Updated: Apr 15, 2022
Whether you want to connect with the most important person in your life or an interesting stranger, you cannot assume that they’ll know what’s going on inside your head. Connecting comes from understanding, which, in turn, results from the exchange of clear and accurate messages. You build existing relationships and initiate new ones by translating your inner experience into words so that people do not have to guess or assume. Guesswork, in any form, is a major roadblock to connecting. Even when you know someone well enough to interpret certain private signs – a frown, a shrug of the shoulders, a particular facial expression – judging nonverbal clues is a risky business.
This article is excerpted from the book Straight Talk by Shanxi Miller, Daniel Wackman, Elam Nunnally and Carol Saline. You may interpret the term “straight talk” to be synonymous with our term, “truth telling.”
There are many ways, both verbal and nonverbal, to express your inner consciousness accurately and fully, but the simplest is to connect with your own experience. Expressing your truth is the bridge that leads you to others through the disclosure of personal information. How much you choose to share is up to you. The following are six basic techniques you can employ in truth telling.
1. SPEAK FOR SELF
There should be no question that you’re describing any experience other than your own. These examples demonstrate speaking for yourself.
It’s important to me.
I want more time to think about it.
My impression is different.
I’ll call you before Thursday.
I’m delighted with your progress.
I saw the most beautiful sunset yesterday.
I wanted to stop time and capture it forever. I wonder if I’d have the nerve to refuse.
Control talk is usually directed away from self and earmarked by the manipulative speaking-for-other. The goal of speaking-for-self is to identify you as the source and originator of your messages. Too often we're not as direct as we could be. Held back by fear, timidity, or lack of confidence, we couch our feelings or intentions generalities to avoid revealing our true selves. We use cover words, such as “people,” “some folks,” “one,” and we make under-responsible statements that belong to nobody.
Most people would be mad if this happened to them, don’t you think? It might help if Jane didn’t yell at her class so much. There are those who believe in mandatory retirement. One needs eight hours of sleep to stay healthy. Under-responsible statements force your listeners to guess at the source of “your” opinions. And over-responsible statements that smack of Control Talk convey an authoritative tone that’s equally destructive to meaningful conversation. Like edicts issueed from the director’s chair, over-responsible statements rely on words that imply universal power -“we,” “everybody,’ “all” – and frequently link these omnipotent pronouns with “should” and “ought” directives: You couldn’t understand how I’m suffering. You’d like this movie. It’s got lots of shooting and you always enjoy the good guys against the baddies. Everybody says the fashion color this season is red. All men know women want to be romanced. We shouldn’t spend so much money on food.
By submerging your opinions in general but powerful “yous,” “alls,” and “everybodies,” you establish yourself as the authority on someone else’s experience. Nobody likes to be told what they are thinking or feeling, or what they ought to do, and their tendency is to fight back. If you find yourself arguing frequently, you may be relying on too many over-responsible Control Talk statements in your conversation.
Your ideas are valuable simply because they are yours and you are important. If you don’t express them, you deny your self-worth. You can present your view of the world with interpretative statements. By using first-person pronouns, you demonstrate very clearly that you are not out to make authoritative pronouncements but rather to offer your personal view of things.
I think you’d enjoy this ballet.
It seems possible to me.
I think that’s the wrong approach for this problem.
I don’t think you’ve caught my drift; I think you’ve missed my point. I think Sharon was a fool to let Joe out of her life.
I think the only way to stop inflation is mandatory price controls.
Although interpretative statements do, in fact, stereotype, categorize, and evaluate people and events, that doesn’t negate them as an expression of your experience. Moreover, values and opinions are not etched in stone. The very concept of thinking implies an on-going process, and your current interpretation of any event is always subject to change.
3. SAY WHAT YOU FEEL
When you want to differentiate your thoughts from your feelings, try this simple trick. If you can follow the words, “I feel” with the word “that,” you are probably expressing an idea, not an emotion.
I feel that you don’t pay any attention to me. (an opinion) I feel rejected
I feel that I’ll never be a decent bridge player. (a judgment) I feel discouraged about the way I play bridge.
Initially, verbal expressions of emotions may be difficult. Many of us were raised to lock up our emotions behind a closed door marked “Private.” And we’re further hampered by cultural beliefs about appropriate and inappropriate displays of emotion. For example, until recently men weren’t supposed to feel silly and women believed that the verbalization of anger wasn’t ladylike. Moreover, it is difficult to acknowledge negative feelings of envy, greed, or jealousy even to, ourselves – let alone to voice such feelings aloud. Many of us have developed the habit of substituting opinions, evaluations, or closed questions for feeling statements.
You have no right to tell me what to do. (Control Talk)
I’m resentful when you give me an order like you just did. (Straight Talk)
You’re married to your job. (Control talk)
I felt hurt when I didn’t get a birthday card from you.
Sometimes I think you are so involved in work that your friends don’t matter. (Straight Talk)
You’re always tired. You never want to go anywhere. (Control Talk)
I feel sad that we don’t do as much together as we used to. (Straight Talk)
Notice in all the above examples, the harsh, jarring phrases open with the pronoun “you.” These speak for someone else and put the responsibility for your feelings on someone else’s shoulders. One sure way to avoid this kind of Control Talk is to consistently express your feelings in I-statements. As soon as you say “I feel,” the picture changes. The accusatory quality disappears and a potential attack becomes a Straight Talk shareed awareness.
4. SAY WHAT YOU WANT
Why is it so difficult for us to make clear intention statements? When we were young, we were too innocent to be other than direct about what we wanted. But as we grew older, we were tau nit to keep our intentions to ourselves. We bought another set of assumptions: saying what we want is selfish, brash, presumptuous, it’s nobody’s business, it’s easier to get what we want by operating underground than by being up front. In short, we learned that it was self-centered or impolite to be direct, so we discovered other ways to reach our goals.
The child says openly, “I hate cheese.” The pre-teen slides the cheese in a sandwich to the dog.
The child says freely, “I don’t want to go to bed now.” The teenager dallies over homework until bedtime passes.
The child says directly, “Sally is a pig. She takes my toys. I don’t want to play with her anymore.” The adult doesn’t return Sally’s phone calls and snubs her at parties.
In competitive situations, it may not always be a good idea to reveal all your intentions. But most of your relations are not competitive ones (we hope), and buried intentions should not be a feature of your communication. Whether or not you acknowledge your intentions, you have them and they are bound to surface. Unspoken intentions are the backbone of our hidden agendas. we are least likely to reveal what we want when we fear that our partner doesn’t share that wish. And, when our intentions are exposed, as they are bound to be sooner or later, there’s trouble. Health coaches: Please note the relevance of hidden intentions to your speaking with clients. What challenges do you face to the full disclosure of your intentions to your clients?
Many people shy away from intention statements because, if they aren’t stated judiciously, they can sound like Control Talk demands. Instead of coming out as “I want,” the intention gets translated into “you should” and becomes a Control Talk command. Note the difference between the following Control Talk statements and intention statements, and learn to phrase your intentions accordingly.
You should have gone to the party with me. (Control Talk)
I wanted you to go to the party with me. (Intention statement) Don’t make so much noise. (Control Talk)
I’d like you to be quiet. (Intention statement)
You’ve got to help me fix this broken screen. (Control Talk)
I’d like you to help me fix this screen. (Intention statement) You’d better not answer me like thy.,.. (Control Talk)
I don’t want you to speak to me in that tone. (Intention statement)
5. AVOID BLAME
Several kinds of “you” statements place the responsibility for your feelings on others:
You make me nervous. You make me crazy. You get me furious.
Remember that self-responsibility is a basic tenet of Truth Telling.
Keep the focus on yourself, back your feelings up with precise explanations, and you’ll avoid Control Talk.
Instead of saying, You make me so mad. Say: I get mad when I think you are accusing me of something I don’t think I did.
Instead of saying, You make me happy. Say: I feel good when you notice my effort to be less critical.
Instead of saying, You know you secretly like it when I stand up to you. Say: I got the impression that you were pleased when I stood up for what I believed yesterday and I didn’t back down to you.
Tacking the prefix like “I think” or “I feel” on a sentence, or simply avoiding the word “you” won’t remove the blaming quality from your message unless the shift from you to I is accompanied by a shift in tone and emphasis. It must be clear that the phrase “I think” or “I feel” are a true report on your personal reaction, no, a way to couch an attack on your partner. Identify what your reaction is – a thought, a feeling, an intention – as well as the remark or action that triggered it.’
Bart was in the kitchen doing the dishes when Louise came in and began to dry them. After a moment of silence, Bart said, “When I’m working and you walk over to help me, I feel like you’re checking up on me and I don’t like that.” Louise might have tossed the towel in his face and offered a Control Talk retort: “Then do it yourself. If you don’t need me, that’s your loss.” Instead, she focused on her reaction to his remark and answered, “It’s not my intention to make you feel ill-at-ease, or as though I’m looking over your shoulder. It’s more my intention to let you know I want to help and I enjoy doing things together. I’m saying that I want to be with you, not that I want to check on how well you’ve scrubbed the pots.”
6. CUT OUT THE LABELS
Always and never are two. commonly used and extremely unfair labels. We all have faults, but we don’t repeat them with the regularity of the morning alarm. When grand generalizations – always, sometimes, never – are sprinkled in a conversation, the speaker comes across as the unquestionable authority on other people’s behavior – and it’s very unlikely that he or she will be well received by others.
You have such a pessimistic outlook about everything.
– That’s ridiculous. I’m an upbeat person.
You don’t ever give me the benefit of the doubt.
– That’s not so. Yesterday you said the movie was playing at the Eric and I knew you were wrong, but I kept quiet.
You never listen to me.
– Okay, say something. I’ll listen.
Every time were out somewhere you lose something. – I do not.
Understandably, we seek to defend ourselves against global evaluations and unreasonable judgments, and an argument ensues over who is right. Replace this kind of Control Talk with responses that focus on what is happening in the present – at that moment. Limit your remarks to a particular action rather than someone’s overall behavior, and don’t imply that the action occurs continuously. When you confine yourself to specifics, your comments are easier to hear and accept. And people will be less likely to dismiss a remark as an unwarranted exaggeration.
Don’t say: You’re always crying about something. Say: Today, when you started to cry after I called you an air-head, I felt guilty, but I also thought your crying was a way to manipulate me.
Don’t say: You have a negative attitude about all my suggestions. Say: When I tell you that I’m going to do something and you tell me that it’s wrong or that I won’t do it right, I get very upset and I begin to think you don’t see me as having much sense.