Effective communication involves more than merely expressing emotions. But decoding emotion is no easy task.
Feelings form a basic element of human interaction. Even brief day-to-day encounters involve an exchange of emotion, whether it’s a kiss goodbye as your kids catch the school bus, a quick catch-up with a client over lunch, or a friendly nod to a passerby on the street.
How we express feelings is determined by a complex matrix of innate personality traits and tendencies, cultural and familial influences, as well as the context or social setting.
It’s hard work, but learning to better communicate emotion could impact your physical and psychological health and improve the quality of relationships in your home and work life.
Communication is key
Our culture values self-expression. We are encouraged to be assertive, and this includes the ability to convey our thoughts and feelings. It all boils down to communication skills.
“Effective communication solidifies a relationship,” advises Dr. Faizal H. Sahukhan, a registered professional counsellor, author, and the national communications director for the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association. He believes it is important to be heard, but also to be understood by others.
“Expressing our feelings in an open and nonjudgmental environment leads to bonding and a heightened sense of intimacy, a connection with other people.” Shared feelings form the basis of friendships, spawn romantic partnerships, and enable fruitful working relations.
Put a positive spin on things
An early step to managing our emotions involves evaluating a situation. You might feel anxious before a job interview if, for example, you believe you will be judged on your skills.
But if you consider the interview an opportunity to learn more about the company, you might instead feel eager and confident. Your efforts shift from masking anxiety in the meeting to expressing confidence. Shedding positive light on a situation is one way of coping with an emotional threat.
In many instances a negative emotion is planted and we must instead try to manage our response. In an environment that nurtures openness we might disclose our feelings and seek resolution. Often, however, we resort to harbouring negative sentiments.
Suppression: weighing the risks
Can you put on a poker face? Sometimes, hiding emotion can work to your advantage. But in the game of life, keeping things inside is not worth the gamble. Suppression is an unhealthy practice of bottling up our feelings by restraining verbal or physical expression. This quick fix offers immediate relief of anxieties, but in the long term results in negative feelings that accumulate, unresolved.
Pent-up feelings—both positive and negative—can affect our own health, as well as the vitality of our relationships. Holding emotions in requires an ongoing effort that drains us mentally and socially. Suppression has been linked, for example, to poor memory, particularly of conversations with others and recent emotional events.
The divide between inner feelings and the outer self also leads to a negative self-evaluation—that feeling of being untrue to oneself. Sahukhan believes that “our feelings represent our identity, our personality; our feelings indicate our true self.” Suppression also causes us to alienate ourselves from others, making it even harder to open up eventually.
The strain of suppression on relationships can be devastating. “A key part of developing and maintaining intimacy,” says Sahukhan, “is having open, honest, nonjudgmental sharing of feelings between individuals, and when one or both does not express their feelings this leads to distancing.”
From heartache to heart disease
As if the heartache of a failing friendship or broken romance isn’t enough, unexpressed feelings can have a measurable impact on the beating of the heart. “When we don’t express certain toxic feelings, like anger and resentment,” says Sahukhan, “this can lead to emotional trauma, but also physiological effects.”
In particular, stress caused by pent-up emotion leads to increased blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, and arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls heart function. Initial efforts to suppress emotion also increase the response of the cardiovascular system to later stressful events.
Simple steps to better communication
Effective communication is a learned skill. A professional psychological counsellor can help refine your technique. Sahukhan looks for physical signs of emotion, helping people translate these into words. In addition, he encourages nonverbal communication at home, for example, holding hands while going for a walk.
When we are ready to talk, reframing sentences involves removing blame from a statement and shifting the focus to the self. For example, we might be inclined to say, “You don’t love me,” but a less threatening statement is “I feel unloved.” These are simple tasks that can be attempted at home.
Social networking has become a frequent platform for expressing our thoughts and feelings. Is this a help or a hindrance to our emotional well-being? Sahukhan believes social media “may lead to more efficient and speedy communication between people,” but warns that “there is a lot of liability as well, and there are challenges in the sense that we don’t get a chance to fully and deeply express ourselves through these means.”
Misunderstanding is even more likely without body language and facial expressions. We should recognize the limitations of social media, particularly when sharing complex emotions. A face-to-face conversation might require more effort, but it is the only way that intimacy will flourish.
A lifelong process
We begin to recognize emotions in infancy, through body language and mimicry, for instance, when a baby learns to smile back at you. Eventually, children link facial expressions and gestures to emotions. We smile when we are happy.
While these formative years lay the groundwork for our emotional traits and tendencies, self-expression is an ongoing developmental process that spans the lifetime. Although this means we may never fully master the art of expressing and decoding emotions, at least we can be sure there is always opportunity for improvement.
Tips for better communication
- Hold hands or hug to transfer emotions through body language.
- Reframe statements by removing blame or threat.
- Determine if your feelings are in line with what is actually happening.
- If you’re not ready to talk, put your feelings down in writing.
- Enrol in assertiveness training to enhance functional communication.
- Seek advice from a registered professional counsellor.