Keeping Delicate Conversations Safe

Communication challenge concept as two people or employees having difficulty communicating to each other in a 3D illustration style.

With the increased stress that most of us have been feeling for over a year and a half, you may have noticed that people have very short fuses whenever they have conversations around anything potentially controversial. Sometimes fights erupt around the most minor issues: where to put the milk in the refrigerator, whose turn is it to put away the dishes, when is it time to turn off screens? There can be many more angry outbursts within families, which can lead to a decrease in how free people feel to share their real feelings because they don’t want to trigger somebody and start an argument. This in turn can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as guilt and shame. 

Experiencing some hope as things seem to be getting a bit better may help all of us relax somewhat and be less likely to erupt or have people around us become unhinged at the slightest perceived offense. 

Here’s another way to keep our conversations safer and more meaningful: the intentional use of continuum language. 

Pretty much everything can be put on a continuum. In fact by saying “pretty much everything” I am using continuum language. Continuum language moves us away from speaking in absolute terms as if there is only one way to see things with no shades of gray. 

Here are a few pointers about continuum language: 

• Continuum language speaks in terms of the degrees to which something is or may need to be 

• We can notice the degrees to which statements are more descriptive rather than highly evaluative. Descriptive language focuses more on facts and things that are objective and observable. “100 people were expected to attend but only 68 showed up,” is a descriptive statement versus, “People are just so rude today! They have no consideration when it comes to saying they are attending something and then don’t show up. There’s no excuse for that!” 

Family Conflicts. Sad little black children covering ears with hands while their parents arguing in the background, upset boy and girl dont want to hear quarrel, stressed kid sitting on the floor

• Instead of using more absolute, definite language – “always” or “never” statements – we can practice using more tentative language, saying things like “sometimes,” “occasionally,” and even “often” which leaves some wiggle room by stating that it isn’t always something. “You never listen to me!” is probably not true. “A lot of times you don’t seem to be listening to me,” is probably more accurate and less likely to be offensive to someone. 

• We can also notice when language is more global than specific. How often do people imply that “everyone!” is a certain thing. “All… people of a certain race, people who belong to a certain political party, people of a certain age” puts everyone under one all-encompassing umbrella. More specific language would isolate just those people or things that relate to a subject. “People who are between the ages of ___and___” “Children who lived below the XYZ poverty line…” 

Some more examples: 

• Evaluative language: “You can never trust anything on social media!” 

• Descriptive language: “Social media shares a variety of information with some sources saying … and other sources saying….” 

• Absolute language: “White people (or Black people) never appreciate their impact when it comes to racism.” 

• Tentative language: “Sometimes it may be hard for someone who is white (or Black) to fully appreciate how they might be impacting someone of another race.” 

• Global language: “Teenagers are always…” 

• Secific language: “Last week a group of about five young people between 13 and 15 years old were involved in an altercation in the playground at the school located…” 

Young couple woman and man sitting on the sofa in the living room had an argue and not talking where girlfriend put her hand on the boyfriend shoulder and try to calm him down, relationship issues

Another way to reduce feelings of being attacked, blamed, shamed or put into a box is to use I-messages. I-messages convey that you understand that what you are sharing is your perspective. You-messages, on the other hand, are messages which attack, blame, shame or try to hold somebody else accountable. 

• Example of a You-message: “You clearly are not capable of understanding what I am saying!” 

• Example of an I-message: “I feel frustrated when someone makes me feel they do not believe I am capable of understanding the message.” 

Some sample sentence starters for creating I-messages

• “From my perspective what I think is true is…” 

• “For me, the most important thing is…” 

• “In my opinion…” 

• “When others… I feel… because…” 

• “What I think might be needed is…” 

• “What I’m struggling to understand is…”  

The goal is to share, discuss and process thoughts, feelings, observations, concerns or needs rather than to attempt to force people to see things in one exact, specific way. 

In these times where we have been under so much stress, working to be more mindful to use continuum language can be a very valuable tool for promoting more peaceful home environments where people can be heard, can share safely, and can grow in their sense of connection with others.  

Invitation for Reflection 

  1.  Try to recall what you said in one of your conversations today. To what extent were the things you said phrased using continuum language versus being more evaluative, global or absolute? 
  2.  Were you using more I-messages versus you-messages? 
  3.  Were you on the receiving end of someone who used language that was more evaluative, global or absolute than descriptive, specific or tentative? 
  4.  In what ways can you enhance your abilities to use continuum language? How might doing this impact important relationships you have? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute