The other day, at one of my favorite lunch haunts, there was a man ahead of me in line who was struggling to speak.
He had an impediment that made his words difficult to understand. I’m making an assumption, but his hearing and other faculties seemed to be just fine. He just had trouble forming words and making them come out of his mouth. His words were forced, pushed out, jumbled, and slurred. It took forever for him to give his order to the cashier. He repeated himself and pointed at menu items as if he was speaking a foreign language. And the cashier kept asking, “what?” in a frustrated manner, after every sentence he managed to utter.
After finally ordering, he sat down to wait for his food. I looked on as he happily attempted to engage with people around him. He was a friendly guy, but most of the people he spoke to reacted unfavorably, annoyed with his attempts at interaction. Fearful, even. They wanted him to just be quiet. How dare this weird man – this funny-speaking stranger – actually try to speak to them?
But the man was not deterred. He asked questions, and complimented one young couple on their beautiful baby who smiled and giggled at him while playing with her food. She innately (or so it seemed) understood his probable innocence and desire to connect. And while the young couple he spoke to weren’t total jerks, they definitely cut him off short. The mother pulled the baby chair a bit closer to her own. I watched the whole thing and gave the man credit for continuing to try to speak and interact with people despite his apparent communication obstacle, and their ignorant distrust. The thing is, even though he could barely utter words, and people around him were standoffish, he kept making the attempt.
I thought about all the ways we struggle in our lives to simply speak and be heard. How we struggle with what needs to be said, and how to do it in a clear, articulate manner. How many times have you been in a discussion where one person ends up shouting, in heated exasperation, “I didn’t mean to say that!” or “that’s not what I said!”?
We seemingly struggle the most when we are angry, tired, emotional, anxious, or stressed out. Yet those are the times when it’s most important to be clear. Why do we struggle, and what can we do about it?
We struggle with the truth
Speaking the truth is a difficult thing to delicately master. We risk hurt feelings that lead to an angry response. But, the truth often gets respect in a “sleeper” sort of way. We often fail to realize how important it is to be told the truth, even when it hurts. We may lash out at the person doing the talking. Most of the time, we only understand intentions after some time has passed. The truth is indeed the right thing to know. This seems to be the case during break-ups (I’m just not that into you) or losing a job (we don’t see you as a good fit).
The truth benefits us in that it may push us in a different direction. Telling or hearing a painful truth isn’t easy, but it’s the only way we learn to live our lives authentically.
We struggle to speak up during a conflict
How often is it that we see something shady going on, yet we choose to remain silent? Maybe we see someone being nasty to a waiter, for example, and instead of sticking up for him, we turn away because it’s not our problem, or it’s none of our business. It makes us nervous and we don’t want to create a scene. We know that rudeness is unacceptable, but it’s still difficult to actually say something. Speaking up requires a certain degree of boldness that we must learn to muster.
Courage is necessary. Respectfully standing up for what is right in any given situation shows leadership. When we stick up for others, we learn to stick up for ourselves as well.
We struggle to tell people how we really feel
We don’t want to “lose” our friends or our loved ones, so we often keep our true feelings to ourselves. In keeping quiet, we don’t give the people in our lives a chance to change or show respect for our feelings. We learn to “live” with bad behavior. We may be annoyed, but for some reason it’s just “not worth it” to speak up. Why isn’t it worth it? What we are actually saying here is that we are not worth it. For example, maybe you have a friend who is late for every date you set. In fact, if you agree on noon, you can bet she will arrive at 12:25. This chronic, selfish behavior is not okay.
The only message she is relaying to you is that her time is more important than yours. While harboring resentment, you “live with it” because that’s “just the way she is.” But what is that doing for you? If you continue to let it go, you are placing more importance on her time than your own.
We struggle addressing teachers and coaches
This scenario comes up time and again when parenting. We don’t want to “rock the boat” by talking to school staff or coaches about an issue because we worry that our child will then be treated differently. While it is important to refrain from becoming a “helicopter parent,” (one who steers every last second of their child’s life experience), there is still a time and a place to speak up in certain situations. We need to pick and choose them carefully.
When our child has exhausted every effort to advocate for herself, it may be time to step in to attempt to facilitate solutions. Life is rarely fair all the time, and kids will be disappointed. It’s important to know when, where, and how to politely provide our “backup vocals.”
We struggle to tell the world what we really want
We never want to be that “pain in the ass” person who always has to have an opinion about every little thing. It can be uncomfortable to be the “squeaky wheel,” and yet, that wheel always seems to get the grease. We weigh the pros and cons of actually saying something that may or may not make a difference because it requires a good bit of our energy, effort and time. For some of us, our instinct is to reserve our words for when it’s really important. But, guess what? Telling the world what we want is really important.
Action stems from thoughts turned into words.
It’s important to say what needs to be said
We all seem to struggle with our words from time to time. Like the man at the lunch counter, we may have to repeat ourselves, or explain a bit more to be fully understood. Like him, we have it in us to be patient with people who don’t understand. It’s important to find a way to articulate our feelings, needs, and thoughts without throwing our hands up in exasperation, anger, or bitterness.
We can be understood without giving up.
When someone struggles to really articulate what he or she is thinking and feeling, we can consciously choose to close our mouths and listen. We can digest the intent when they tell us a difficult truth. When others struggle to say what needs to be said, we can choose empathy, and help them express themselves by asking questions to make sure we understand. We can remain open and offer validation.
The struggle dissolves when we recognize that most often, it’s their heart that is speaking, their hurt that is speaking, their emotions that are speaking, and their inner child that is speaking. We can respond to all people in a way that facilitates a deeper connection. And we can do this not only within the immediacy of our families and friends, but also across the vast and diverse population in which we work and live.
The man at the lunch counter wanted to speak and be heard, plain and simple. He wanted to be understood. When we acknowledge each other by simply listening, it alters our social energy. When social energy is altered in a positive way, it most certainly changes the world.