Thinking Out Loud

Defining Your Terms

Britta was frustrated with Craig because he worries about a lot of things most of the time, according to Britta. According to Craig he doesn’t worry a lot of the time, a statement that flabbergasted Britta. “Just ask anyone who knows you,” she exclaimed, “ten-to-one they’ll say you are a worrier!” “Sure, I worry sometimes,” Craig replied, “but not ‘a lot of the time.’” Britta looked at me for help.

I suggested we stick to specifics as a first order of business and see if there was a recent incident that would help us better understand what each of them really meant. Britta brought up their youngest son as a topic for discussion.  We all agreed that a certain type of parental worry about our children is natural. Aaron, their son, is a very sensitive kid and has frequent emotional meltdowns. Britta went on to say that she felt frustrated because when Craig was talking about Aaron the day before, he was worrying, afraid of how Aaron will turn out as an adult. “There’s nothing we can do to fix this,” Britta said. “I wasn’t saying that either of us could or should fix this,” Craig replied. “And besides,” he continued, “I wasn’t worrying about Aaron.”

This brought an exclamation of incredulity from Britta. “You weren’t worrying?” she said in a somewhat sarcastic tone. “No, I wasn’t,” Craig said, calmly and matter-of-factly. We all paused at that, and because I know that Craig is word sensitive (linguistic) I asked him to define the difference between worry and concern. Being the wordsmith that he is, Craig easily did.

Worry, he said, is about feeling anxious about something unpleasant, whereas concern has an element of worry, but also compassion. This difference mattered a lot to Craig because he is so linguistically oriented, using words carefully to guide his thoughts, feelings, and communication.  To Britta these two words are relatively interchangeable. She did know, however, that this difference in their processing styles has accounted for conflict before, so she became more relaxed.

When Craig is concerned, he doesn’t obsess or feel burdened, but when he worries he feels burdened and looks for relief. By clarifying the meanings of the words, Britta could see that Craig wasn’t looking for help so he could feel better. He was expressing concern, not worry, about Aaron. The distinction helped Britta relax and it resulted in a broader discussion about clarifying terms and focusing on what each person needs from a conversation. For example, Britta can ask if there is some way she can be of help when she hears worry or concern from Craig. It’s a relatively small adjustment to the pattern of their conversations but the positive impact can be large.

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