Watching Your Words
About the Guest
Do you regret what you said? Communications professor Tim Muehlhoff reminds us that our words, especially those that are written, are powerful, and can often be misinterpreted. Without being able to see your body language or other facial cues, our email and other media posts can sometimes communicate a message we don't intend.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
Tim Muehlhoff reminds us that our words are powerful and can often be misinterpreted.
Watching Your Words
Bob: You may think that the way you communicate with others is helpful—not hurtful—but Tim Muehlhoff says, “We may not be the best people to evaluate our own communication.”
Tim: I have blind spots, all over the place, when it comes to me, as a communicator. Often, it’s my wife or a co-worker, who really does know me well—can say, “Boy, Tim, you got really defensive in a meeting,” or, “You get angry when this topic is brought up.” It might be a blind spot to me.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, May 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey. I’m Bob Lepine. Tim Muehlhoff joins us today to talk about how our words can build others up or tear others down. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
Dennis: You know we have a guest today—
—a friend—Dr. Tim Muehlhoff joins us again on FamilyLife Today. I want him to be a part of this question I’m about to ask Bob. So, welcome, Tim.
Tim: Thank you.
Dennis: Glad you’re here.
Bob: You’ve got a question for me?
Dennis: I do. I do. Tim has written a book called I Beg to Differ. It’s about navigating conversations—difficult conversations—with truth and love.
Dennis: Have you ever written an email that you’ve regretted writing?
Bob: I sent a tweet, many months ago, that as soon as I sent it, I started getting some of my Twitter followers going: “I don’t think you meant to say…” “You might want to reconsider.” And I did. Thankfully, Twitter allows you to retract your tweets and pull them off; but by then, it had already been said.
Dennis: Well, I want Tim to comment on this because I know he’s an expert on this. He has his PhD in Communications from the University of North Carolina; but
93 percent of all communication is non-verbal.
That means it does not demand words. It means there is emotion, there is facial expression, there are gestures—there are all of these non-verbal things that accompany communication. It’s why email or really a text is probably the worst way to handle a loaded issue; right, Tim?
Tim: A loaded and controversial issue—I would agree. We have a saying in Communication Theory: “Meanings are in people not words.” When you use a particular word—I, literally, look at you and non-verbally assess if you are joking / teased that word, “How serious are you?”, “With what kind of intensity did you just say that word?”—which, I tend to interpret negatively. So, when I read an email, 93 percent of all of that is gone. I’m just now looking at the raw word, which has a negative association for me.
Tim: This just happened two weeks ago. It was a group email, which makes it even worse because a person responded to what I was saying to the group and used a couple words that, for me, are flash points. I wrote it—did not ask my wife to look at it. I hit “Send.” Later, read his response, and went back and, literally, reread my email, and thought, “Oh, that was bad.”
Tim: It just was—and it took, honestly, three days of conversations—phone conversations—to un-work it. We both just said, “Hey, this is not an email conversation.”
Bob: And that’s what I’ve had to say in a lot of situations, where I’m in the middle of a group of people, trying to resolve a difference in email—back and forth and “I think this.” There have been times when I’ve just said: “Time out. I think we need to get in a room,”—
Bob: —“I think we need to have a little face-to-face conversation.” Email is not the best place to be having this ongoing discussion because I’ve watched conflict escalate,—
—back and forth and the volleys—and, “That one was kind of strong,” but the next one is even stronger, going back. We’re not getting the full picture of communication when all we’re doing is sending words and texts; right?
Tim: Yes, mass communication scholars call this flaming—it escalates it. We call that a negative communication spiral that, literally, can spiral out of control.
Bob: And Dennis mentioned 93 percent of communication not having anything to do with the actual word that’s being used. Our emotion may be as big a part of the communication as the words we are choosing; right?
Tim: Yes, and that adds to email problems. There is something called emotional contagion that is very important for us to understand as communicators. It means this: “When I walked into this studio to do this interview, all my emotions walked in with me, whether I express them or not. Let’s say I was upset at Bob for whatever reason; but I say to myself, ‘Come on, it’s a radio interview. They are being very gracious to have me on the show.’”
I’m not going to express any of that towards Bob—“I actually like Dennis and feel like we’re in a good place.”
Here is what happens: Bob subconsciously picks up on all the negativity, even though I’m choosing not to express any of that to him. You pick up on all the positivity, although I’m not choosing to express that. So, I often go into relationships thinking: “Okay, I really don’t like this person. I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to treat them meanly. I just don’t like this person.” That negativity—like a contagion / like a virus—literally, spreads out and affects everybody.
Bob: Now, apply that in a marriage relationship. We are always giving off all kinds of emotional cues about how we are feeling about one another in marriage; aren’t we?
Tim: Totally—and parenting with teenagers. So, I’m upset at my wife; right? I think: “I just don’t want to get into it because, last time we got into it, it did not go particularly well. So, I’m just going to stuff it.
“I’m just not going to say anything.”
Tim: Well, your spouse picks up on all of that. I mean, she is, literally, reading that negativity, subconsciously. We call that the high-road/the low-road when it comes to our cognitive abilities.
My high-road is when I’m really critical, and think about something, and critique it. I’m very well aware that I’m critiquing it. Low-road is super-fast, and often is wrong; but I’m picking up on subtle cues that your negativity is bleeding into the situation. As communicators, we better deal with that negativity before we actually get into the conversation.
Bob: Yes, because here’s the situation I’ve been in. I’ve been in situations with couples, where we’re talking about something that happened. Someone will say, “You said this.” The other person will say, “I did not say that.” We get into this dialogue about: “What were the precise words—
Bob: —“that were said?” You realize, in the midst of that, “Even if we get—
—had a recording there—we’re not talking about the words that were used. We’re really talking about some of these non-verbal, emotional cues that were picked up on.”
Now, that’s one side of the situation, where you go: “Okay. So, marital communication—we’ve got to be careful, not just about the words we are using, but about everything that is being reflected in the process.” Again: “Is our heart right when we’re having the communication?”
I’ve also been with a couple, though, Tim, where somebody will say, “This is what he said; but here is what it felt like, to me, he was saying.”
Bob: You see this pattern over and over again. You go, “I think you are reading into what that person is saying—stuff that they are not trying to communicate.” How do we deal with the fact that some people are overloading the communication with stuff that’s not really in there?
Dennis: Well, it may be that there is baggage.
Tim: Oh, yes.
Bob: Could be that there’s baggage there, yes.
Dennis: There is baggage from the past attached to it.
Tim: And latent conflict. Latent conflict is the most destructive thing in a relationship because that latency doesn’t go away.
I literally walk in—use the word, “baggage.” I’ll use the word, “latent.” That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “I want you to deal with this anger before the sun goes down.” Doesn’t mean you’re going to resolve a conflict, but you’ve got to deal with the anger because that will come in to the conversation, like an emotional contagion, and affect, literally, everybody.
That’s why the book is broken down into three sections. The first section I devote four chapters to preparing to have the conversation. If we don’t do the adequate work, ahead of time, that conversation can go south pretty quickly. The middle part of the book is a four-part communication strategy, but it won’t work unless you’ve done the adequate work ahead of time to deal with your emotions and your spiritual state.
Dennis: I know a couple, where the guy grew up in a home where he was not affirmed. Non-verbal communication was constantly cutting away at him and chipping away at his identity and his respect. So, when he grew up and got married,—
—he carried that attitude that he’d grown up with into that marriage.
His wife kept expressing to him, “Sweetheart, do you realize, when you spoke to the
kids, you had this cutting, negative, disrespectful attitude toward your child?” or, “…the children? or, “…to me, as your wife?” The husband, at that point, is clueless. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t have an awareness of what emotional baggage or what latent issues he brought into the marriage. What can you say to help a spouse, who is in a marriage where that is taking place?
Tim: Well, I would say two things: One, don’t kill the messenger. The person who knows me the best is my wife, Noreen. Sometimes, she has to say really hard things to me like: “Honey, do you realize, when couples are talking about this particular issue, you get really defensive?” I have blind spots, all over the place, when it comes to me, as a communicator. Often, it is my wife or a co-worker,
—who really does know me well—can say, “Boy, Tim, you get really defensive in a meeting,” or, “You get angry when this topic is brought up.” It might be a blind spot to me.
Dennis: At that point, wouldn’t you take the words of Jesus, who said, “Before you go correct a friend and take the speck out of their eye, you need to take the log out of yours.” You need to make sure you’re teachable.
Bob: Yes, I’m thinking about what we talk about when we talk about resolving conflict at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. We coach couples on the fact that, before you go to address an issue with somebody, there are some steps you have to go through. You have to go before God, you’ve got to spend some time in prayer, you’ve got to make sure your own heart is right—you’ve got to confess any issues that are your issues to deal with. Only then are you ready to go and have the conversation with somebody else, but most of us just kind of ignore all of that and just charge right into the conflict.
Tim: Yes, people who listen to what you just said, Bob—and they’ll say, “What we’re not supposed to talk about it?” And the answer is: “It might not be the right time to talk about it.
“You are not ready to walk into that conversation. The emotions are too high—the chance that something is going to spiral out of control.” And third: “Most of us lack a strategy,”—my strategy for this conversation is: “I’m going to take a really deep breath and just let it out.”
Tim: And I’m saying—
Dennis: —“the breath—not the words?”
Tim: Yes. [Laughter] All communication is a double-edged sword. It can affirm and disconfirm—or, as I mentioned before, my life verse is: “Our words can impart life or death.” So, talking about an issue, per se, is not always a great idea—only if you are emotionally-prepared / spiritually-prepared—and if you have some kind of communication strategy in order to organize this very difficult conversation that may have gone badly the last time you tried to talk about this issue.
Dennis: Tim, is there anything else that would prepare us better to have these kinds of tough conversations? Because a lot of what you are doing in the book is really helping a person—
—think through, plan, strategize, pray, and anticipate how they are going to approach a difficult situation.
Tim: I think it’s wise for us to understand, ballpark: “What causes conflict in relationships?” While I mentioned many in the book, let me just focus on two that are particularly relevant for me.
One is something called first- and second-order realities. Let me explain what that means. A first-order reality is something that is absolutely undeniable. For example, when Barak Obama ran to be President the first-time, he didn’t wear a lapel pin of the American flag. Now, that’s a first-order reality. It’s undeniable—he doesn’t have a lapel pin on of the American flag.
Second-order reality is: “How do I interpret that?” Again, his opponents immediately interpreted it—
Bob: —“He doesn’t love America.”
Tim: —“He doesn’t love America.”
Tim: That’s a second-order reality. That’s my interpretation of something.
At a FamilyLife marriage conference, a couple came up to me.
It was obvious, she was really upset. She said to me, “He never appreciates what I do for him because, in the morning, when I brush my teeth, I take toothpaste and I just put it on his toothbrush.” Well, that’s a first-order reality; right? The toothpaste on toothbrush is first order.
He was behind her and laughed so sarcastically that it stopped me dead in my tracks. I said to him, “Well, obviously, you disagree.” He goes: “Yes, listen. I don’t need another mom. I don’t need her sticking toothpaste on my toothbrush to remind me to brush my teeth.”
Dennis: He wasn’t viewing it as an act of service.
Tim: No, it was a rub against him. So, all of these things are first-order realities within our marriage and relationships; right?—whether you put the toilet seat down or up; right?—whether you are late to dinner—these are first-order realities. Often, we never ask for clarification because: “I know why you are late,” “I know why you put that toothpaste on that toothbrush. It was a rub against me.”
What I’m advocating for is—step back, even though you are convinced, 98 percent of the correct interpretation—you know why that person did something. I’m saying, “Step back, and allow that person to interpret those actions.”
One communication scholar says: “There are no brute facts. All those facts have to be interpreted.”
Bob: Here is the illustration that I’ve used—and Mary Ann and I’ve talked about this many times. I’m 15 minutes late coming home from work. Now, she doesn’t know why I’m 15 minutes late coming home from work. So, she begins to piece together, in her mind, “Why would he be late coming home from work?”
Dennis: “He’s had a wreck.”
Bob: That’s the first thing that she goes to. And I’ve said to her, “Now, how often is that the real reason why I’m late—that I’ve had a wreck? How many times that I’ve been late is that the real reason? And it’s not been that many; right?” But that’s the first thing she thinks. Then, the second thing is: “He doesn’t care about me, and that’s why he’s late and hasn’t informed me that he’s late.”
As we’ve talked about it, I said, “What we both have to do with one another is give each other”—what I heard somebody call, years ago—“the judgment of charity,” which means that, when I’m interpreting the first-order reality, my duty is to ascribe the highest or best possible motive for why that data is the way it is until I know differently.
So, “Bob’s not home on time.” I have to assume the best possible scenario: “His boss, Dennis, called him in and is talking to him, and he can’t break away from the conversation”; or, “His cell phone battery died.” Something that I put him—but I’m now believing the best about you rather than believing the worst or the most damaging thing about you. Now, when you get home and I go, “I just didn’t care about calling you,” now, you can have a different conversation; right? [Laughter]
But I’m choosing the highest interpretation. My second-order reality is always believing the best about you rather than believing the worst about you.
Tim: And what that shows to me, Bob, is: “What is my communication climate like because I’m not being generous with you? I’m not being charitable. I’m going to a dark place virtually every single time and a negative interpretation. What’s happening in my relationship or my soul in which I’m always approaching you with these negative interpretations, right off the bat?”
Dennis: So, let’s address the problem you just quickly described there—that there is a dark cloud in the relationship. There is something that is eating away, internally.
Bob: We believe the worst about each other.
Dennis: Yes. What is a person supposed to do, at that point?
Tim: Remember we talked about two different types of listening? Listening to understand / listen to evaluate. Let’s say Noreen does say to me: “Honey, you didn’t open the car door for me. I just kind of feel like you don’t value me anymore.” My initial reaction is to listen to evaluate and to talk her out of it—say: “Oh, honey, that’s not true. I think you’re just being a little bit too sensitive.”
No, what I need to do is to say:
“And why would you interpret it that way? What’s been going on that you would think that I don’t value you because the door hasn’t been opened for you?”
She might say: “Well, I’ll be honest with you. You don’t open the door for me ever. I kind of feel like romance has been a low priority.” Boy, that’s good information to get. Now, I could be defensive and try to talk her out of it; or I could seek to understand: “Why have you given that first-order reality that particular interpretation? What’s happening with you and our relationship that has led you to that kind of negative interpretation?”
Dennis: So, the first thing you do is take an inventory. Let’s say you do the inventory, and it’s not good. At that point, it demands a response from you; right? You’ve got to deal with your stuff—that you haven’t really valued her, you haven’t been sowing seeds of romance into the relationship, caring for her, giving her a kiss before you go to work.
Tim: And I’ll be really honest with you. It depends where I’m at, spiritually. If I’m in a good place, spiritually, I’m probably open to her critique.
If I’m not in a good place, spiritually, I might get defensive. That’s why this spiritual preparation before conversation is so incredibly important.
You know, Tim Muehlhoff on a good day—I’m going to receive what my wife has to say or a co-worker. On a bad day, I probably will get defensive, and just jump in and debate that person, and try to talk him or her out of their interpretation.
Bob: Tim, I listened recently to a sermon from Tim Keller, the pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He said, “When it comes to this issue of emotions,”—for all of us—he said, “most religious people think, when you face emotions, you should just stuff them down—that you will appear very non-spiritual, God won’t be pleased, and neither will any of your friends. You just need to kind of stuff it all in the background and not let anybody see it is there.”
He said, “Most secular people in the culture today believe that the emotions are the real you. You just need to give free vent to all of your emotions—
—and that you are being your most authentic when you just are unbridled, emotionally.”
But he said, “The Bible points us to a third way, which is: “We are supposed to bring the reality of our emotions into the presence of God. In His presence, let Him begin to sanctify our emotional side.” He said, “That’s what the Psalms teach us—is how we bring the truth of our emotions before God. In His presence, He does a work on the emotional side of us that is transformative in our lives.”
Dennis: Here’s the question—whether you are single, whether you are engaged, married, you’re a parent, grandparent, single parent—all of us have relationships. Based upon on what Tim has shared today on the broadcast, I’d like you to take 15 minutes before you go to bed tonight, or maybe you turn your light on beside your bed and pull out a sheet of paper. Just do an inventory of your most important relationships.
Ask God this question, “Is all well in each of these relationships?”
You don’t have to take many. Maybe, it’s your spouse and your children; or perhaps, your parents—adult children need to reflect back in that direction, I think. But just evaluate: “How am I doing? How are we doing?”
Then, ask a second question: “What do I need to do regarding my emotions and what we’ve been talking about here about communication? How do I need to get a good game plan for being able to sow good seeds, sow good words, and bring life to that relationship?”
Bob: Yes, because the truth is you are either planting good seed in your marriage that is going to bring about a harvest or you’re sowing weeds in the middle of the marital crop. That’s where I think, Tim, your book really does help each of us, as husbands and as wives. If we are aware of the fact that our words are not working—
—if we’re aware of the fact that our marital communication is not what it ought to be—rather than blaming our spouse, we ought to get a copy of your book and read through it, with a highlighter, and just start to ask God, “How does my communication need to change in our marriage?”
We’ve got copies of Tim Muehlhoff’s book, I Beg to Differ, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. The subtitle is Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about how to get a copy of Tim’s book. While you are on the website—which by the way has just gotten a facelift—you can look around and see all that is new at FamilyLifeToday.com. Then, click in the upper left-hand corner on the box that says, “Go Deeper.” You can order a copy of Tim’s book from us, online, again, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329.
That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.” Again, ask for the book, I Beg to Differ, when you get in touch with us. We’ll get a copy out to you.
Now, today is the first day of May. I know, with the way the winter was for some people, you’re just now getting the spring clothes out and ready for the warm weather to finally be regular as we head toward summertime. And I know May is a busy month for a lot of couples. There are weddings and anniversaries. There are graduations taking place.
It’s a busy month for us, here at FamilyLife Today, as well, because we’re headed toward summertime. That’s a time when we traditionally see a little bit of a decline in the financial support we depend on, as a ministry, to cover the costs of producing and syndicating our daily radio program. So, during this month, we are asking you to consider making a pre-summer gift to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
Kind of pay it forward, if you will, and help get us through the summertime when things generally decline a little bit. And there is some additional incentive available, as well.
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And I hope you can join us back tomorrow as we continue talking about how we speak the truth in love to one another in marriage—a refresher on our communication tomorrow. Hope you can tune in.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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