Anyone who has worked with children has probably heard the phrase ‘use your words’.
I’ve been in many situations as an educator where children passively accept patent disrespect from a social equal – I’m not referring to bullying, but friendship disputes that are clearly that – and lash out by hitting, kicking or biting the person. Spitting, throwing something at them.
Sometimes the stimulus is them having a desired object or activity denied them by a peer or an adult (by accident or intent), or a range of other real or perceived slights that cause them to experience unpleasant emotions.
Some children respond with a bright flare of violence. Some respond with passive aggression, insults, undermining the source of their discomfort. Others react by totally removing themselves – mutely recoiling and passively whimpering, often allowing the situation they dislike to continue.
As educators, we teach children a core principle that I really believe in: use your words.
This is early communication education. Outside of bullying and abuse where clear power imbalances operate to silence the victim, this phrase places part of the responsibility for negotiating difficult circumstances back on the person feeling upset. It requires the person to open their mouth and say how they’re feeling, and to accept that they must at least attempt the first and most basic part of conflict resolution.
Another part of this is the ‘stop, go, tell’ technique we teach from infancy. Both techniques are largely to teach children to resort to everything except violence first. If someone pushes in line and you know you were first you say ‘STOP! I don’t like that! I don’t want you to push in. I was first.’ If that doesn’t work, you ‘go’ by walking away. And if pursued, you tell an ally and they intervene on your behalf.
What you don’t do is keep your words inside you, and go from zero to sixty by clocking someone over the head because they pushed in line. This is a work in progress, but I have seen it work – slowly and over years in a child’s life.
So how are you using your words?
This week has been a reminder for me of the power and importance of communicating our feelings in a timely fashion. A dear, funny, clever friend of mine has been dealt a stunning blind-siding blow in the form of an unexpected divorce ultimatum from an uncommunicative husband. It seems that it was old news to him, and new news to her.
How does something like this happen? While I’m sure there are subtleties and complexities I can neither comprehend nor convey – for in every divorce there are delicacies and mysteries of the human heart known only to those involved – it seems communication was a cornerstone fuckup.
He didn’t use his words until the very last moment, which far from being the moment of truth was simply the moment of coming out from his hiding place. So much was hidden and removed from discourse.
My first girlfriend didn’t use her words. For months she was a mystery to me, hiding under the cloak of ‘I’m just a private person’. Ten years later, I’ve learned that when people say they’re too ‘private’ to tell you important things about themselves and their thoughts – while still enjoying close proximity to your tender core – it just means they’re dysfunctional.
Now, this is not to say you can’t be private in general. Of course you can – who (besides me, apparently) wants to broadcast the entirety of their daily life to the world? However, if those closest to you have no idea how you feel and what’s going on in your skull, that’s a problem.
And it extends also to how and when you communicate. My partners tell me when they’re feeling something important, even if it may come out a little wrong. Otherwise that pent up feeling may escalate to conclusions you didn’t know you were approaching, hot feelings that could have quietened given an earlier intervention.
By using our words, we acknowledge our reality as interdependent beings who need to ebb and flow into those around us, to be known and to defuse bombs and to enjoy a richer quality of life.
And for the tall humans who have been somehow broken to the point where they think they have no choice but to hit, hurt, scream or run away without talking – get yourself into therapy. Your actions have consequences and if you can’t effectively use your words, you need to get help to find out how.
When we reach adulthood we can ask for consideration in finding our voice. However, we are no longer ten years old, no matter how much we may feel so, inside. A 37 year old man is old enough to know, especially when being told, that he needs to accumulate the tools to open his mouth better.
And if we need no other motivation, it is that brokenness feeds other brokenness. Opening our mouths and talking about how we feel is probably one of the more important steps in arresting that flow.