A truly eloquent friend of mine recently asked me “Have you noticed how many people describe being stuck in traffic as a ‘disaster’, or spilling a cup of coffee as a ‘mess’ or (the big one) a case going wrong as ‘devastating’? Well, how’s about being stuck in traffic is a ‘nuisance’, spilling your coffee is a ‘niggle’ and an unsuccessful case is a ‘disappointment’!”
His words made me think.
If we make the effort to ensure that our internal monologue is helpful and constructive – or at least non-damaging – then that’s one less person bringing us down, and our external words will be helpful and constructive for others.
“Don’t mix bad words with your bad mood. You’ll have many opportunities to change a mood, but you’ll never get the opportunity to replace the words you spoke”
Psychologists reckon that only about 1 in 10 of us don’t have a chatter going on in our head for most of the day. It might be a list of things to do, an email we’re composing, a conversation we want to have or wished we’d had, anything. So, what a fantastic opportunity this is to speak kindly to ourselves and to choose our language carefully.
I rarely swear out loud. But internally, when I drop and smash something, or inadvertently lock myself out of the house or spill tea on my laptop, my internal monologue is the stuff of nightmares.
However, if my friend does the same or if my kids break plates or the cat spills a pint of water on my electronics, I use calm, reassuring words and tone of voice, because it’s a simple mistake and they may be distressed already.
So why the disparity?
We’ve talked before about treating yourself as you would treat a friend. A helpful practice is to choose the words for our internal monologue as carefully as we would choose words for a friend or our child. Before long, it becomes a habit, so choosing helpful words and phrases for our external voice becomes something we do automatically. As a massive added benefit, the less internal self-flagellation we practise, the better our self-esteem and confidence.
External words to self
There’s little benefit from being attentive to our use of language towards others and congratulating ourselves on our kindness if we call ourselves an “idiot” out loud for forgetting something or if we swear at ourselves when we drop coffee on the carpet.
More damaging than the coffee stain on the carpet is the effect it has on our kids and loved ones to hear us berate ourselves if we do it out loud. How can they have healthy self-esteem and feel unjudged if their role model is cursing their own simple mistakes?
External words to others
If you have high levels of emotional intelligence, what you say can be profoundly powerful to those around you and to yourself. Emotional intelligence has the five key elements: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. We should ideally be putting all of these into practice each and every time we open our mouths. With practice, you can run through all these in a few milliseconds.
- Self-awareness: How do I feel?
- Self-regulation: Am I going to speak to myself or to someone else reactively or after some thought?
- Motivation: What do I want to achieve out of this situation?
- Empathy: Am I aware of how the other person feels? What type of language will resonate with them? Cognitive empathy is, after all, all about using the language of the other person rather than our own
- Social skills: What tone and volume do I need to use in order to achieve my goal? Is my body language going to reflect what I want to say and how I want to say it?
Let’s take a potentially unhelpful everyday situation and apply emotionally intelligent use of language to it. Driving to work in London traffic can be many different things to different people. For some, it’s a daily, boring, time-wasting source of stress which always takes longer than expected. For others, it’s a chilled alternative to the Tube, with music or guided meditation playing, a good coffee sitting in the holder and a chance to take deep, mask-free breaths.
Someone cuts in front of me from the lane that was for turning right only, then stops while they catch up on their phone.
Self-awareness: I feel angry? Enraged? Vengeful? Nonplussed? Amused? Or can I take it to the next level and say “Thank you” to this driver “for helping me to exercise my patience”? (Seriously, every time I try this, I smile). No emotion is right or wrong. You don’t need to justify why you are feeling it. The exercise is to notice the emotion and put a name on it rather than be carried away by it.
Self-regulation: I could swear internally or externally. I can sit on the horn. I can tailgate that driver for the next mile. I can shrug. I can smile. I can use any words reactively ranging from “bloody idiot” to “meh, whatever”.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
Motivation: Here’s the thing. I do want to get to work as smoothly and as quickly as possible (and probably in as stress-free a way as possible). So, in my experience, shouting and tailgating rarely result in a driver like that moving faster for me or letting me go in front of them because they can sense that I’m in a hurry. Also, while it may feel that expressing anger and rage will make the stress go away, basic physiology tells us that that’s a fallacy. So, our internal monologue can be littered with expletives. Try it and monitor your heart rate. Or you can really thank them for helping you to exercise your patience, notice the breath, lower your shoulders and see if you can lower your heart rate through deep breaths alone. In reality, if you get to your destination one car-length slower than intended, that’s probably “just fine”. Your stress levels are going to be way more significant than the time at the end of the journey.
Empathy: Cognitive empathy, we know, is about communication, whereas emotional empathy is about relating to how the other person is feeling. So, tailgating this individual will resonate with them because that’s the language they speak and will effectively communicate that you’re up for this game of caffeine-fuelled aggression. The converse is also true: by not engaging and not communicating via words or otherwise, your goal of getting to work in a chilled state is more likely to happen. Using your internal monologue of “no problem”, “meh”, “thank you” etc can help you to achieve this state.
Social skills: Body language is not just for the benefit of the onlooker. It goes without saying that aggressive gestures out the window are unhelpful. Also unhelpful is a colourful internal monologue describing the characteristics of this driver. A quick body scan, where you sit up straight, lower your shoulders, relax your face and jaw and breathe, calms you while communicating to road hogs that your intentions are different to theirs. An inner monologue of “yeah, OK, whatever” might fit the bill.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”