I talked by Skype to John and Julie and asked them how they were doing.
“All she ever does is criticize me,” he said, obviously unhappy.
“Give me a specific example,” I said.
John described how earlier that day she had come into the room where he was hanging a framed picture on a wall. “She came in and immediately said something snotty about what I was doing.”
“Tell me the exact words.”
He thought for a moment before he replied. “She said, ‘What are you doing?’”
Those sound like innocent words, but I had known Julie for long enough to know how she would have said them. Then I repeated those same four words with the tone that I assumed she would have used. They would have come across as “What in the world are you doing there? Can’t you see what you’re doing wrong?” I asked John, “Did the words sound like that?”
“But I didn’t mean anything like that,” Julie said, using a tone quite similar to the one I had just used to mimic hers.
“I believe you,” I said. “Consciously you would not have meant to do that, but you were raised in a critical and demanding household, and you have a strong tendency to criticize and control things yourself. Your accusatory tone would have come out without your even being aware of it. Just for fun, let’s prove it. When you came into the room with John, was he hanging the picture correctly?”
Julie immediately began to energetically describe what was wrong with his placement, choice of picture, and more, and she did it—almost as though she were trying to prove what I’d said before—in the very tone I’d used to mimic her words earlier.
“It’s all in the delivery, kid,” I said. “In Hebrew, for example one word can mean either ‘pomegranate,’ the red fruit that symbolizes rebirth, or ‘hand grenade.’” Same word, but with two vastly different meanings. It’s the same with what you did with John. If I had asked him what he was doing, my tone would have been such that he would gladly have shown me what he was doing.”
It was helpful that John was sitting next to Julie, vigorously nodding his head. “John heard my words,” I continued, as ‘pomegranate,’ but he heard your words like a hand grenade. It’s all in the delivery. If we’re not aware of the delivery of our words—the tone, facial expression, posture, and more—we’ll endlessly be puzzled at the seemingly strange reactions to what we said.
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