It’s hard to say the right thing. It’s so hard to say the right thing sometimes that my default is usually not to say it at all.
It’s my personal experience and belief that the most damage in relationships – specifically marriage – is caused by the things we don’t say.
Things I struggle to say:
- Something I needed but chose not to ask for
- Feelings I needed to share but chose to stay silent
- A praise I withheld because I was resentful or insecure
- A missed opportunity to connect or encourage
- A question I should have asked but didn’t
- A question I should have answered honestly but didn’t
- Something I ignored instead of responding to
- Staying silent because speaking up felt too hard
- Dressing up a hard topic with softer words (my most frustrating communication blunder)
We’re all human and hopelessly flawed. It takes guts to 1) say the right thing, 2) at the right time, 3) to the right person, 4) in the right way.
Accomplishing all four of those simultaneously is a lofty goal. But it’s possible. And when you do it right, it will change your relationships for the better.
Say the right thing
It doesn’t have to be fancy. Or long-winded. It doesn’t have to be unkind. It just has to be said. Go back to that bullet list of unspoken words up at the top. What’s that nagging thing you know you need to say? What do you need to tell your spouse, or your child, or your coworker, or your mom? Or what do you need to say to yourself?
Maybe it’s admitting there’s a wound that’s not healing. Or maybe it’s offering forgiveness. (That’s a seventy-times-seven thing, by the way. And then some.)
Saying the right thing builds trust between hearts. Not saying the right thing erodes trust between hearts. We get so scared of what will happen if we speak up. But what if we were just as mindful of the consequences of staying silent?
Pin yourself down on what you need to say. I bet you already know what it is. And I know you have the guts to say it.
Say the right thing, at the right time
Choose your timing carefully. You know your spouse better than anyone. Sometimes no time is a good time, so pick the least-bad time. We have 2 go-to options for hard conversations – our prayer chair with a cup of coffee when the kids are at school, and our backyard with a pizza after the kids are asleep. Those are safe places we know we can hide in together to tackle the tough stuff.
The biggest mistake we’ve made is opening up a tough topic 10 minutes before somebody has to leave the house or head into a meeting. Use your common sense. Sometimes the hard talk can’t wait but in most cases it probably can. Give each other the gift of not rushing a hard conversation. No good comes from that.
Also, I think we’ve completely missed the point of the phrase “do not let the sun go down upon your anger.” If you can’t solve a problem before midnight, you’re not going to solve it after midnight either. Push the pause button, tell each other I Love You, and promise to revisit the conversation tomorrow when you’re both better rested and have a clearer mind. It works. Things always look different in the morning.
Say the right thing, at the right time, to the right person
Maybe I actually did say the right thing… but I said it to the wrong person.
99 times out of 100, there’s no need to loop someone else into a situation between you and another person. ESPECIALLY if the problem is between you and your spouse. If you’re seeking wise advice, from someone you trust, then sure, open up. But if you’re telling a third party simply to complain, or worse, gain ammunition against your spouse, then you’re not talking to the right person. There’s no sense souring a reputation or wasting time and breath when you could go straight to the source instead.
Ask yourself, why am I telling this person? If it’s not for the right reasons, loop them out immediately.
Say the right thing, at the right time, to the right person, in the right way
Not all conversations are created equal. Sometimes tough things can be hashed out quickly. But some words and deeper-rooted issues take a little more thought, a little more time, and a little more care.
If you get tongue-tied in the heat of the moment, or if it’s addressing something particularly hard, write it down first.
There was a season Jack and I communicated almost exclusively in writing. (But don’t knock it, because passing notes back and forth like junior high frenemies kept us from putting pen to divorce papers.)
Remember when I tore the house apart looking for that shell? I found stacks upon stacks of those folded letters. Most were too painful to read past a quick glance. But I think that’s the point. We got the tough stuff down on paper so nobody could run from it or allow our emotions to squash the other person’s response. It also allowed us to respond in our own time without blowing up and saying things we regretted.
Let it fall on deaf ears
As we put our marriage back together, there were things I needed to say to other people for my own benefit – not theirs. They were things I needed to get out of my head and heart, but not necessarily things they needed to hear. So I wrote them down on slips of paper and burned them in our backyard grill. There was something really satisfying about setting fire to those words. A literal burning away of hurts, failures, and heartaches. Get rid of your emotional junk so your heart is clear and open for the people you love most.
Sometimes, the right way to say something is to not say it at all
Back to forgiveness…
I whisper those three little words probably 10 times every day. Mostly, to myself. I forgive you. And also to Jack. I forgive you too. I don’t say it out loud much because he doesn’t need to hear me say it a million times. (At least I don’t think so, anyway. Maybe he does. Stay tuned on that.)
I believe God is doing a good work in me every time I humble myself enough to ask Him for help offering silent forgiveness for myself and other people. There’s healing power in it. Try it. You’ll like it.
Put it all into practice
Your gut will tell you what you need to say. Seek out the right person, and plan your approach.
All it takes is 20 seconds of courage to get it out.
And in doing so, you’ll breathe life into your most treasured relationships.