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Talking to Feelings First, Then Topics - A Love Skill

Synopsis: This mini-love lesson explores the rule ‘heart before head’; then goes into ‘here and now’ versus ‘there and then’ talking; gender differences; talking to your loved one’s bad feelings; talking to bad feelings aimed at you by your loved ones; self-care while learning this love skill; and more.

Heart Before Head

When meeting her group of friends, with joy in her voice and with a great big smile Felicia proclaimed, “I’m so happy!  I got the job!  Now I’ve got to go shopping for the right clothes and brush up on my worker skills.”

Norman in rather ordinary tones replied, “Yeh, you better start practicing your work skills.  You’re probably really rusty”.  Josh blandly responded with, “I bet you already have clothes for the first week at least”.  Frank with a bright look on his face and an upbeat tone said, “You really look happy and I’m really glad for you”.  A couple weeks later Frank and Felicia became a couple and Norman and Josh wondered what he was doing right that they were not.

Frank had a very important love skill.  He knew that for helping a love relationship get started, or be maintained and grow, it was important to focus first and most on the feelings being felt and, if possible, to attend to those emotions before the topic being brought up is discussed.  He followed the lover’s rule ‘talk to your loved one’s feelings before you talk to your loved one’s topics’.

Felicia’s voice tones, face and words all spoke of her happiness.  Speaking to and sharing her happiness is speaking to her internal, personal self.  Speaking to her clothing and skills topics is okay but less personal.  Emotionally joining with Felicia in her feelings of happiness and success also conveys a pleasant, positive, personal connection with her and demonstrates the love skill of sharing heartfelt emotions.  Talking to a person’s topics without sufficiently speaking to their emotions may convey that the person is less important to you, and maybe that you are not very able to be personally, emotionally with them.  In a small, subtle way by talking to Felicia’s feeling of happiness Frank displayed a clue showing that perhaps he was able to do ‘emotional intercourse’.  Emotional intercourse so often is a major basis for romantic, healthy, real love development.

‘Here and Now’ Versus ‘There and Then’ Talking

By talking to Felicia’s happiness Frank showed he was emotionally with her in the ‘here and now’.  Talking about brushing up her skills and shopping topics left the emotional ‘here and now’ and went to the future, only addressing the pragmatic.  When we talk about what’s being felt in the here and now, instead of talking about the future and/or about practical matters, it gives more of a sense of emotional togetherness.  When we talk the topics first, after strong emotions have been expressed by a loved one, they may feel unattended to or develop a vague sense of being emotionally abandoned.  It may sort of indicate to them that their emotions are not important to you and only practical matters count with you.  Loving closeness is not likely to grow out of that perception.

Talking about the past can work if there is sufficient focus on the emotions that occurred in that past situation, or about the emotions that one now has about the past.  Without sufficient focus on the feelings connected to the past your loved one may develop a sense of being impersonally and non-intimately dealt with.  This is true whether you’re talking about your own feelings or the feelings of your loved one. And this feelings-absent talk is highly unlikely to help a love relationship.

Generally when a loved one is having strong feelings ‘in the present’, talking in the present tense is more powerful and more loving.  Talking in the future tense or the past tense without focusing sufficiently on the emotions involved in both may create more emotional distance than closeness.

Gender Differences

In many cultures men more than women seem to have trouble talking to their loved ones about emotions.  Some researchers think this is genetic but in some cultures men overcome this perhaps ‘genetic predisposition’ by good societal, communications training.  A major complaint from many women is about men not being able to talk to a woman about either his emotions or her emotions.  That in turn is seen as a major deterrent to healthy, love relationship development.  Interestingly women, while being better at empathetically talking to a loved one’s emotions, usually don’t know how to teach men how to do that form of much desired, personal communication.

Basic Instructions

To talk to a loved one’s emotions here is a simple procedure you might want to follow.
Step 1.  While your loved one is talking think “what emotion is my loved one feeling right now?”.  If you’re not sure, ask.  Asking shows you want to be with your loved one in what they’re feeling and, therefore, asking helps you to do that.  To ask simply say, “What are you feeling?” or “What are you feeling right now?” or “You’re feeling …(glad, sad, worried, upset, eager, etc.?”  Or just make a guess.  Guessing conveys you are trying and that counts too.  Remember, feelings usually can be ‘labeled’ and said with ‘one word’ each.  You can feel affectionate, fearful, excited, mad, serene, etc., there are hundreds of good labels for our emotions.  If your ‘emotions labeling skills’ are weak you might want to make a list.  Here’s a hint: There are emotion labels starting with every letter of the alphabet.  This is a homework exercise I often assign to those wanting to improve communications and learn to emotionally love a loved one better.

Step 2.  When you think you may know the emotion a loved one is feeling say that feeling label word.  “You’re happy”.  “You’re worried”.  “You’re upset”.  “You’re pleased”.  “You’re feeling eager” are some examples.  You can say these things with a sort of questioning sound or if you’re expressing it in written form you can put in a question mark.  This shows you are trying to get it right.  Remember, you don’t have to be right you just have to show your really trying to connect emotionally.

Step 3.  Really hear the response your loved one makes to what you have said.  Your loved one might say “No, that’s not quite what I’m feeling, it’s more like …(this other feeling)”.  Then again you might hear something like “you really understand, you’re wonderful”.

Step 4.  Now, ask yourself what you are feeling having heard your loved one is feeling and whatever thoughts they may have added.  Are you happy with your loved one’s expressed feeling, or angry, or upset, or proud, or threatened, or what?  Remember, ‘thoughts and feelings are very different from each other’.  A thought usually takes a sentence to identify and a feeling usually takes only a single word label.

Step 5.  Share the labeling word that expresses the feeling you’re experiencing having heard what your loved one feels. You may want to elaborate on it a bit.  Examples might be “joy, I am feeling joy hearing what you just told me”, or “my insecurity is going up and down”, or “now I’m feeling closer to you”, or “I’m getting angry but let’s talk about this”, or “after hearing what you said I feel a little more comforted”, or “I’m noticing I’m starting to feel more nervous thinking about what you just said”, or “I’m beginning to care more about how you feel and maybe understand you better”.  Yes, sometimes you will have to deal with their bad feelings or yours but usually that’s better than letting them fester.

As people practice this ‘talking to feelings love skill’ they can and usually do create improving emotional intercourse.  Then they usually start getting its many benefits.

Talking to Bad Feelings

When you’re beloved says, “I feel bad, mad, upset, scared” or anything we might call a bad feeling the usual best response is to care.  Therefore, quite often the best thing to say is “I care”.  You might include the feeling you heard them say and then “I care.” for example, “I care that you’re hurt”, or “you’re really feeling bad and I care about that a lot”, or “you’re feeling angry and that’s hard to hear but I love you so I care about how you’re feeling”, etc. are a few of the many ways you might lovingly demonstrate that.  When a loved one expresses bad feelings what’s usually best is a lot of really attentive, good listening which usually helps them get all their feelings out while your care comes into them.  That’s sort of like getting the poison out and the medicine in.

Common Mistakes

The biggest, most common mistake is to jump in, talking from your head instead of from your heart.  Analyzing, explaining, instructing, teaching, talking in a way that tries to ‘fix’ what caused the feelings, or in any other way tries to deal with the topics involved, before talking to your loved one’s emotions, usually doesn’t work.  In fact, sometimes it makes things far worse.  Once you talk to a loved one’s feelings there may be no need to do any of the explaining, fixing, etc. because what often ‘fixes’ the problem is being a really good listener.  When your loved ones expressing feeling bad, what they often need is well expressed, loving care.  Heart-felt messages do far more good than anything your intelligence is likely to come up with, no matter how bright it is.  Again, “heart before head” is the short way to say this.

Lots of people, especially guys, try to express their care through talking about how to fix, solve, mend, correct or cognitively understand the problem that’s causing a person’s feelings.  None of that directly deals with the feelings. That’s especially true for bad feelings.  Thus, “head talk” misses the ‘first point to be attended to’ – the emotions themselves.  After the emotions are brought into awareness and talked about, those other topics may, or may not, be relevant or need discussion.
It does not hurt to ask a person if your analysis or advice, etc. is desired and if it not, don’t give it.  Remember the adage, “don’t teach a course for which no one has signed up”.

Talking to Bad Feelings Aimed at You

“I’m so upset with you”, “I’m very angry at you”, “How could you hurt me like that”, and many other bad feeling statements may come your way from your loved ones.  What are you to do?  First, examine your habits.  Maybe your habit is to interpret such remarks as you are being attacked, judged, blamed, punished, unfairly picked on, threatened or even damaged.  If so, that probably triggers your primitive ‘fight or flee’ feelings.  If you think you’re under attack you may desire to defend yourself, perhaps with lengthy reasons and explanations, or with a powerful counterattack.

Then again, your habit might be to feel guilty, inadequate and get depressed.  Later you might decide you need revenge and to get even, so you may aggressively or passive-aggressively ambush and sabotage a loved one so they feel as bad as you feel, or worse.  Maybe it’s your habit to beg forgiveness, or fake sorrow and manipulate for forgiveness.  If you do any of these things you probably have learned that none of these habits do much good to change the dynamics of the interaction nor do they usually feel very good to do.  Mostly love relationships can be damaged by the habits just described because they are quite anti-loving.

What really is happening is probably markedly different than what you think is happening or interpret is happening.  A likely, more accurate, interpretation of your loved one’s statement usually goes like this.  My beloved is hurt or somehow upset, and needs to express it, and needs to experience my care coming in as their bad feelings flow out.  Again, it’s a case of ‘poison out, medicine in’.  To deliver the medicine my beloved also may need to be reassured that they are truly, deeply loved and are extremely important to me.  Furthermore, my beloved also may need to experience that I am really listening to how they feel and what they want, plus that I am sincerely willing to look at ways to make improvements and, if I agree, that I am willing to implement those improvements.


Remember the ancient admonition is to love others AS you love yourself.  Taking good care of yourself as you learn to practice this love skill is part of what is needed.  The way you do that is to ‘own your own okayness’ and remind yourself that any skill is learned by repeated practice.  If it were easy it probably wouldn’t be called a skill.  You also may need to remind yourself that usually the best defense is no defense.  That’s because your loved one’s ‘at you talk’ probably will turn into ‘with you talk’ as soon as hurt, or fear, or both are adequately expressed and enough of your loving care has come into them.  Staying emotionally OK while you do loving listening and perhaps do comforting behavior, is for most of us a pretty tall order in highly emotional times.

Surprisingly it’s even hard for many of us who were not well trained, by the families we grew up in, to talk to feelings that are happy and upbeat.  Talking any feelings may be hard for some people no matter what kind of feelings they are.  Nevertheless, working to develop any love skill pays off handsomely and, therefore, is an act of healthy self-love.  So, get busy and meet the challenge of developing this love skill.  See how it saves everybody a great deal of misery and brings a great deal of good-feeling closeness to you and your loved ones once you get the hang of it.

This love skill can be used in all kinds of relationships – with parents, children, family, friends, acquaintances, fellow workers, even with people you don’t know well.  If emotions are involved it’s best to attend to them first, then attend to the topic.

As always – Go and Grow with Love

Dr. J. Richard Cookerly

Love Success Question
If you learn and practice this love skill of ‘talking to feelings before topics’ and do it well, do you think your relations with love ones will get vastly improved, substantially improved, moderately improved, mildly improved, or not at all improved?  Now ask your loved ones what they think.

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