, I am challenging you to identify where you blow up and over-amplify problematic things and reframe them. Rephrase them to yourself, state them in more simplistic terms (or at least more realistic ones) and do the same with those around you too. Very often when you start practising these skills it’s easier to identify them in other people first.
When we identify these patterns in other people, reframe what they say. If they say ‘this is horrendous, it’s an absolute disaster’ then you reply with ‘you’re right, it’s pretty bad isn’t it?’ You’re not disagreeing but at the same time, you are bringing down the drama a notch. Start paying attention to your intonation and the tone of voice as you say it. Take a breath and restate it in a slightly slower, more pause-filled, considerate way so that you start to drain the drama away.
In summary, there are times when we want to add more detail so that we are very clear in what we’re saying and help others to understand our communication as thoroughly as possible. However, when those times relate to high drama, high anxiety and high pressure, we need to shrink, minimise and reduce the drama and detail in what we are saying to reduce the impact.