Ever find it challenging to find the “right” words to express your experience? Do you search for terms to capture your feelings but find that you can’t put your finger on the right one to accurately describe what you want to say? If so, you are not alone. This happens with all of us. And recently, it started happening with Zach.

Our specially gifted 24-year-old son Zachary didn’t speak until he was four years old. That was the first time I really heard his speaking voice. He called me Mom. And since then, he has called me a variety of other names like: Momma, Miss Mommy Lisa, Miss Lis, and just plain Lisa.

Every so often when a causal acquaintance overhears Zach use these terms to get my attention, they react with offense: You let Zach call you by your first name? To which I usually reply something like: I am grateful he calls me at all.

One of the many valuable things I’ve learned from Zach is that the words we choose are sometimes mismatched. They do not adequately reflect our intended meaning. For example, and to this day, when Zach wants to hear something louder like music, he will say Turn it down?  

I know from spending time together that Zach may actually mean that he wants it louder (especially if he’s rocking to the beat.) So I usually ask him to clarify his response while playing with the volume and watching his facial expression. Down almost always means up.

Another example of words not fitting the situation is when Zach complains of pain, he will often say one body part hurts while pointing to another. That presents something like Knee hurts! Momma Lis, this leg hurts! But as I observe him, he might be rubbing his arm or hand.

We have had these conversations hundreds of times, and I have learned that if Zach is complaining of pain, he needs help. But I will have to assess him physically before intervening, to make sure that I understand where the problem is. Often, the body part he identifies as painful is not actually it is not the one he is pointing to.

Lately and very miraculously, Zach has started applying this mismatched method of labeling things to his emotions. I knew Zach experienced anger, sadness, frustration, as well as joy, excitement and pride. But he never labeled his specific feelings until recently.

Hearing Zach utter words like mad 😡 and sad 😢 definitely gave me pause. These words denoted different states of emotion and since I understood his propensity to flip flop his words I paid even more attention. Did his descriptor match what his experience seemed to be? How could his newly discovered use of the words mad and sad help us to better understand him and his needs?

The obvious answer is that his emotions don’t always fit the words he chooses.  Just like the way he requests the music volume to be changed doesn’t translate as what he is really asking for, and the verbalized location of his pain does not always correspond with the accurate body part he needs help with.

Has this ever happened with you? Perhaps you were feeling sad but your expression came out in words as anger? Or maybe you were tired but your words sounded sarcastic or cutting even?  Human beings are imperfect, and we all struggle to decrease the gap between what we say and want we intend to express.

And in this way Zach is no different. Zach has taught me that we all do our best to say what we mean, and mean what we say. But when it comes to emotions, how well we are understood might depend on how deep the listener is willing to dig.

When we are the ones speaking, we have our own challenges with expression. Meditation, rest and various other disciplines like learning to slow down our neurological reactions can help us access our own vocabulary. But when we become the listener, we need a different kind of training. We need to take in all the data of the situation, not just the verbal cues.

I also learned this concept while working as a nurse. I learned to include situational variables like facial expressions, physical posture and vital signs in my assessment of the patient’s condition. It’s hard to know if being Zach’s mom made me a better pediatric nurse, or if being a pediatric nurse made me a better mom, but either way I carry this gem of knowledge with me. My experience is that it has made me a more effective communicator (some of the time!)

By taking in the full experience, I am able to decrease my propensity to react to the vocabulary word, and instead get closer to understanding the intention of the speaker. Narrowing this gap improves the quality of the connection between us, and the result is receiving quality intel that can guide our decision about the next best action to take (or not.)

Referring to the emotional example, when Zach says he is mad, or sad I widen my capacity to appreciate the whole situation. Instead of hanging on his choice of words, I can ask him to say more. At a minimum, I can tell him I am listening and to please be patient with me. This helps to keep the frustration down on his part. If he doesn’t give me any response, I ask questions, such as:

  • What else (can you tell me) Zach?
  • Is there another word?
  • Did something happen?
  • What do you need?

In other words, instead of rushing to solve for anger, or sadness, I gather as much information as possible. That way I don’t spin my wheels trying to comfort him with a hug, only to get clocked in the face because sad meant straight up pissed off.

Enter grief.

As non-grievers, communication can be a challenge. But no matter how well we understood ourselves and/or others before the loss of a loved one devastated us, grief is a threat to our ability to accomplish either. When someone we love dies, things in our minds get jumbled. We can become confused and unable to define our experience which leads to more pain, isolation, misunderstanding and frustration.

So let’s be mindful that when we are grieving, or supporting someone who is, there may be an even more challenging communication barrier. Let’s not take on literal meanings of words alone. We can train ourselves to register the words, but also to simultaneously take in all the details of the situation.

As I have been practicing with Zach, try letting the speaker know you are listening and ask for more details. Simply responding to someone with a sentence like “Please, say more” can open up a window for more authentic expression and connection to arise.

And if you’re not yet sold on importance of becoming sensitive to non-verbal communication, no worries. Long before we had words, an alphabet, and a “term” to describe what were feeling, we were humans and we communicated. We were loving and losing and living and dying and experiencing life in its fullness. It was only later that we started agreeing on which words meant what.

No wonder we’re a little confused. 😐

Click to access the login or register cheese