Class 4: Power of Words--Using Healthy Communication Skills

 “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  --Psalm 19:14

Intention for this class

The intention for this class is to focus on healthy communication in marriage with a specific emphasis on understanding the power of words.

Spiritual Foundation

The spiritual foundation for exploring the power of words is found within the deeper meaning of the commandment, “You shall not murder.” This commandment, understood literally, is about not destroying physical life. It reminds us that life is sacred. It is a gift from God which should be regarded as having great value and therefore treated with consideration, care, and respect.

When it comes to murder—the brutal, malicious, and intentional taking of a human life, the Hebrew word that is used is Ratzach. This is a strong word. Most literally it means to “tear apart, or smash to pieces.” So what God is telling us through this commandment is that we should not be a cruel and malicious person; we should not take a person’s life, tear it apart and smash it to pieces.” In other words, “You shall not Ratzach.” “You shall not murder.”

Few of us actually see ourselves as malicious murderers who delight in destroying human lives by tearing them apart. But, if we think more deeply about this commandment, we begin to recognize that each time we say or do something that inflicts unnecessary pain, shatters confidence or destroys a reputation, we commit spiritual murder. Therefore, we need to pay special attention to those times when we are tempted to indulge in back-stabbing gossip and character assassination. As Jesus said, “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:37)

Even the Buddha had much to say about this important commandment. It is the third step on the Eightfold Path and involves “speech which causes no harm, does not slander, does not give offense, and does not involve gossip or idle talk” (adapted from The Eightfold Path).  In the context of Buddhist ethics, the concept of “right speech” is of supreme importance. Our words can create war or bring peace; they can destroy or save a life; they can inflict injury or they can promote healing. 

The deeper meaning of this commandment, then, calls us to be mindful about the words that come out of our mouth. When we speak to or about others, we can choose our words carefully—particularly when there is upset, disappointment or conflict. It is especially in the most difficult times that our higher nature can be formed and strengthened. This takes spiritual effort. There is perhaps no clearer indication of our essential character than what we say to or about others. Our words actually become a statement of who we are.

To sum up: this commandment calls us to be life-givers. It calls us to be mindful of the effect of our words on others. Especially in our marriages, we should first ask ourselves, “Will these words encourage, console, uplift and inspire my partner? Will they communicate love, and connect us more deeply with each other?” To the extent that we choose words that are kind, true, and useful, we become spiritual life-givers to one another.  The “words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart” become life-giving to our partner, and truly acceptable in the sight of the Lord. 

Psychological Foundations

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a lecturer on the ethics of speech, routinely asks his audiences to raise their hands if they think they can go through twenty-four hours without saying anything critical to or about others. Most people do not raise their hands. He then says, “If you cannot go twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go through twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words to others, then you have lost control over your tongue” (fromWords That Hurt, Words That Heal).

Will Bowen, pastor of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Missouri, has also written on the importance of paying attention to the words that come out of our mouth. In his book, A Complaint Free World, Bowen challenges his readers to go twenty-one consecutive days without complaining. He suggests that you wear a purple wrist band (which he supplies), and if you catch yourself complaining, you change the wristband to the other wrist. Bowen says it can take many months before a person can go three consecutive weeks without complaining.  The average time for most people to reach the goal of twenty-one complaint-free days is four to eight months.

We have found that systems such as the ones that Telushkin and Bowen suggest are extremely useful. Each of us needs to be shocked into the awareness of just how often, and how automatically, we complain, criticize and gossip. So the discipline of going twenty-four hours without criticizing, or the practice of wearing the purple wristband for twenty-one days, can be very helpful. These techniques can wake us up to the reality of how often and how mechanically we speak without thinking, leaving behind us a trail of hurt feelings, broken spirits, and damaged reputations. 

While “not complaining” and “not criticizing,” whether for a few days or a few weeks, are useful challenges, they are not our ultimate goal. Eventually we want to live in a world that is not merely complaint-free, but more importantly, gratitude-filled. Similarly, it is not enough to say nothing critical. We must learn to use the gift of speech to bring joy and comfort to others, to lovingly instruct, to compassionately heal, to uplift and inspire. We want to go beyond the discipline of not injuring and not cursing. We want our words to bring healing and hope. We want to move beyond what we should not do, and focus on what we can do. In brief, we want to be life-givers.  We want to know what to say and how to say it.

And there is plenty of help. In fact, the field of Marriage Education is filled with time-tested research on the most effective communication techniques and the most useful conflict resolution skills. One of the most popular programs is The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), a research-based approach developed at the University of Denver by researchers Howard J. Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan L. Blumberg. This approach, which is based on extensive research on what works in marriage (and what doesn’t) features units on how to manage conflicts constructively and how to communicate effectively.

Interestingly, the authors point out that the most significant factor in any marriage is not the nature of the differences, but rather how the differences are handled.  As they put it, “Many couples think that it’s their differences and disagreements that cause the greatest problems in their marriage . . . But twenty-five years of research tell us that success in marriage is related not so much to the nature of the differences between two partners, as to how the partners handle the differences they have (Markman, et. al., Fighting for Your Marriage, 28).

As Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg point out, conflict happens in all healthy relationships. What is important, however, is how we handle the conflict. And, we would add that it is even more important to be aware of what is going on in our hearts and minds while we are working through a conflict. In other words, conflict resolution is not merely about using a set of techniques. More deeply, it’s about staying God-centered while using those techniques; it’s about monitoring the tone of our voice; it’s about being careful to keep our attention lovingly focused on our partner; and it’s about doing this without rolling our eyes, producing disparaging sounds, or making disapproving gestures.

This is the key: if we find ourselves in a conflict, it is an opportunity to rise above mechanical patterns and consciously choose a new response. If we do not choose a new response, we are left to our old, familiar and ineffective patterns that pile up like a heap of worn out clothing we thought we had outgrown and thrown away. The old patterns and knee-jerk reactions are usually sparked by negative memories that subconsciously influence the way we respond. In other words, when a conflict arises, we can be fairly certain that an old memory pattern is being activated. 

Researchers have begun to distinguish between the more external conflicts (money, careers, roles, relatives, etc) and the more internal ones that are connected to a whole world of human needs that feel unmet, neglected and ignored. Two of the most well-known researchers and program developers in this field are Anthony Robbins and Cloe Madanes. After impacting the lives of over fifty million people from one hundred countries, they have recently developed a program called “Ultimate Relationships.” It is based on the universally recurring patterns and underlying needs that are found in all world cultures, and especially in marriages. These basic human relationship needs have been grouped into six categories. 

These include:
The need for certainty. Your partner must be able to depend on you and know that your love is constant and secure.

The need for uncertainty. Your partner needs to feel that there will be variety in the relationship—that some things will be spontaneous and new.

The need for significance. Your partner needs to feel significant, special, and important.

The need for connection and love. Your partner needs to feel loved and cherished in ways that are meaningful to them.

The need for personal growth. Your partner needs to feel that there is progress and growth in the relationship; that through this relationship they are overcoming selfishness, and becoming a finer and finer human being.

The need to make a contribution. Your partner needs to feel that he or she is making a contribution to the world beyond themselves.

Interestingly these are the very same needs that are present when we falling in love with one another. We feel certain that we have found “the one.” It is a time of delightful surprises and exciting adventure—a time of uncertainty. We feel significant and highly valued. We feel connected and loved.  In the heat of that first love we feel as though we are becoming the finest people we can be. And we have bright plans for the unique contributions that we will make to the world. All of this is central to the feeling of being “in love.” It makes us feel passionate about each other and passionate about life. 

As time goes on, however, and we get caught up in the demands of day to day existence, we may neglect paying attention to one another in ways that meet these needs. Like the need for food and water, these deeper needs do not go away. That’s why they are called “basic human needs.” Whenever both partners feel that these needs are being met within their relationship, there will be a passionate marriage. When one or more of these needs are not being met, marriages will break down. So the goal is to get these needs met within the marriage—not outside of it. When we are first falling in love, these needs seem to be met automatically; later on, it takes conscious attention. 

However, if we focus on our own needs, rather than our spouse’s needs, we miss the point. In fact, Robbins and Madanes say that focusing on our own needs is the lowest level of loving. It is called “baby love”; it’s all about getting your own needs met. The next level of loving is called “horse trading.” This is giving in order to get: “If you give me the love I need, I will give you the love you need.”  This still has an element of self-centeredness in it. A higher level is called “continuous love.” At this level you just continue loving, no matter what. You do this consciously in ways that will meet your spouse’s basic relationship needs. And, finally, as you reach the highest level of loving, you discover that you are not only loving your partner unconditionally and continually, but you are also able to love others—even those who have hurt you. This highest level of loving is the healthiest form of communication, a level at which we truly become life-givers for one another.

Putting it Together

Maya Angelou once said, “I believe that words are things.” These words, “stick on the walls, they go into the upholstery, they go into your clothes, and finally they go into your very body."  This is a poetic way of describing the deeper truth—that words have a profound effect upon us. The kind, encouraging words that were said to us throughout our lives have had a profound effect on shaping who we have become. Similarly the words that we have spoken to others have affected their lives as well. This is why all the great religions urge us to be extremely cautious about the words we choose, selecting only those words that will be kind, true, and useful. Whenever we do this, we become life-givers in all of our relationships and especially in our marriages.

In our marriages we are called to take full advantage of the power of words. We can use words to express appreciation and gratitude, to tenderly convey messages of love and affection, to console and comfort, and to inspire and uplift. We can also use them to resolve conflict and communicate unmet needs. Through our words, and the actions that follow, we can become life-givers for one another. As Jesus said, “The words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).

The Assignment

The Power of Words: Using Healthy Communication Skills

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  --Psalm 19:14

Become aware of the words that you speak to or about your spouse.
 Are they truly life-giving? (Use the chart that was handed out in class.)

Become aware of the words that you speak to or about your spouse
. Are they truly life-giving? (Use the chart that was passed out in class.) If conflict comes up, use a method of creative conflict transformation as well as the rules for healthy communication. (Refer to the class handouts.)

Brainstorm/determine ways that you can help one another meet the six basic needs.
  What would it look like for you to be a helpmate and from love to meet your partner’s basic human needs? This is how you become life-givers for one another. This week, give each other the gift of life.