“I think you’re an A**hole!”

A true story, told by a college professor of mine:

Eleven-year-old Jason, an extremely competitive soccer player, was called for a foul by the referee.  Feeling he was robbed of a certain goal by a lousy call, Jason was very angry.  The following dialogue between him and the referee ensued:

Jason: If I call you an a—hole, will you throw me out of the game?

Referee: Yes, I certainly will.

Pause

Jason: What if I just think you’re an a—hole? 

Referee: You can think whatever you like.

Pause

Jason:  Okay.  I think you’re an a—hole. 

Most adults are a bit more skilled at hiding their thoughts than Jason in the example above.  But in the end, what we are thinking leaks out and colors what we say.  Declaring, “I empathize with you” simply doesn’t work if what you are really thinking is, “This is your own fault and you deserve what you got.”  Your true feelings will leak out – through tone of voice, body language, facial expressions and many other subtle but unmistakable cues – undermining the words you are using. 

Learning to say the right words doesn’t work if we are not able to shift our thinking.  The first step to communicating more effectively is to put the focus in the right place – on your thinking, not your words.