Adlai Stevenson once said, “Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them.” I smiled when I read this idiom some years ago because there are many times in my life that I have used the metaphor (saying “I want to eat my words”) when I have said something I wish I hadn’t. I seem to know right after I have said it too! I try to restrain myself if I find myself reacting to what is being said or done that I find upsetting, egregious, unfair, hurtful etc., particularly at times I haven’t yet processed what I am hearing (after all it might not be as bad as I initially think!). It doesn’t always work. There are some things we can’t take back.
I know I am not alone in saying what’s on my mind – especially when feeling provoked – without ensuring we have the other person’s message clear and without thinking of the impact of our reaction. It seems, though, that when we react without some reflection we are just not thinking. We let the emotional part of our brain take over and the chances of getting to the thinking part of our brain diminish at these times. I have been on the receiving end of this way of managing conflict, too and it is unproductive in either case.
Sometimes I think quick and unthought-out reactions have to do with an inability to control and regulate emotions. Sometimes, I think it is sheer rudeness. Sometimes, I think it shows a lack of curiosity. Sometimes, I think it has to do with impatience or poor listening skills. These and other reasons might explain why certain things said or done end up in a quick and often hurtful reaction. Whatever the reason, it is a good idea, in the effort to become more conflict competent, to consider the words we don’t want to eat before we get sick from digesting them!
- When you consider a time that you wish you hadn’t said what you did – that lead to a conflict – what was the context ?
- What words do/did you want to eat ?
- What motivated you to say that?
- What emotions were you experiencing when you said that?
- How have you digested the words you said now?
- What impact did you observe or hear on the other person at the time? What lingering impact is there on you from what occurred? What might be lingering for the other person?
- What was the necessity of saying anything?
- What was the message you wanted to convey instead? What was necessary about that message?
- What didn’t you know or understand at the time (about the situation or other person) that you do now?
- If you were to say anything now to the other person, what might it be?
- What else occurs to you as you consider these questions?
- What insights do you have?