Jan just got back from a week-long conference and found Jeff in the garage. Jeff seemed aggravated and Jan said, “What’s the matter with you?” Jeff barked back saying, “Leave me alone!” They didn’t talk for several days.
In our couples counseling session, we talked about this interaction. Jan shared that she could tell Jeff was upset about something and was curious about it. I told her that she could have been more effective by saying, “You seem upset.” rather than using the critical rhetorical question of “What’s the matter with you?”
I had Jan practice this change in the session, and Jeff shared what was bothering him at the time. Instead, Jeff felt cared for. They were struck by how such a small change in language could make such a significant impact on their relationship.