When “Screaming” Isn’t Really Screaming

She was in the fourth grade, maybe fifth. Back then, one of the few regular occasions of conflict between us involved me helping her with her math homework.

When she didn’t understand, she got defensive. When she got defensive, her tone and words sometimes veered into disrespectful territory.

Amelia's leaves

I accept the lion’s share of the blame in these conflicts. I was the adult, the parent, the person in charge. But I often reacted, rather than responded. I hadn’t yet learned the art of walking away, of setting aside for a time. (I still haven’t mastered this skill, but I have gotten a little better at it.)

One particular day, however, I made a conscious decision. I would speak softly. I would smile. I would not get irritated or aggravated, no matter how many buttons she pushed.

I actually did all of this, too. And yet, when we got to a point where she struggled to understand, she said something interesting.

“Mom, stop screaming at me.”

I confess. There have been plenty of times in my life as a mother when I have raised my voice. I’m not proud of these moments. I try to apologize for them when they happen.

But this was not one of them. In fact, it was exactly the opposite.

And right there in the kitchen, math homework in hand, I had a little epiphany.

When I said something she didn’t like, she translated it as screaming.

To my way of thinking, my daughter’s statement about my quiet words bordered on ridiculous. But given her sensitive nature, combined with past comments about other situations, it also made perfect sense.

Since then, I’ve discovered that my girl is not the only one who does this. For example, my hair stylist recently told me that when her mother gets angry, her voice gets lower and quieter. But when she speaks, my stylist hears screaming.

These things came to mind recently when I was a third-party observer to some conversations where I heard one thing and the actual participants felt something else. I was intrigued to realize that what I interpreted as regular talking came across to them as much angrier communication.

It’s possible that they were reading more into the situation than was really there. It’s equally possible that I was oblivious to what was really going on. Either way, one thing is certain: We heard the same conversation and came away with completely different impressions of what had transpired.

Here’s the thing. As odd as it seems to me, sometimes, when people hear something they don’t like or disagree with, they translate what’s been said as more intense than it might actually have been. Instead of normal conversation, for instance, they hear screaming or yelling.

When I consider my response when this happens to or around me, I need to remember that perception is reality, even if that reality is not actually real. As a result, trying to convince someone (including me) that what he or she feels is not accurate is often as beneficial as trying to teach geometry to a duck.

All I can control is me. And when another person’s interpretation of my words is inaccurate—or at least not in accordance with what I felt or meant—I have some choices to make.

When the situation involves one of my children, I can—and often do—take it as a learning opportunity. They will be interacting with people all their lives, so if I can encourage them not to take offense, to listen wisely and to understand that there’s always a back story, I will be doing them a great service.

Their perceptions also help me understand them better. What seems like a small thing to me might be huge to them. And asking questions about what they felt and heard as we spoke gives me the opportunity to do things differently in the future. (Sometimes, for example, they simply would prefer that certain conversations take place at home, in private, rather than in the middle of the public library.)

I do have other options, of course, whether I’m dealing with my kids or with other people.

I could adopt the attitude that they are being oversensitive and need to get over it.

I could engage right then and there and try to convince them that their interpretation is wrong.

Or, I could pray.

Other choices might be easier or more convenient, but only with prayer do I have any chance of selecting the response that is right for each individual situation.

I don’t always pick this option, mind you. I frequently react rather than respond, much as I used to do in those after-school homework sessions with my daughter.

But if I want to respond in a loving way more often, here’s what I need to pray.

•  That the people with whom I’m interacting will be discerning—that they will see things how they really are, rather than through the lens of defensiveness or emotional baggage.

•  That I will see things how they really are, rather than through the lens of my need to be right, my need to convince them that what they think isn’t accurate, or my tendency to be less sensitive than I could be.

•  That I will accept feedback and humbly acknowledge when I have come across in a way that was different from how I intended.

•  That I will come across in a loving way, that I will be able to tell when someone has misinterpreted my words, and that I will have the wisdom to know when to say something about it or just let it go.

That’s a lot to remember, I know. But casting every bit of it before the One who hears all, sees all and knows all is my only hope of ever getting it right myself.

Lois Flowers

P.S. I’m linking up this week with Kelly Balarie at #RaRaLinkup, Jennifer Dukes Lee at #TellHisStory and Holley Gerth at Coffee for Your Heart.

Photo by Amelia Masters


14 Responses to When “Screaming” Isn’t Really Screaming

  1. Samantha says:

    Lois,

    This was a very timely post. I made a pro-life stance on my blog, and a friend from high school took it as “anti-women’s health” because I wasn’t considering the health of the mother. Thankfully we went through a great discussion and she understood where I was coming from. I like how you said that we can only control what we say, not how others interpret them.
    Visiting from #coffeeforyourheart this week!

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Samantha, I’m thankful the post was timely for you. Your writing is full of grace and kindness, and I’m glad you were able to help your friend see the heart behind what you said on your blog. 🙂

  2. I just love this, Lois! My son is the same way – if it’s discipline of something he doesn’t care to hear, he perceives it as anger and shuts down. I’ve had to explain this to many a teacher who thinks he’s being disrespectful, when in fact He’s just withdrawing. I need to be better about considering my audience and not just running with words that mean something to me, but could be perceived entirely different. Your post really has me thinking!! #coffeeforyourheart

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Tiffany, my daughter has been sensitive to tone of voice since she was a baby, but the math homework episode really helped me understand how to communicate with her a lot better. Your son is blessed to have a mama who understands him and is able to help others understand him too. So glad you stopped by today!

  3. Janet says:

    Lois, you write such wisdom here – in communication across the board. I know that I am guilty of hearing someone’s feelings rather than their words or tone – and I’ve had to learn to step back to give both sides the space (and grace) to say what we intend and to hear what is meant – and I’m not always successful in the heat of a moment. That choice to pray – little prayers in those moments are helpful… This is definitely one of my work-in-progress areas. I am glad I visited you back today.

    • Lois Flowers says:

      Janet, I’m glad you visited too! And it’s a work-in-progress area for me, as well. But working on something, however long it takes, is better than ignoring it and hoping people just learn to communicate how we want, right? 🙂

  4. Lois,
    Wise words here and this is so helpful: “And asking questions about what they felt and heard as we spoke gives me the opportunity to do things differently in the future. ”

    I have learned and continue to relearn, it is always best to ask questions and to seek to understand.

    Blessings to you 🙂

  5. Linda Stoll says:

    Amazingly perceptive words here, Lois. Such wisdom …

  6. Heather Heiby says:

    Thanks for the great insight! Prayer – what a novel concept – wish I could remember this simplicity rather than trying to manage the correct response in my own wisdom. Reaction is immediate, but a thoughtful/prayerful Response delays. Yielding to the Holy Spirit requires a delay. Yielding to the flesh is instant gratification running roughshod.

    • Lois Flowers says:

      I’m with you, Heather. I like to fix and resolve everything immediately, but that often backfires on me! It’s so nice to see your name here in the comments today!

  7. Meg Gemelli says:

    My husband and I talk about this phenomenon all time and it’s incredibly frustrating. He grew up in a loud Italian family and I’m from a laid-back family in Ohio. I’m forever accusing him of yelling and being angry. He’s forever asking me to be more assertive and to be clear about what I would like him to do. 8 years into marriage and we’re getting better at meeting each other in the middle. It’s taken a lot of work though:) Thank you for putting words to what so many of us experience!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *