Choose Those “Hot Button” Words Carefully

"The sword wounds the body,
sharp words the mind."

Inside Information

One of the blessings of being part of a family is to be able to share your life with others: your joys, your heartaches, your strengths, your weaknesses and even a few little secrets now and then.

However, as most of us know, this private and personal information can be used either for good or for evil. Not much gets past your fellow family members, especially those faults most targeted for criticism. Sometimes, human nature causes us to exploit weaknesses, rather than lifting each other up, and that’s when “the war of words” gets started. 

Sticks and Stones, but Words Will…

Pretty soon we know just the word that will drive another person crazy. This is called a “hot button” word. When a hot button word trips your trigger, you feel the back of your neck tighten, your chest fills, and you're ready to defend your position with your life. Hot button words are often words we save for special occasions when we’d like to have a little more power to tip a conflict in our own direction.

For instance, if your child prioritizes tasks differently, but you want something done right now, you might pull out the word “lazy.”  That hot button word may lose you points in parent heaven, but the child will act—if only to prove your quick assessment wrong. Sometimes this works so well it becomes our parenting default. Hot button manipulation might work in the short term, but it isn’t a relationship builder. Often the words we use as parents are derived from our childhood. When they were used on us they made us feel small, misunderstood, unimportant, or failures. If we repeat the cycle, our children will carry these same “naming and blaming” feelings into adulthood.

The Problem with the Naming/Blaming Game

One glaring problem with naming/blaming is that you haven’t adequately communicated what you want and why you want it. Although the “why” might not be information that you think your child needs, it helps them understand the demand better. The other side of the coin is that maybe you haven’t adequately listened to why the child didn’t get the task done in the first place.

As soon as we pull out the blaming/naming weapons, naturally, our children are going to get defensive. If you were called “lazy” at work—before you had a chance to list the tasks you did complete, or before you could explain the crazy day you had—you would shut down and withdraw, or shout defensively. And in families it’s not unusual for the name-calling to escalate, because we’ve all been together long enough to have lots of ammunition in our hot button clips. Welcome to the war zone.

Confirming and Affirming

According to Taking the War Out of Our Words, by Sharon Strand Ellison, we have to think carefully about what kind of power we are looking for and whether it is necessary to get it by hurtful, conflictive means. Practicing her theory of Powerful Non-defensive Communication (PNDC) can turn a conflict into an opportunity to build a stronger relationship.

Her suggested communication tools are powerful, because they first hold us accountable for stepping back and re-thinking a conflict. If silence follows a naming/blaming outburst, what might happen to change tracks? Silence is golden, especially in the midst of chaos because it creates a space for redirection. Don’t withdraw or defend. Just stop. Think. Then when you have thought it out for a minute, ask a non-defensive question, or make a non-defensive statement that clarifies the situation. For instance, a mother might offer this to her teenage daughter as things heat up between them: “Wow, Honey! You’re really upset (the acknowledgment). I didn’t realize how much impact my comment could have on you…I’m sorry for saying it that way.” (the affirmation).

The reason this type of statement instantly diffuses anger is that it accurately reflects the feelings behind the anger. If we interrupt and jump to defend ourselves, the nonverbal message is “your feelings don’t matter to me.” 

In the silent space that you create when you handle “hot button” moments this way, you can retract a hurtful word and apologize for using it too. “I’m sorry I called you lazy. I shouldn’t have used that word. Tell me more about your day so I can understand why you didn’t get this done for me?”

Bottom line…if you make more room for your children’s feelings, they’ll probably make more room for yours. 

“Mishaps are like knives that either serve us or cut us, 
as we grasp them either by the blade or the handle.”
James Russell Lowell

Written by Heidi Densmore

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The sword wounds the body, sharp words the mind. Meander