A Guide to Productively Communicating Your Feelings
In our experience many of the clients we have had the opportunity to work with very often have severe difficulty with how to communicate their feelings effectively. It’s not something we are taught in school, and because it is not something people often do, it can feel uncomfortable and awkward. We have learned to suppress strong feelings and there may be unspoken social rules about expressing them. Many of the clients that we see are at a loss as to how to do it. At times we might express feelings in ways that hurt others, themselves, or cause our very own feelings to not be heard by others using aggressive, passive aggressive, or passive communication styles.
I’m not saying that the act of communicating your feelings, especially sensitive feelings, will be easy, but going through the short-term pain can improve the long-term quality of your life. It’s worth it, and all of your feelings are worth it as I’ll explain more in the next section. Productively communicating your feelings will permeate beyond your personal life and into your professional settings in the office, in meetings, or out in the field.
All of your feelings are OKAY and IMPORTANT!
It can sometimes seem as if our feelings are bad, wrong, or that we shouldn’t feel them. The fact is that our feelings are automatic, and they aren’t something we choose. Since you have zero control over them, don’t apologize or dismiss them. Use them to bring more happiness and peace to yourself and your relationships. But before we can use them, we need to know what our feelings are.
Figure out what you are feeling
Knowing what we are feeling allows us to correctly address and work on the problem, so the next step to communicating your feelings productively is to…
Label your feelings
I know we have all experienced times in our lives when we have interacted with someone and it made you feel off, but you are just not quite sure what you really felt, or as we will discuss next, why you felt that way. It can really help to increase your emotional vocabulary. Pick one or 2 words that describe what you were feeling. This can be confusing because sometimes we feel two conflicting emotions at the same time.
Bittersweet is a term that is an excellent example of this. You might feel happy that your colleague got a new job but very sad that you do not get to work with her anymore. Or you might feel very excited about all the possibilities and new things to learn and experience when starting a new business, but at the same time feel scared of failing.
Dig for deeper and more vulnerable emotions
There are surface emotions and there are deeper emotions. Or we can call them primary and secondary emotions. Secondary (surface) emotions might be guilt, frustration, overwhelm, worry, anxiety or anger. We might feel frustrated, but the primary feeling underneath that is inadequacy. We might feel anger on the surface, but what we are really feeling is hurt. Or we might feel guilt when in fact we are feeling grief. Labeling deeper emotions, rather than just defining all emotions as just angry, is so helpful because when you use deeper emotions it is easier for the other person to really be able to understand and make sense of the problem.
I see many couples who see their partner as just angry. The angry person isn’t explaining the vulnerable feelings beneath the anger. When someone comes at you with anger it is hard to hear and not get defensive, but if that same person tells you that they feel that they are not loved or important when their partner doesn’t help around the house, it is a lot easier to hear the other person’s feelings.
With anger, it’s helpful to think of what was the first feeling you felt before you felt angry, and to express and explain that. For example, it is not helpful to yell at your child who ran out in the street, but it is helpful to tell your child how scared you were that they might get hit by a car. That’s the vulnerable feeling, and vulnerable feelings are an essential part of productively communicating your feelings.
Figure out why you feel that way
Ask yourself some clarifying questions such as: “what led you to feel this way?”, what happened right before you felt that way?”. The goal here is to find the root cause. Quite often we want to go into blaming, but that never solves the problem and is never effective in productively communicating your feelings. Were you hurt by something that your partner said? Were you humiliated that your boss reprimanded you and brought up a mistake you made in front of all of your colleagues? Are you scared about starting a new job? It can be helpful to talk it out with a friend, therapist or life coach.
Journaling can be really helpful in figuring out the why. It can also help to ask yourself some questions such as when did you first began to feel this way? Have you always felt like this? Have you felt this way before? When? What’s similar about those circumstances?
Pick the best time and place to talk
Do not have important conversations when you know the person you are talking to is not going to be able to listen. Choose a time when you are both feel relaxed, calm, well-rested, fed and not in the middle of something else. Choose a quiet place with limited distractions. Maybe do it after you just had a good laugh or joke or you are cuddling and feeling really close.
TIP: It really helps to listen first. The more the other person feels heard the more likely they are to listen to what you have to say.
Use “I” statements
There is a huge difference between using ‘I’ statements and ‘You’ statements. A ‘You’ statement can make the listener feel blamed and attacked and put them on the defense which prevents the listener from being heard. It escalates conflict by causing the listener to feel blamed, judged and criticized. The listen could become angry. An example is: “you didn’t put the dishes away!” or “you were late for our date again”.
On the other hand, an ‘I’ statement is less aggressive and confrontational. It focuses on the speaker taking full responsibility for their own feelings. ‘I’ statements are much easier for the listener to hear which helps to encourage positive communication. For example: “I feel stressed out when that you didn’t clean up the dishes after yourself because it means I am going to have to clean them up in the morning”, “I have big meeting and can’t be late”, and “I feel angry that you criticized my way of parenting the children”.
An example of digging for the deeper emotions (as described above) would be recognizing and expressing that underneath the anger you probably really feel inadequate and insecure as a parent when you feel your way of parenting is being criticized. It might make you especially angry because you love and care for the children so much. Because they are so important to you, you want to be the best parent to them and you feel ashamed and like you aren’t doing a good enough job when someone else questions your parenting. If you could express these deeper feelings to your partner they would more likely really hear and understand what you are feeling and be more likely to change their criticism to a more productive communication technique.
For example, instead of yelling at me when you feel angry, can you tell me all of the things that are making you feel angry using I feel statements. Or, let’s start a chore chart so we know who is doing what and so I don’t feel the need to nag.
Tell the other person how making these changes will benefit everyone
If we were to cook together more often, it would save us money from ordering out or going out for dinner, it would be a fun and help us maintain a healthy lifestyle. Using I feel angry statements will get it off your chest so you feel better, it will help us have a healthy relationships and communication skills, and to feel good about ourselves and each other.
TIP: Sometimes people don’t really care about your feelings. They might get mad at you for having and sharing them. They might dismiss them by saying you too sensitive or that you are being dramatic. These people are not the people you want to share your feelings with and you might what to reconsider how much you let them be a part of your life. People who care about you will treat your feelings as important and they will care about your well-being and happiness. The right people will love and support you by listening to your feelings.