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Language of Experience

Our use of the English language is permeated by descriptions. We use words to paint pictures: “It’s a beautiful day”; “That was a great movie”; “His office is a mess”; “Their home is very elegant.”

When we use language in this way, we describe something as we see it. If we are speaking with someone who agrees with us, or is pleased with our comments, all goes well. But if the other person has a different view of the situation, there is the potential for disagreement. It may be minor, but it’s disagreement nevertheless. For example, if you say “It’s a beautiful day” and I respond with “It won’t be a beautiful day until we get some rain,” we are expressing two incompatible points of view–we can’t both be right.

In most cases, when two people have different points of view it’s not a problem. One of us might alter our point of view to agree with the other, or the two of us might simply agree to disagree.

Sometimes, however, we are very attached to our point of view. If someone disagrees with us, we take offense. Our sense of comfort evaporates, tensions build, and before we know it we’re in conflict. This can happen even when we’re talking about something relatively unimportant. If Sally says, “That was a great movie” and Harry says, “I thought it was a TERRIBLE movie”, Sally and Harry could be on their way to a fight. In the greater scheme of things, neither Sally nor Harry thinks that the movie is very significant, but they fight about it anyway.

One way to avoid this kind of conflict is to hold our point of view lightly, to acknowledge that others may see the situation differently. However, once we react emotionally it’s difficult to be accommodating. In fact, when we’re in conversations like this we usually become increasingly attached to our point of view, not less attached.

Another approach is to replace our usual “language of description” with “language of experience”. In other words, instead of describing the way things appear to us, we could describe the way we experience them. Instead of saying, “That was a great movie”, Sally could say, “I really enjoyed that movie”. By speaking in this way, Sally is shifting from a statement about the movie to a statement about herself, and there is no basis for disagreement. Harry is not likely to tell Sally that she didn’t really enjoy the movie. And if he does say this, Sally can re-affirm her experience without making a statement about the movie or about Harry. If Harry continues to do battle, my guess is that there are deeper issues between Harry and Sally than a disagreement about a movie.

The point is, when we talk about how we experience something, we are speaking about ourselves and not about the “something”. Others are much less likely to take offense when we talk about our personal experience than they are when we proclaim our point of view as though it’s not only true for us, but true in general.

Notice how often you express yourself in descriptive language. Each time you notice this, think about your experience of the moment, rather than your opinion of it. One way to help with this shift is to begin sentences with the word “I”, followed by an experiential verb: “I like”, “I’m frustrated”, “I feel happy”.

By the way, saying “I feel that it was a great movie” is not the same as saying “I really enjoyed that movie.” Beginning a sentence with “I feel that…” is just another way of stating your opinion and is not actually expressing a feeling at all.

Good luck with this one. Using language of experience is a very effective way to express yourself without provoking a discussion about who’s right and who’s wrong-a common source of conflict.


Trime Persinger

Trime Persinger has a Certificate in Conflict Resolution from the Justice Institute of British Columbia, and has been certified as a Level II Mediator with the Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association. She has a Master of Science in Business Administration. Trime's strengths lie in her directness, her warmth, and… MORE >

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