Adults Need to Hear “Use your words” Just As Much As Children Do

Sep 05, 2021

“The greatest illusion about communication is assuming that it has happened.” —George Bernard Shaw

Language is everything. It is how we perceive the world. It’s how we describe our experience in order to relate to others. It’s not only how we can communicate how we feel, it’s often how we know what we feel at all, even if we don’t speak it aloud (why talk therapy can be so transformative).

Etymology is history, speaking is the present, and thinking is the future. Language defines our reality in so many ways.

True, I can think of some exceptions to this, some things that defy language:

  • An artist who thinks up an abstract idea, and paints it. No language, yet so many thoughts and emotions communicated. 
  • Some forms of crisis that defy logic, challenge reality, and undo who we are. Crises so devastating that no words could ever capture what they represent.
  • Some things that are life-changingly beautiful. Sunrises. Birth. A friendship or romantic relationship you feel you’ve waited your whole life for. Seeing a part of the world you never thought you would.

Some things leave us speechless, and we lose language as a tool. But even then, how do we know and acknowledge those exceptions? Through language.

It’s a concept so ingrained in who we are and how we live, we forget that it’s a factor in most everything we do.

Which is why miscommunication is so common.

Imagine having a terrible day, returning home, and someone close to you asks how you are. Without language, how do you answer them? (No wonder babies cry so much -- they think and likely know what they want, but the big people never understand them.)

Or imagine going through a crisis so world-crushing, and someone asks how you are. How are you supposed to answer that? Do they really want the real answer to that? Where do I start? Do I even want to think about that? Can I even think about that?

For the sake of things that are hard to put into words and capture with language, and for all the miscommunication that’s at risk of happening in times of crisis, I’d like to introduce two specific words to add regularly:

“How” and “Today”

Instead of the sometimes-impossible-to-answer, “How are you?”, we can ask “How are you today?” Suddenly an overwhelming question fraught with strife becomes a simple and genuine check-in.

Think of how you felt entering month six of quarantine back in 2020. Instead of asking or thinking, “Can we survive this?” try “How can we survive this?” Again, suddenly the question no longer frames life-or-death or reels us into despair, and instead is a clear and thoughtful call-to-action with so many possibilities for different answers.

Adding these words anytime helps avoid miscommunication, but especially in times of crisis, whether it be personal, familial, professional, or worldly. Every question with these added words transforms the sentence from potential distress to clear opportunity.

And when so much about ourselves and our world is defined by language, why wouldn’t we take every opportunity to prevent miscommunication? This is how we define our needs and how they can be met.

You have more power than you think you do in times of crisis. The key is knowing what tools you have at your disposal. Make purposeful language one of them.


This is a modified re-telling of a few pages from Chapter 9 of my book Never Waste a Crisis. The rest of that chapter dives deeper into naming your needs, making language work for you, and how important it is to speak clearly in times of emotional turmoil and crisis.

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