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What to Say and How to Say It: Making Choices

Using decision points about how to interrupt unwanted communication patterns.

Some conversations do not go well. Do we stay in them or leave? The good news is that this is a choice; the bad news is that this is a choice. The responsibility that comes with making choices and “owning” them is not easy. How many of these choices have you made in the recent past that ended well?

This blog is a follow up to "I Said I Wouldn’t Go There, But I Did," when we identified unwanted repetitive communication patterns (URPs), the kinds of conversations that go nowhere positive. The following tips are suggestions for when you do not like the pattern of the current communication or the relationship dynamics it is making and you want to change it. Please remember these are ideas about some not all types of conversations.

There are potentially two critical decision points about how to engage in these unwanted repetitive communication patterns:

The first decision is determining whether to be silent. We may choose silence for a variety of reasons: we do not want to put effort into the communication; we do not know what to say even if we wanted to say something; we are so stuck in the URP we cannot see a way out; we cannot negotiate every conversation in every relationship; or we may not be ready to engage because we are unprepared emotionally or lack information.

If our choice, on the other hand, is to engage and say something, we need to determine how to proceed. We want to shift the communication pattern to a more constructive one, and here are three steps to take.

1. Slow down the process by slowing down your breathing to give yourself time to think about what you are doing, how you are engaging, how you are feeling.

2. Listen and show empathy by reflecting back at the feeling level, what you hear, see, and sense.

3. Engage by asking an open-ended question or expressing a feeling or point of view.

Studies at Menninger Brain Institute show that breathing more slowly than usual, maybe 3-4 breaths a minute, produces theta brain waves, which are known to induce relaxation and reduce stress. Activities, such as yoga, meditation, and qigong teach these types of breathing techniques. It is good to have this as a regular practice you can call on when needed in more stressful situations. This is a more ideal state from which to interact, be empathetic, and engage in constructive communication.

Becoming a more engaged and active listener takes us from solely listening to the spoken message to listening more deeply to the underlying message. Asking ourselves, “What is really being communicated here?” is a good practice to move beyond the words themselves for fuller meaning and understanding.

This is what it may look like in real life. Let’s imagine a situation when someone you care about is upset and instead of managing his or her anger constructively, he has emotional outbursts toward you in your conversation. Here are steps to follow if you want to shift the dynamic toward a healthier emotional exchange.

1. You recognize you do not like where the conversation is going and the communication exchange or relationship it is making. Take a deep breath, get centered, and feel yourself become more relaxed. (induce theta brain waves)

2. With sincerity, make good eye contact, nod your head while listening, have a slight smile, and show openness and concern, reflect how challenging a situation it must have been for him. (show empathy through active listening)

3. If there is a shift in emotions you may follow up by asking “What are some other options you have considered?” to support the person in exploring other ways to assert themselves. You would also be modeling these skills by these actions.

These steps may not be a panacea, but they change the unwanted communication pattern to more empathetic connection. It diffuses negative emotions and prevents emotional contagion or spillage. We also need to keep in mind that there are different responses those close to us want when they share their frustrations. A good first step is to listen and empathize.


Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Random House.

Rosenberg, M. B. (1999). Nonviolent communication: A language of compassion. Encinita, CA: Puddledancer Press.

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