Every couple has their disagreements. Parents and teens have disagreements as well. Sometimes those disagreements escalate. Emotions flair. Words fly. We say things we wish we had never said. Rather than letting the escalation go that far, try doing or saying something different, something to calm emotions and deescalate the situation. Here are some words to try. Believe me, “these aren’t fightin’ words.”
Even if you disagree:
“I’m glad you explained that to me.” “
“So, you’re saying that….”
To move into a conversation:
“Explain that to me one more time. I want to make sure I understand.”
“I’m not sure I really understand. Can you explain it more?”
“I understand why you would want that.”
“I see. That makes sense now. Have you thought about…?
“I hadn’t thought about that before.”
If it starts to escalate:
“You’re really passionate about this aren’t you?
“I can tell this means a lot to you.”
“You sound angry/upset/ frustrated.”
“I have trouble listening when you speak that way. Could you speak more calmly (or ‘change your tone’ or ‘lower your voice please’?”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed, can we take a break and finish this conversation at (note a time)?”
Good to say at any time…and all the time:
“I love you.”
“Even if we disagree, we’ll figure it out together.”
“I’m glad we’re together.”
“We make good team.”
“I love you.”
These phrases are what John Gottman calls “repair statements.” They can help calm emotions during a disagreement and keep you on track for a positive resolution. Give them a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Words have power. An ancient king once wrote, “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (King Solomon—Proverbs 15:4, NLT). Our relationships are built up or torn down by our words. I want to focus on how words, our words, can build our families up. For instance, our words can make our spouse and children feel welcome in the home. They can promote their sense of belonging. Simple words, like:
“I’m glad you’re home from school (work) now. I missed you.”
“I have a job that you can really help me with. I know you would be good at it. Will you help me?”
“I’m glad we were able to spend this time together. I enjoyed your company.”
“I’d love to share an ice cream with you. Do you have time to get some now or would another time be better.”
Our words also inform our family of their importance to us, that they hold a significant place in our lives. They let our family know how we keep them in mind, even when they are not physically present.
“I was thinking about all the fun we’ve had together. Remember when….”
“I heard a song on the car radio that made me think of you.”
“I remembered how much you like…. So, I picked some up for you on my way home.”
“I really had a good time with you last weekend. My favorite part was….”
Words help us repair damaged relationships.
“I’m sorry. That was wrong of me. Will you forgive me?”
“I can understand how you thought that. I really didn’t mean it that way. Sorry for the misunderstanding. Can I try to explain better?”
“I forgive you. What you did hurt me, but I love you and forgive you.”
Words also encourage and teach persistence and resilience.
“That was even better than last time. Your hard work is paying off.”
“That didn’t work out the way we had planned. But we learned a lot that we can use the next time.”
“Oops. We all make mistakes. Let’s clean this one up and keep going.”
“Sometimes we all need a little help to learn how to do something.”
Words can instill a sense of belonging and value. They repair damaged relationships and nurture relationships. Use them wisely for “wise words satisfy like a good meal; the right words bring satisfaction” (King Solomon—Proverbs 18:20, NLT).
“That’s all you did
today?” With those words the marital conflict began. Heart rates
quickened. Pulses started to race. “You never appreciate anything I do
around here!” Now both partners started talking over one another. Winning
(and thus gaining of sense of safety and control) became the goal of this
“heated discussion.” Criticism increased. Defensiveness turned to
accusation. Both people jumped to conclusions and both said things they never
really wanted to say. Why? Because one statement, perhaps poorly phrased, was
misunderstood and triggered the fight or flight response. Their rational brains
were no longer running the show. Instead, their
“fight-or-flight-to-save-your-butt-brains” were running things. But
what could they have done differently? It’s hard to do things differently in
the moment of defensiveness and anger. However, there are skills you can practice
in the daily life of your marriage that will prime you to make a better
response in such a moment. Practicing these two tips with your spouse when you
encounter minor disagreements or during everyday conversation can prepare you
for a better response in the “heat of the moment.”
First, practice thinking about
the words you use when talking to your spouse. Some words come across as
privileged, patronizing, or moralizing. For instance, “I need you
to…” can come across as though my need is more important than your need,
especially in a moment of conflict. It sounds entitled, as though “I” am
entitled to having “my” needs met even at “your” expense.
“You should…” is a
moralizing statement. It sounds as though the listener is wrong if they do
otherwise. It induces guilt. In the words of Albert Ellis, “Don’t ‘should
“I encourage you to…”
sounds patronizing, especially during the heat of an argument. It sounds like a
way of saying, “I’m really right and ‘I encourage you’ to take the time to
So, what can you say instead?
Try “It would really help me if
you could….” Or, “I would like it if you….” These statements
offer invitations to possible solutions.
You might even try switching the
“I” to “we.” “We might need to….” Or, “maybe
we could….” These statements recognize that the marital partners form a
team with no single partner more important than the other.
An even bolder approach is to take
ownership for our own part in the conflict and the solution. “I need
to….” Or, “tell me again so I can better understand what you mean”
are statements that help with this.
Second, practice recognizing the
difference between the content of what your partner says and the relationship
message underlying the content. The content merely refers to the topic of
discussion or disagreement. The relationship message speaks to the connection
between you and your spouse. Many times, a statement about content becomes a
misunderstood relationship message because of tone of voice (which may be
impacted by mood, tiredness, other people), the context, or the emphasis placed
on certain words.
For instance, “That’s all
you did today?” can easily be misunderstood to mean “You should have
done more.” When it might simply mean “I didn’t realize it was such a
big job and would take so long.”
“You’re home late” can be
misunderstood as “You don’t care enough about me to get home
earlier.” It might mean “I didn’t realize you would be so late. What
The only way to know is to check
your initial reaction of defensiveness and anger so you can ask for or offer
clarification. “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger job than I
thought.” “Can I show you how much I did? It’s surprising.”
“Sorry, traffic was heavy. I wanted to get home earlier.” “Yeah,
I got a last-minute phone call at the office. Did my late arrival mess up any
of your dinner plans?”
Think about the words you use and what they might mean during conflict. Recognize the
difference between the content of the message and the relationship message
inherent in a statement. These are subtle practices. However, paying
attention and practicing these two tips can bring reduce conflict and bring
greater intimacy to your marriage.
Roofs are important. More specifically, roofs that don’t leak are
important. Roofs with no holes. Roofs that protect. My family and I stayed in a
cabin at St. Johns. We liked to eat on the deck. It had no roof, but it really
wasn’t a problem until an iguana climbed onto a branch above my daughter and
well… “relieved” himself in her cereal. A roof would have been
Or, the time my family and I went
camping when I was a kid and it started raining. I mean pouring. It always did
when we camped. Of course, we had the tent and a dining canopy to keep us dry.
But they were old school and as soon as you touched them, they started leaking.
Drip…drip…drip. Drip on my head. Drip on our game. Drip on the table. Yeah, a
solid roof would be nice.
Recently my wife and I visited a beautiful
location in Cartagena. They had a nice outdoor
dining area. A mango tree grew just outside the walls of the roofless dining
area and its branches offered some shade. Nice…until mangoes started dropping
off onto peoples’ heads. Needed to add a
roof for protection.
Yes, it’s nice to have a roof…even
in your marriage! Paul, a first century Jewish evangelist, tells us that
“love bears all things” (I Corinthians 13:7). Interestingly, the
Greek word for “bears” (“stego”) means to “cover, to
protect.” It’s the verb form of the Greek word for “roof”! In marriage,
love is like the roof over our heads. Love takes action to cover, to protect,
to preserve. A roof protects the security of our home by keeping weather,
animals, and other harmful menaces out of our house. But what does love protect
our marriage from? More specifically, what does love protect in your marriage?
protects our reputations. Rather than
talking trash on a spouse, love lifts a spouse up. Love elevates a spouse to
others. Love speaks words of admiration about a spouse. Love does not broadcast
a spouse’s shortcomings or mistakes but works first and foremost to resolve
them in the private intimacy of their relationship. Love stops the gossip that
threatens reputation and seeks the truth that can replace that gossip.
protects us from hurtful words.
Love offers words of blessing rather than words of cursing. It offers words of
encouragement rather than words of discouragement. Love does not drown a spouse
in impolite, angry words but showers them with words of kindness and love.
Rather than criticize and put down, love lifts up and encourages.
protects from outside forces that interfere with a healthy marriage. Love keeps those
things that do not belong under a marital roof out of the marriage—things like
pornography, unhealthy people, and overscheduled lives. Love strives to keep
the marriage a safe haven, a place where nothing interferes with a growing love
Yes, a roof protects. It covers. It
keeps the unwanted out and enhances safety and security within. It allows us to
be vulnerable and grow more intimate without fear of outside factors
interfering. Love does the same. Love is the roof over your head.
Have you ever had “one of those weeks”? I have. We all have. Then, you come home and everything your children do and say becomes a source of irritation. Later, you tell your friend (or maybe you even say it to your children), “They were really pushing my buttons.” And there it is, a phrase that gives your parental authority away. “You’re pushing my buttons” gives all your parental power to the person pushing your buttons…your children. It disempowers us and leaves us at the mercy of the “button-pusher.”
A similar phrase with similar
results is, “You’re driving me crazy.” Just like “They’re pushing my
buttons,” this phrase is often followed by the great “giving in.” “You’re driving me crazy; just do what
you want.” “You’re driving me crazy; go ahead and….” After all,
no one likes the “drive to crazy.” We all
want to get off the road as soon as possible, hopefully in what’s left of our “little
oasis of sanity.” Unfortunately, we give
away power every time we get to the place of “You’re driving me crazy”
and blindly drive right by our desired “oasis of sanity.”
“You’re pushing my
buttons” and “you’re driving me crazy” both give away parental
authority and place it squarely in the hands of our children. When we make these
statements, we have neglected our own power to manage our “buttons”
and our “drive.” We have given our power to our children. And, our
children know how to use it. Once they know how to “push our buttons”
and “drive us crazy” to get what they want, they will do it over and
Instead of letting the little
munchkins “push your buttons” and “drive you crazy,” step
back and take a breath. Soothe your own emotions. Realize that your children
are not in control of your emotions, you are. Take control of your emotions.
Take a break and collect your emotions and get back on the road to sanity…take
charge of your buttons.
After you take control of yourself
and our emotions, get curious. Begin to wonder, “what is actually going on”?
Give an objective description of the situation and what led up to it. Make sure
you have an objective description of what your children are doing, what they
are asking for, and how they are asking. And, get curious about why your
children are approaching you in this manner. Have you taught them this type of
interaction? Have you been feeling tired and so been a little distant lately?
Are they tired? Are they going through a phase of demandingness? Get curious
and get some answers.
Finally, seek a solution. Stay calm. Set a limit. Give a choice. Make a deal. Any number of options may prove a great solution to the particular situation in which you find yourself. Get curious, be creative, and seek a solution. As you take control of yourself, get curious, and seek a solution you’ll find your children “push your buttons” less often. They won’t be “driving you crazy” so much. You will have a greater parental authority allowing you to lovingly respond to crises, demands, and requests that arise.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “Words are powerful.” I’m not the first to say it. Many have said it before and many will say it again. Why? Because it’s true…words are powerful. Words shape our world. They shape our families. They shape our children and our children’s thought patterns. If we constantly call our children “lazy” or “selfish,” we will see them as such. On the other hand, if we call our children “funny” or “caring,” we will see them as “funny” and “caring.” In other words, the way we see our children is shaped by the words we use to describe them.
The words we use to describe our children also impact how they begin to see themselves. When we speak of our children as “lazy,” they begin to see themselves as “lazy.” When we speak of them as “caring”, they begin to see themselves as “caring.” As you can see, the way we talk to and about our children has a huge impact. That means we need to listen carefully to our words. We need to listen to hear what kind of message our words communicate to and about our children. Hear are some words to listen for…and change.
Name calling. Everyone knows name calling has a negative impact on children. But name calling can also be made in subtle statements. “Don’t be stupid” is a subtle way to call someone “stupid.” “Don’t you every think” is paramount to calling someone “stupid” or “careless.” “Do you ever do anything but sit around?” is really calling someone “lazy.” “Your room is a pigsty” sounds a lot like calling your child a “pig.” Not only are such statements disrespectful, they don’t create a desire to change. Instead, they can lead to resentment, self-deprecation, and hopelessness. Why not simply say what you mean in clear, respectful language? Instead of saying “Don’t be stupid” ask them what they are trying to accomplish and how their actions will accomplish it. Rather than accuse them of “always sitting around,” help them think about activities they can do. Don’t just label the “room a pigsty,” tell them to clean it up, give reasons you want them to have a clean room, and explain the consequence of not cleaning their room. You are more likely to get the results you want. You will also teach your children respect and communication at the same time. (Read The Power of Words for more the impact of words.)
“You’re such a smart girl (boy).” Global labels like smart, clever, or good hinder your children’s progress. They often lead to children becoming less persistent and even doubting themselves (Build Your Child’s Success Mindset). Instead, ask your children what they did to achieve that grade or how it felt to accomplish that task. Focusing on effort and the results of effort leads to children who are more persistent and adventurous.
“Because I said so.” Let’s face it…it’s just more respectful to offer a reason for a limit, request, or rule rather than simply expect blind obedience. We don’t want our children to respond with blind obedience to all demands and requests they receive. We want them to think for themselves. Learning the “why” behind rules will help them internalize healthy rules and learn to think for themselves. So, rather than simply say “because I said so,” offer an explanation that your children will understand. (Read Because I Said So to learn an excellent alternative to the statement “Because I said so.”)
“Calm down” or “quit crying before I give you something to cry about.” Both statements minimize and dismiss children’s emotions. It teaches them to deny their emotions. And, no one ever responds to “quit trying” with “You’re right. I really have nothing to cry about so I’ll just stop right now, smile, and be happy.” You can help your children learn to manage emotions by teaching them to label emotions rather than dismiss emotions. When children learn to “name it” they can “tame it” when it comes to emotions. Talking helps them calm down.
Listen to yourself over the next week. Do you say any of the four statements described above? If so, work at replacing them with better alternatives. You’ll be surprised at the difference it will make for your children and your relationship with your children!
I love spring. After the long, cold, and dark winter, spring is so invigorating. Daylight pushes the night back as the warm sun peeks through the trees. The air warms. Grass turns lush and green. Trees bud, blossom, and fill in the empty spaces between branches. Squirrels scurry to gather provisions hidden through the winter. “Butterflies flutter by.” Birds sing as their eggs hatch. I love spring. It invites us to open our doors and let fresh air fill our homes. It calls us to walk among the blooming colors and play in the green grass with those we love.
Did I say I love spring? Well, I do. In fact, I want the environment of spring to fill my home and surround my family all year long. I know outdoor seasons change but I also know how to keep spring in my family’s heart all year round. And, you can do it too! It’s simple really. All you need to do is commit to this one action every day. At most it will take a couple of minutes, but it will bring the fresh air of spring flowing into your home and the blush of new blossoms adding beauty to your relationships. One action for a happier spring-like atmosphere in your home. Here it is:
Every day commit to praising each family member for something they did during the day. Catch each person doing something right and tell them so. Offer them praise. Focus the praise on one specific act you witnessed during the day.
That’s it. Simply offer a word of praise or gratitude to each family member every day. Sounds simple, but “life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Solomon-Proverbs 18:21). Use your tongue to offer a specific praise to your spouse, parent, and each child daily and you will bring the new life of spring into your home and family!
My wife, my daughter, and I went to a choral concert presented by the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh entitled PEACE. We heard several composers’ choral renditions of Dona Nobis Pacem: Grant Us Peace. We also heard various testimonies and readings from three people who have invested their lives in various avenues of promoting peace within our communities. The whole experience was beautiful, inspiring, and peaceful. Then we left the concert setting and returned to the world of confusion, animosity, and conflict.
Peace seems so distant in our immediate environment of division, antagonism, and hostility. Everywhere we turn dissonant, hateful chatter rises up and floods over the banks of polite boundaries and congenial discourse. Fear and anxiety, resentment and hostility are infecting the lives of our children. Peace seems, at times, a distant dream. But, as we listened attentively to the various renditions of Dona Nobis Pacem and contemplated the readings offered, I realized peace is not so distant after all. Peace is very near. It begins with a God of peace who “is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist….” Peace is our original design. Peace destroyed was restored through the sacrifice of One Man who “is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Paul—Ephesians 2:15). The One who sacrificed for our peace has “proclaimed peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near” (Paul—Ephesians 2:17). Since we have been given peace it is very near to us. We need only open it, pursue it, and promote it (Romans 14:19; Hebrews 12:14).
In all reality, pursuing and promoting peace are integral aspects of our daily life. We can pursue peace by sharing polite words with those you meet. We promote peace by listening, really listening, to understand those who speak. We pursue peace by opening doors for others, literally and figuratively. We promote peace in patiently merging into the various streams of life with others and generously allowing others to merge into those same streams of life. We encourage peace by offering words that build up instead of words that tear down, words that bless instead of words that curse. We promote peace when we lift one another up, even those who disagree with you, rather than shaming and ridiculing. We nurture peace when we forgive those who have offended and apologize to those you offend.
Truly, peace is closer than we think…but it takes the investment of our words and actions. Begin the peace investment in your home as you treat your spouse, your children, and your parents with honor and dignity, decency and grace. As we do, our families will become the catalyst for peace in our communities. Yes, peace is closer than we think. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Dona Nobis Pacem: Grant Us Peace.
Strong families make multiple, daily deposits into the Family Bank of Honor (Read Family Bank of Honor for more ideas on making investments in the Family Bank of Honor). We not only expect children to make deposits into the overall Family Bank of Honor, but we need to make deposits into their honor accounts as well. But, certain phrases cheapen our deposits. These phrases take the value away from an attempted deposit and make it empty. Instead of using phrases that cheapen our deposits, the whole family will benefit when we use phrases that enrich our deposits. Let me give you a few examples.
“No problem” tends to cheapen the deposit. It raises an implicit question, a subtle doubt so to speak. Did we do “it” simply because it was “no problem”? Would we have valued our child enough to do it if it was difficult or problematic? A better phrase, one that will enrich the deposit might be “I am glad to do it for you,” “I enjoyed doing it for you,” or even the infamous, “My pleasure.” These statements enrich the deposit by noting you did it because you valued the person and enjoy doing things with and for them.
“That’s a good boy/girl” is another phrase that cheapens a deposit. Saying “good boy/girl” implies that your child is good only because of whatever they did or are doing that prompted the statement. It suggests their “goodness” is based on performance, not inherent worth. Rather than applying the label of “good” to your child, make note of their effort. Or note one aspect of their work that you admire. For instance, “You worked hard on that project.” “I like the colors you chose.” Noting effort enriches the deposit and encourages a “growth mindset” and persistence (Growing Your Child’s Mind for Success), both important for success.
“Stop crying. It’s OK.” This phrase is often said in an attempt to comfort our children. But it cheapens the deposit into their honor bank by disregarding and minimizing their emotions. You can accomplish the same goal (providing comfort and nurturance) while enriching the deposit by saying things like “That really hurts” or “Can I do something to help you feel better.” Sometimes you will not even need to say anything to make an enriching deposit. Simply give your child a comforting hug. You can further enrich a “hug deposit” by saying “I love you” while you hug them.
“You’re so lazy/smart (you pick the label).” Anytime we apply a global label to our child, whether a positive or a negative label, we have, at best, cheapened the deposit into their honor account. Avoid negative labels because they actually make withdrawals from your child’s honor accounts. Positive labels lead to a “fixed mindset” (Read Build Your Child’s Success Mindset for more) that will hinder growth and success. Instead, enrich the deposit by acknowledging specific behaviors you like or behaviors you would like to see changed. For instance, “You studied hard and learned a lot for that test” or “Your practice really paid off.” On the negative side, “You chose to watch TV all day, so now your project is going to be late.” Addressing specific behaviors and their consequences enriches deposits into the Bank of Honor.
“Wait until your father/mother gets home.” On first glance, this statement may not appear to influence the bank of honor. However, it cheapens deposits into your child’s bank of honor by giving your power away to the other parent. Without power all your deposits become weaker, less valuable. Only powerful people can make priceless deposits. Rather than “wait ’til your father gets home” to address a behavior, address it in the moment. You can still address it when your partner arrives home, but address it in the moment as well. By doing so you enrich all your deposits into your child’s bank of honor.
I think you get the idea. Some statements cheapen deposits into the bank of honor. Others will enrich the deposit. Fill your children’s banks of honor with enriching statements that pay rich dividends of joy and maturity.
I overheard two college students talking about their classes. I was eating a bagel but I couldn’t help overhearing. Their conversation went something like this:
“I can’t believe you got an ‘A’ on that test. I’m just not that good at math. But you’re smart.”
“Not really. I just sat with the study group and reviewed everything. That was a big help.”
Did you catch the difference in how these two students talked about success? Only the second student talked about studying and believed it helpful. “To study or not to study” flows from the student’s belief systems about self and growth. The first student seemed to believe her math knowledge is fixed. She’s “just not that good at math.” The second student believes study can lead to improvement. In fact, participating in a study group “was a big help.” Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University, would likely say the first student shows a fixed mindset. A person with a fixed mindset believes intelligence and ability are fixed or unchangeable. They spend time protecting their fixed ability by avoiding challenges and only engaging in activities in which they know they can succeed and, by succeeding, maintain their image. They tend to look at the end result for validation rather than the process and effort invested.
The second student displays more of what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe intelligence and abilities can be developed. They embrace challenges and persist in the face of obstacles. They persist because they believe effort will help them grow. When they encounter failure, they consider it an opportunity to learn what they can do differently to obtain greater success in the future. For instance, they might try a different strategy, focus on a different detail, or develop a certain skill to help them experience future success. In other words, success comes through effort and intentionally improving strategies and skills.
As you can imagine, a growth mindset creates greater possibility for success. Fortunately, parents can help their children develop a growth mindset, one that focuses on the effort, strategies, and process that contribute to success. Parents teach children a growth mindset in the way they talk to their children. Consider the following examples.
Statements Promoting a Fixed Mindset
Statements Promoting a Growth Mindset
“You’re really good at that.”
“You put a lot of work into that.”
“You did poorly on that test. I guess it’s not your subject.”
“You did badly on that test—what did you learn from the ones you missed?”
“You’re the only one who scored.”
“What made you keep working so hard to score?”
“Nice job on that piano piece.”
“Wow. That took a lot of practice. How will you challenge yourself to keep practicing the next one?”
“You are a good artist.”
“I like the colors you chose. How have you worked to improve your talent?”
“That’s just not in your skill set, is it?”
“What strategies might help you improve?”
“That was a terrible performance.”
“What did you learn from that performance?”
“We won. That was a great game.”
“What did you and your team do to make this game go so well.”
“I can’t get this.”
“This is a challenge for you. What strategies have you tried? What new strategies could you try?”
“That was a big fail.”
“It’s OK to take a risk. What can you do different next time after what you learned today?
Changing statements and questions from those that promote a fixed mindset to those that promote a growth mindset will help your children develop a growth mindset…and that will increase their chances of experiencing success in life!