If youâ€™ve read this blog for any length of time, you know how fanatical I am about precision in language. Our dialogues could be so much more productiveâ€”and efficientâ€”if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them.
Sometimes, though, inflammatory and imprecise is the way to goâ€”if we tell our dialogue partner what weâ€™re doing.
Take conversations around loaded issues. Early in our marriage, like many newlyweds, my wife and I had a wealth of issues to talk through, from division of household chores to the future course of our life together. Some of these issues carried serious emotional weight, and it was nearly impossible to broach them without sparks flying. Ever try to parse your words with precision when the top of your head is about to blow off?
Before we could make any progress in the conversation, then, we had to relieve some of that emotional pressure. But we didnâ€™t want to do it in a way that would hurt the other person.
So we learned to bracket our conversations with verbal cues. When one of us said, â€œOK, Iâ€™m going to vent,â€ the other knew that what followed would be emotional, possibly painful, and probably imprecise. It could well exaggerate or misrepresent the reality of the situation. But because the â€œventerâ€ gave this advance notice, the â€œventeeâ€ could hear the words that followed in the proper contextâ€”the context the venter specifiedâ€”and thus not react emotionally. Often, the vent would calm us down, and we could focus on our language enough to work through the intricacies of the issue.
We also do this bracketing when precise language escapes us. As she describes the details of a real-life situationâ€”especially if they involve numbersâ€”my wife will say, â€œIâ€™m making these details up.â€ Again, that verbal cue enables me to hear what she says next in the context sheâ€™s established, so I get her essential meaning. If precise details become important, we can fill them in later.
Why does this matter? Why not parse out our language no matter what? Perhaps that would work if we were just word automatons. But, being human, weâ€™re far messier than that. The passion we feel on certain issues is inherent to who we are: the issues probably wouldnâ€™t be issues if we werenâ€™t passionate about them! Giving voice to these emotions not only calms us but also conveys the depth of our convictions. And when weâ€™re honestly groping for specific wordsâ€”something that happens with greater frequency as we get olderâ€”why let it disrupt an otherwise fruitful dialogue?
The key, again, is to tell our dialogue partners what weâ€™re doing. These verbal cues enable us to telegraph how weâ€™re communicating in any specific stage of the dialogue. They help our partners better understand our meaning. Therefore, they contribute to a richer, more productive dialogue.