How to Create Emotional Word Pictures

Illustration of framed family photos hanging on a wall
FOTF/Brian Mellema

"We don't talk anymore!" shouted my wife, Cindy.

"That's ridiculous," I said. "We talk all the time!"

"But not about what we need to talk about. What's important to me. What's important for us!"

"Then drive with me to my softball game. If it's that big of a deal, you can talk to me on the way to the game about anything you want."

But Cindy wouldn't go to that game. Soon after, she wouldn't go to any of my games.

I was convinced she was just emotional or intentionally not explaining what she meant. She seemed convinced that I simply didn't care about her or anything she had to say.

That was the level of communication in our first year of marriage. We talked about how we needed to communicate with each other — all the time. But we never connected. Cindy became more and more hurt and lonely. And I grew more and more angry and lonely.

And then the day came when things blew up — but in an amazing way. On that day, Cindy used a powerful communication tool, a word picture, to change my life ... and our marriage.

The story that made the difference

One morning, after another night of frustration with each other, I walked into the kitchen and noticed a book on my breakfast plate. It was my thick Advanced Psychopathology textbook.

"So what's this?" I picked up the book off my plate. "This is breakfast?" I said, barely concealing my contempt.

"No," Cindy said. "That's me."

"I don't get it."

"You know how last semester you were taking this class?" she asked. "You were reading this book and taking notes on it almost every night? You really dug into it, trying to learn all that was there. Not just for a test, but because it might help you help someone someday."

I nodded tentatively.

"And what's happened to that book now that you've passed the course, now that you're on to another semester?"

She didn't have to say. I was using it as a doorstop in my study.

Cindy looked me in the eye. "You tossed it aside," she said. "You don't pick it up anymore. It's not important to you now."

And then without waiting for my response, she added, "That book represents the way you've treated me ever since we got married. When we were dating, you couldn't wait to pick me up. To read every page. To talk and act like I was important to your future."

I looked at the textbook in my hands, thankful I had something to look at besides her disappointed expression.

"But now we're married." She pointed to her wedding ring. "And you've moved on to another semester. I'm like that book holding open your door while you walk in and do all the things that are truly important to you. I'm just not one of them."

I didn't just hear her words. I felt them. Cindy had said similar things using everyday words a hundred times before. But even when she would end our conversations with tears, it didn't emotionally move me.

Then she used a word picture — the right one for me — and I not only got it, but it also stopped me in my tracks and turned my heart a different direction.

What Cindy had done without realizing it was what biblical communicators from King David to Jesus to the apostle Peter did all the time. She used a picture to carry the message of her words.

An emotional word picture is a communication tool that uses a story or object to simultaneously activate the emotions and intellect of the listener. In so doing, the listener experiences your words, not just hears them. In short, when you use a word picture to communicate what you're trying to convey, it can go right through your spouse's defenses and straight into his or her heart.

Five steps to creating emotional word pictures

Many people have a similar reaction when considering the use of word pictures: Wait a minute; I'm not creative! It would take a miracle for me to come up with a story that works. Actually, you don't need to worry about how creative you are. You've been hearing and using word pictures for years.

Every time you sing the national anthem, you're singing word pictures. Before every ball game and school function, Francis Scott Key paints vivid patriotic pictures with lyrics such as "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air." And if you've ever listened to a country music station — accidentally or on purpose — you've heard nonstop word pictures, including things like "I don't mind the thorns if you're the rose" and "Don't it make my brown eyes blue?"

I would love to sit at your kitchen table, join you for coffee and help you create an emotional word picture. But until that day happens, this article is the next best thing. So here are five steps to show how you can take communication with your spouse from average to life-changing:

  1. Establish a clear purpose.

    To create effective word pictures, you must begin with an important preparatory step: deciding how you want to enrich your relationship. Do you want your words to clarify thoughts and feelings, move you to a deeper level of intimacy, praise or encourage your spouse or lovingly correct him or her? Having a clear purpose in mind is like making a grocery list before you go shopping. The list improves your chances of coming home with what you need.


  2. Carefully consider your spouse's experiences and interests.

    The word picture the prophet Nathan used in exposing and redirecting King David's life (2 Samuel 12) showed an intimate understanding of David's background and interests. Nathan chose a story that tapped into David's experience as a shepherd and a defender of his people.

    If you're newly married, discovering the topics your spouse is most passionate about may take some detective work. But even the most hard-core couch potatoes give you clues about their lives. Your husband or wife may be a person whose problem behavior can be short-circuited by linking your word picture with his or her favorite television program.

    Think about your spouse's past, but don't neglect the present. Discover what he enjoyed as a child; what she hates as an adult; the sports, hobbies, food or music he prefers; the car she drives and how she maintains it; what he does for recreation; and what motivates her to work overtime.

    Learn enough about the person's world to understand what makes his good days good and bad days terrible. If she works at home, what are her needs and frustrations? If he works outside, what does he do during lunch breaks?


  3. Rehearse your story.

    Over the years, I've learned that practice helps in many settings. Rehearsing your story can pay big dividends. Failing to practice can rob the word picture of its power.

    I'm not suggesting you must write down all your word pictures in advance. I seldom ask a client to take the time in counseling and coaching to write down a word picture — unless it's a situation where he or she really needs the words to count. In many situations, it's not practical or even possible to write it all down. But time and again, I've seen tremendous benefits of thoroughly researching and carefully thinking through a story. And if you can, rough it out on paper before sharing it.

    If a friend is a good communicator, ask if he or she will listen to your word picture. That can be scary, but remember you've picked someone who cares about you. He or she is not going to say, "That's a stupid word picture!" Your friend is going to encourage you and perhaps even make some really good suggestions to improve it.


  4. Pick a convenient time without distractions.

    Choosing the right time and place to convey a word picture is key to its effectiveness. During the first night of a two-day marriage-enrichment conference where I was presenting, I briefly discussed emotional word pictures. The next morning, just before the opening session when I was to talk in detail about the concept, a woman stormed up to tell me my "wild idea" didn't work.

    "Why don't you tell me exactly what happened?" I asked.

    "Well, my husband was watching another of his dumb football games when I got home last night," she began. "It was even a game he'd taped from the week before. I was so mad I thought up a word picture on the spot."

    As I listened to her story, I realized she didn't understand any of the steps to creating word pictures — particularly this step, picking the right time and setting. She had merely become excited about the concept, loaded both barrels of her verbal shotgun and blasted away at her husband the second she walked in the door. She had conveyed her message at the worst possible moment — when her husband was trying to enjoy a ball game.


  5. Try and try again.

    In some cases, you may have to present more than one word picture before your spouse genuinely hears your thoughts and feelings. So, if your "perfect" word picture doesn't work, don't panic. Just try again.

    Granted, it's frustrating not to get instantaneous results when you use a word picture. But I've seen very few people who are so emotionally, mentally and spiritually callous that they cannot be reached by word pictures. I've also seen impossible cases — where a husband or wife has insisted his or her spouse was beyond hope — change dramatically.

    Don't be discouraged if you run into an occasional criticism, such as "What a dumb way to feel." In almost every case, your loving patience and persistent efforts will enable you to reach new heights of communication with your spouse.


4 Places to Look for Word Picture Ideas

Word pictures can deeply affect your spouse, even changing his or her heart. But where do you come up with a story that will really work? Here are four key "search fields" you can go to anytime you need a powerful word picture:

Nature

Animals, weather, mountains, water and hundreds of other natural elements can provide the entrance ticket to another person's heart.

Everyday objects

Look around the room you're sitting in now. Using everyday objects to form a word picture may be just the thing that leaves a vivid, lasting impression in your spouse's heart.

Stories you create

This is a source of word pictures that is limited only by a person's imagination. People love to hear a story. It locks in the listener's attention and leaves a lasting memory.

Shared history

This method has an important advantage — the ability to draw on a picture already lodged in a person's memory. And by causing someone to remember a past event, the speaker also triggers vivid feelings that the listener experienced at that time.

JT


Dr. John Trent is the president of Strong Families and serves as the Gary Chapman Chair of Marriage and Family Ministry and Therapy at Moody Theological Seminary. Kari Trent-Stageberg is a vice president at Strong Families and leads online training.

Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2018 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Creating Emotional Word Pictures." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2018 by John Trent. Used by permission.

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