Chronic Communication at Home: The Value of Thinking Out Loud

Allie and her husband, Jase, just had a disagreement, with a few harsh words.  It all started with a comment Allie made that set Jase off.  Here’s what happened:

Jase is living with a chronic condition that is for the most part well controlled through medication and careful attention to how he manages his lifestyle.  But lately, he hasn’t been feeling so great, not terrible, but not as good as he had been.  He and Allie were having a discussion about how his days have been going lately, and Allie said something that pushed a button.

“I was just tossing around in my head a few thoughts that popped up as you were talking,” Allie had said.  “I am guessing that someone in your situation might ask for some additional accommodations.  And then, since I’m doing pretty well, there’s always part-time as a possibility, or even taking a leave.  If it every came to that.”

“Are you serious?” Jase said.  “You really would have me sit at home all day like an invalid while you charge into the workplace? How could you even suggest something like that?”

“I wasn’t suggesting anything,” Allie responded defensively.  “I was just kind of thinking out loud.”

“It didn’t sound like that to me,” Jase said.  “It sounded more like a vote of total no confidence.”

“Okay, Jase,” Allie replied.  “I guess I need to keep my thoughts to myself.”  And then she added, “Let me try to do a better job of stepping around all those eggshells you’re tossing around all over the floor.”


Thinking Out Loud Doesn’t Have to Lead to Conflict

Have you ever had the experience of giving voice to what was going on in your mind as you considered options and possibilities, and found yourself stepping into deep water with your partner, who misinterpreted your thought as a suggestion, like Allie did?  Or have you felt like Jase, who probably would prefer Allie keep her thoughts to herself if she can’t think of anything positive to offer?

What Allie engaged in was what I call thinking out loud.  She was considering – “tossing around” — what-ifs for the future.  She wasn’t intending to paint a negative picture and she wasn’t making predictions.  Allie’s intention was to give voice to the various thoughts going on in her head.  And by doing so, create the basis for a conversation with Jase.

Clearly, Jase didn’t see it that way.  He missed the intention behind Allie’s comments, and heard only limitations and dire predictions for the future being thrown in his direction.  As a result, he felt disappointed, betrayed, and angry.  Consequently, Jase overreacted.  And the result was conflict.

And the underlying message: Expressing your thoughts may not be safe.  Words have to be sliced and diced and positioned carefully before they can be spoken.

That’s not communicating.  It’s spinning.

Let me be clear about my belief about thinking out loud.  It has been my experience that being able to think out loud in the presence of your partner is absolutely essential to healthy communication in a relationship.  Couples need to be able to communicate openly and freely.  And that means being transparent about what’s going on in your mind.

This doesn’t mean spouting off in a hurtful, critical, unkind tone.  Some thoughts are better left to ourselves, especially thoughts that arise out of the emotions of the moment.  Thinking out loud is not an excuse to not speak out of love.

However, thinking out loud with your partner can provide the foundation for a productive discussion in which your thoughts and perceptions, and those of your partner, are on the table.

As you read in the example of Jase and Allie, Jase’s concerns about how he was feeling triggered some thoughts for Allie, including actions they might take.  She voiced her thoughts, randomly, as they came into her mind.

There are lots of ways in which couples think out loud with each other.  Some may cause an emotional reaction, as occurred in this example.   But most likely, Allie and Jase engage in other conversations that involve thinking out loud, but not with the explosion that followed this time.

Jase might have done his own thinking out loud as they were approaching a weekend, expressing thoughts about things that needed attention around the house, or people they hadn’t seen in awhile.  This might have led to a discussion about making plans, with some thinking out loud by Allie as well.

Thinking out loud might follow an event in which a family member did not seem to be themselves, as free-form musing about what might have been going on with this person.  Again, simply observations and potential interpretations, which the other person can choose to discuss further or simply hear without reacting.

The point here is that thinking out loud is something couples do with each other.  It’s nothing new.  And, couples can learn to be open and comfortable with any thoughts that are expressed during their day-to-day interactions.

So… are you and your partner able to think out loud with each other?  Or do thoughts expressed all too often lead to assumptions and emotional reactions that cause conflict?

Here’s how to make it safe to think out loud at your house:

Announce your intention.  If your partner is often not able to immediately discern that you are thinking out loud and not making a statement or a judgment, then signal your intention before you speak what’s on your mind.  It’s as simple as saying, “I’m just thinking out loud here.”  You might also need to add, “So please bear with me,” or “I’m not trying to make any suggestions or predictions.”  This will help to lessen any defensiveness on the part of your partner.  You may not need to continue to do this going forward, but this is a great way to help assure your words aren’t immediately misinterpreted.

State your purpose.  You may also want to consider stating your purpose in expressing what’s going on in your mind, so that your partner understands not only what you are doing but why.  Again, this may help to better prepare them to hear what follows.  For example, you might say, “I have some thoughts bouncing around in my mind and it would help just to get them out,” or “I’m tossing out some thoughts that might help us to figure this out together,” or “I have a few initial thoughts and concerns, not in any particular order.”  Again, over time, you and your partner can develop a comfort level with thinking out loud such that the purpose is also understood within the context of the conversation.

Clarify your expectation that this is a two-way street.  It might help your partner to stay open to what you’re saying if, before or after you express your thoughts, you also make it clear that you want to listen to them think out loud as well.  It’s a simple as saying something like, “I am hoping you will toss out a few of your initial thoughts, too.  Let’s get all our thoughts on the table and then sort through them together.”  Follow this up with a request for some top-of-mind thoughts from your partner.

Listen with an open mind.  Before you react!  Listening to your partner’s thoughts can press all kinds of buttons, as Jase experienced.  As you listen, remind yourself that these are only thoughts, top of mind, potentially unexamined.  Thoughts expressed out loud are just that.  Again, not judgments, not pronouncements, not predictions.  So dial down your initial reaction.

Focus on the goal: Honest, supportive, loving communication!  If you keep this goal first and foremost in how you communicate with your partner, each and every day, you’ll create the foundation for a home that’s safe for each of you to express your thoughts out loud.  And a whole lot less stress.  All of which contributes to your physical and emotional wellness.

You and your partner.  Thinking, talking, thinking out loud.  Work together to create an atmosphere at your home where it’s okay to speak whatever’s on your mind.  That’s teamwork!