There is a popular meme of NeNe Leakes that says, “I said what I said.” I often see it used when someone makes a statement that can be considered controversial or matter-of-fact and seems to suggest that what has been said is not up for debate or discussion. There is also an insinuation of “I said what I meant and I meant what I said – therefore there is no need for interpretation.” However, in my experience, both personally and professionally, I see things work rather differently. I witness on countless occasions, words that are verbalized being only a portion of what one intends to communicate. Interestingly, what is left partially or completely unsaid is often what the communicator considers most important. When the recipient of the communication fails to understand or properly translate what has been non-verbally communicated, more times than not, conflict arises. If the information is so important, why won’t people just say it? I think that’s a fair question, but one that is more complex than it may seem.
For some people, their lived experiences have taught them that what they are leaving in the silence is common knowledge or understood. One person who comes and sits next to his significant other after a long day at work may assume that is communication enough that he is ready to discuss his day and catch-up on his partner’s day – thinking if he didn’t want to talk he would go somewhere away from his partner. Another person coming to sit next to his partner after a long day assumes that it is understood that he just wants to be close to his significant other, but in quiet – thinking if he wanted to talk, he would strike up a conversation. Neither of these people are “wrong” in their approach, but if their partners don’t understand what is not being said, and further, have a different interpretation of their actions there is likely to be conflict or, at least, minor irritation. As an extension of this point, many people believe that those they are close with view life through similar lenses and are often surprised by the differences that exist between them. These differences are not necessarily enough to disrupt the relationship, but the fact that they aren’t usually discovered until disagreements arise often creates feelings of betrayal and disappointment.
Fear of disconnection or hurting someone is another explanation for why important information is left in the silence. Frequently, people neglect to express their true thoughts and feelings because they believe in doing so they may damage their relationship. So, statements like “I’m fine,” replace thoughts of, “You hurt my feelings.” Unfortunately, failure to disclose these thoughts and feelings doesn’t make them any less true and often leads to increased distress for both the person concealing them and the person being shut out of the other’s truth. In other cases, the information that is being withheld may actually help the recipient, but the communicator’s fear of hurting them results in the recipient’s potential well-being and growth being compromised for the sake of the relationship. Feedback and constructive criticism gives way to false flattery or avoidance of the subject. In both instances, the nature of the relationship and power dynamics play significant roles in what is said and what is left unspoken.
Finally, historical experiences playing out in current situations lead to important information being left in the silence. Many have had situations where they said something to someone they were in relationship with and it didn’t go like they’d hoped. The discomfort and consequences of conversations like that leave such an impression that some avoid having those kinds of discussions at all. The fact that the current recipient is not the same person as before or the reality that his or her response may differ drastically are not enough to risk the pain, embarrassment, or anger; so much is left undeclared to maintain safety.
Feeling safe enough and having the confidence to say what one is actually experiencing can be a difficult task and many people are experiencing distress in their significant relationships because of things that are being left unsaid. If you are struggling to effectively communicate with your spouse, partner, sibling, parent, or best friend allow Labors of Love to help you both translate your silence into meaningful dialogue that can save and enrich your bond.