Who doesn’t want some magic words to make things right in stressful times? Having a fight? “Abracadabra!” Cranky teen? “Hocus Pocus!” Sadly, life doesn’t work that way. And yet, there are some powerful phrases that can help things go well when times get troubled. Use them with your spouse, teach them to your kids. Having some effective responses can bring some magic to your relationships when things get intense.
Even when you’re having a tussle, you can still acknowledge where your partner makes sense. Maybe your partner is right but you have something to add. Maybe your partner is only half-right, or maybe you can agree only that there’s a problem, but validating your partner’s perspective builds common ground and defuses the situation. Just as a soft answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1), leading more with what your partner has right rather than where they're still wrong will build a more productive conversation. Leading with, "You're right about ..., and I think ...." builds rather than tears down consensus.
You don’t have to be wrong to be sorry. You don’t have to have made a mistake to be sorry. If your partner is hurting, you can just see their pain and be sorry about it. Sometimes, it is your fault and you should be sorry for your screw ups (Psalm 38:18). Sometimes, the situation just creates unpleasant consequences and it’s not your fault, but you can be sorry anyway. Even if you would make all the same choices again, be quick to say the words "I'm sorry" as an expression of empathy. Show empathy for disappointments and demonstrate some tenderness in the midst of pain.
When you come into a chaotic moment, asking “How can I help?” is a powerful way to enter into your partner’s moments of mess. You could say, “Move over; let me help,” but attempting to rescue suggests you are in charge and your partner isn’t capable. You could say, “You’re doing it wrong, do it this way,” but that’s as much rebuke and insult as it is assistance. You could say, “I’ll stay out of your way,” but that’s not really helping, it’s just failing to be a nuisance. Asking how you can help lets your partner know that you see their stress, you’re willing to serve, and they’re still in charge. Maybe they just want a hug, maybe they want you to take over, maybe they want you out of the way, but it’s their choice.
There are few more empathetic responses than asking about feelings. Your partner may be manic with news, brooding in thought, shouting with zeal, or bewildering you with details, but you can always respond in a positive direction by exploring what the situation means to your partner. The impact of the moment is more important than the facts when trying come alongside another. When your spouse is recounting a busy day, you don’t need to catch every detail as much as you need to perceive how it felt to them. Even when disciplining an angry child, exploring the triggering emotions around bad behavior lets the child know that what they’re feeling is important, even if their behavior needs correcting. Feel free to name the emotion you think you hear, and they may well either articulate their feelings further or redirect to a more accurate description of where their heart is at. Maybe they’re not so much angry as scared, maybe more relieved than happy, but in both cases you’ve stepped a little closer to seeing their hearts more clearly. As we name and bear one another's burdens, we fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).
When someone hands you a bad idea, saying “I wonder if…” can be a positive way to explore the downsides. For example: If someone says, “Let’s paint the house bright green!” you might respond “I wonder how the neighbors might experience that color.” Or maybe, “Let’s go to a fancy Vegas hotel for a week!” might be answered with “I wonder if we could find ways to invest that money that would last for a longer time.” You could respond with “I don’t like it” or “that’s a dumb idea,” but those responses imply rejection and an insult of the person, not just the idea. They also fail to address the content of the idea. A powerful combination of phrases is to say “I like….I wonder….” “I like the idea of a vacation, and I wonder if we could afford a whole week in Vegas.” “I like refreshing the look of the house, yet I wonder if intense colors would fit the neighborhood.” This combination also works great when teams are evaluating a series of options. Given four potential bridesmaid dress designs, for example, everyone can weigh in on each one with “I like…I wonder...” statements, avoiding insulting each other’s tastes.
When you’re feeling skeptical or simply unclear why someone is pitching you a proposal, you can dig a little deeper with “Help me understand.” You could just pepper the proposer with questions, but that can feel like an antagonistic inquisition. You could just say, “that’s dumb,” but you haven’t actually given the idea sufficient thought and you’ve insulted your partner as well. Asking for help and clarity shows your interest in walking with your partner in exploration, even when the idea is half-formed. Sometimes it’s an open-handed way to attempt catching up on an idea your partner has been thinking about for a while. If your teen is suggesting they should take karate lessons, for example, you can explore motivations and expectations with “Help me understand, why is this important to you?” Sometimes, it's a gentle way to help the proposer talk through their idea enough to see the weaknesses themselves. “So you want to buy a car; help me understand, how would you earn all the money for the insurance, gas, and repairs?” A handy variation of this phrase, especially with teens, is “Tell me why I should say yes.” Rather than accepting an expectation of wish fulfillment and having to cook up a reason to say no, “Why Yes?” puts the burden on the requester to make a thorough and compelling case.
No words are actually magical, of course, but some phrases engage difficult conversations with grace, care, and honor. May these powerful words help you build your relationships!
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster