Constructive Dialogue and Disagreement
There are numerous ways to discuss things and disagree with someone without being abusive or causing pain - and I'm going to explore some of those ways, as well as their benefits, our responsibilities as Christians, and ways to deal with negativity, hostility and abuse.
Most of us want to be authentic and honest yet kind in our relationships. Listening is key to this; remember that God gave us 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason! Cyber-and telephone relationships suffer from the fact that most of what we say in life is implied by our tone of voice, posture, eye contact, level of confidence, etc., therefore we must take special care to 'listen' closely when others are speaking/writing online or over the phone, and then mirror what they said so we're certain of the message. Understanding is another key, and can't happen if we're in defensive mode, formulating a rebuttal in our heads as the other person speaks, angry at something unrelated to the discussion, or having as a goal to 'teach that person a lesson' or 'show them the real truth,' and so forth. We must, as St. Francis is oft-attributed to saying: 'seek not so much to be understood, as to understand.'
Still, there are times we must respond to criticism - either to clarify an issue, to correct misperceptions in what the other person inferred from you, to give factual evidence that supports what you say, to correct a misunderstanding, or even to acknowledge someone's words. How we respond has a lot to do with how our message will be received.
The major types of communication are: passive, assertive, and aggressive.
Passive communication occurs when one party hates conflict and will not stand up for themselves or speak what they really feel. They suffer in silence, grin and bear it, don't rock the boat - all those clichs that describe 'going along with things.' This is harmful to relationships because it can result in grudges, score-keeping and if turned inward, depression.
Sometimes passivity evolves into passive-aggressive behavior. An example of this: let's say that you don't own a dishwasher, and washing and drying dishes is your least favorite chore, but it's left to you time and again. You agree simply because you don't want to ruffle any feathers or have tension in the home. You've reluctantly washing those dirty dishes but you do it passive-aggressively: sloppily, spilling water all over and even breaking a glass or two. It's a substitute for 'Sure, I'll do it, but I'll punish you for asking me to.' This is a dishonest way to show anger and resentment, and may result in more drama than the situation calls for.
With assertive communication in the same scenario, you'd begin sentences with 'I' and say something to the effect of: 'I want to let you know that I am exhausted when I get home, so I'll do the dishes tonight, but perhaps someone else could do that particular chore from now on.' Or: 'I feel that I'm being asked to do something I just don't have the energy for, so maybe (fill in the blank) could wash the dishes tonight.' Or: 'I am so tired honey, but I'd like to help. How would it suit you if I put in a load of laundry and you washed dishes from now on?'
The aggressor, on the other hand, would simply fly off the handle, become defensive and loud/obnoxious, as in: 'I'm sick to death of coming home from work and having to do your chores. Why can't you wash them tonight; it's not like you're busier than I am! You always ask me to do extra things and I'm fed up; I worked all day too, you know! You're punishing me for not making enough money to buy a dishwasher!' That person stomps out, with nothing in their wake but hostility, bewilderment and frustration.
As you can see, the middle ground is nearly always the best approach: being assertive in our communication and intrapersonal skills is what allows us to hear and be heard, yet also offers compromise. This is achieved with sentences beginning with 'I feel.' rather than the blaming 'You always' or 'You never want to' or name-calling.
This is especially true when criticizing others or trying to bring about change. To begin a conversation with 'You're never available to.' or 'Why do I always have to be the one to' are not effective communication techniques and they set the tone for adverse, unhealthy confrontation.
To get someone to listen to what you have to say, remember that everyone - and I do mean everyone - is worthy of dignity and has a right to be treated with respect. As the saying goes: 'God didn't make no trash' and Jesus taught this endlessly. So try starting a potential confrontation with a genuine compliment. Pick the 'good' about the person, issue or thing. Don't be dishonest about it, be authentic, as in: 'I understand that you are tired when you come home, and dishwashing is probably the last thing you want to do, but I could really use a hand here.' Or in the workplace where a conflict exists, you could say, 'I can see you've worked really hard on this project and I appreciate it. There are a few areas that I'd like to discuss further with you when you get a chance. What is a good time for you to go over this with me?' Or 'This is creative, and you've obviously put a lot of thought into it, but it's different from what I'd imagined. I have some suggestions to make it even better.' This acknowledges their efforts, time and talents, and sends the message that you value them as a person - yet it also prepares them for changes.
Whenever possible, do this in private, the way Paul instructed church members to bring a matter of discrepancy before a leader: privately and one-on-one at first. Only if that fails do you bring in back-up (ie one or more who agree with you about the problem) and then only if you're certain that you're right/correct, and that the issue is harmful if not addressed. In other words, if you berate someone publicly - regardless of whether you're factually right - and in such a way that may imply you're speaking for everyone within earshot, of course that person will become defensive. And nothing productive comes from defensive or offensive confrontation. You're also teaching others that this is an acceptable way to resolve disagreements.
Be even-handed; after you'd had your say, listen closely to the other person and their perspective. Then repeat back to them what you think they said, so there will be no misunderstanding. Then you can reply - but always with a level, non-accusatory voice, arms relaxed, leaning forward slightly to show your interest, and looking them in the eye. These things let them know you're sincere in wanting to understand and resolve the issue. Folded arms and a bored or angry expression convey that you've already made up your mind, and aren't listening to anything more.
We all know people who delight in showing others the error of their ways and dispensing 'truth' as they believe it. Sometimes these negative critics are close family members or they may be friends, neighbors, cyber-friends, co-workers, employers, etc. They come in all colors, shapes, genders and sizes, and their main arsenal is the ability to sniff out your Achilles tendon. Often these people wield the truth as a sword, and feel they are The Judge of what is right and what is wrong, The moral defender, The one to whom others should defer. They give their opinion and unsolicited advice freely. Sometimes it's a way for that person to disguise their own imperfections, to redirect criticism onto another, to feel superior to others, or simply because they were raised by abrasive parents and only know how to communicate this way. This person is often the 'class bully' who, when stood up to will melt, relent, or storm off angry and defend their viewpoint to the death. The aggressive type personality can become downright abusive - verbally, physically or sexually - in close personal relationships where their partner (or underling/employee) is weaker or more easily controlled. (And they always seek out people they sense they can indeed control, or those who seem 'needy.') Abusers have a strong need to control everything and everyone around them, and it is a huge red flag. It's nearly impossible to reason with an aggressor-abuser; they 'listen' with arms folded in a 'get away' position, rarely making eye contact or shaking another's hand vigorously, are usually on the defensive and seem to shy away from those people they sense are honest and strong. Still, they can really do a number on your head if you are not firmly grounded in reality and/or the word of God. They will convince you that you deserve the abuse, that no one else would want you, that they're doing you a favor by 'correcting' you, and that you make poor decisions and need to be controlled. This borders on outright evil.
We all must ask ourselves if we really have a right to go around telling others what we think of them. We are not, in fact, The Judge. (That would be God.) And sometimes with dogmatic and aggressive people, we just have to walk away.
It doesn't have to end like that however; life is a classroom where we can all learn from each other every day, and we may be strong and weak in areas where others are weak and strong. But even in the 'classroom' we must play fair and with kindness, realizing that we haven't walked in another's shoes, and that our beliefs are not necessarily others' truths or perceptions, and that fairness is being assertive in communications, not passive or aggressive. And we must remember that even Jesus said: 'I have not come to judge the world, but to save it.' (And if that's not an admonition against judging others, I don't know what is. Yes, we're to be discerning as Christians, and to weed out those people in our lives who are hurtful and abusive - but not judgmental.) We must also walk with the humility that we may be, at any time, just plain wrong about an opinion or belief.
The first positive step when criticized is to not react emotionally or with anger. To do otherwise clouds your perspective and also brings you down to the critic's level - which is sometimes that of a child who's yet to learn restraint or one who must berate others intellectually in order to bolster their own egos. But regardless of how the critique is delivered (passive, assertive, or aggressive), it is often our response to it that matters most, and also offers teachable moments for all involved. We must assess the truths, if any, in what the person is communicating, despite how they may have phrased it. Perhaps they're right after all, that we often ask them to contribute more than they can comfortably give. Maybe we indeed need to check our facts or modify our words or behavior. Perhaps we're reacting dramatically because we see some truth in what the other person is saying - yet we don't like seeing that ugly side of ourselves.
Or maybe there is no truth to what that person is saying, yet arguing with the aggressor is likely to escalate the situation instead of resolving it. However, if the behavior is perceived to be a problem by the offended party, it must be addressed eventually. In this case, you might choose to say: 'I appreciate your input' or simply 'I hear you,' or even 'I'm sorry I upset you.' and leave it at that. (Interestingly, the aggressor will nearly always take this as your approval/agreement.)
My sister in law, a wonderfully spiritual and compassionate person. provides a great example to her co-workers and friends because of her ability to get what is needed to do her job, yet without any acrimony. She recently told me of a situation where a woman who has a volatile temperament and frequently yells and bullies others, screamed at my SIL one day. The way she quelled the situation was quite diplomatic: she asked this woman if they speak privately, and then behind closed doors, told her assertively: 'I can see that you're upset, however I will not allow myself to be verbally abused, and the next time you yell at me I will walk off.' The woman was speechless, and since that time other co-workers have had the courage to tell her the very same. What had once been a huge problem with morale at this company until my SIL joined is now a positive work environment. This woman is learning that she cannot be irate and still get her message across, so she's had to learn conversing with - instead of yelling at - her co-workers. The rewards of this is that she's often asked to eat lunch with the rest of the bunch now, invited to parties she'd previously been left out of, included in office conversations, and so on. And her co-workers are realizing that behind her anger, this woman has many sorrows and problems for which she needs support and uplifting. There is a lot of constructive dialogue going around the office now!
It would be grand if all conflict were resolved as neatly as this, but we all know that isn't the case. Some things will never be fully worked out; some people will never be our friends or see things the same way. Some people just rub us the wrong way, regardless of how we try to understand them, empathize, or use assertive communication techniques. This may be especially true in the workplace, where jobs are scarce these days and we may have a boss with whom we vehemently disagree or dislike, but don't have standing to confront. That's ok too; he/she is the boss, after all, and sometimes with brow-beaters like this we must 'grin and bear it' or risk job loss. And the one signing our paychecks does, after all, have a right to get things done his/her way, whether we agree or not.
In our personal lives however, we do have choices about who we spend our time with - and with prayer and discernment we can surround ourselves with positive, honest, encouraging, caring and genuine people.
To live with anger and conflict in our hearts is to bathe with discord instead of harmony, and to bear sour fruit. We can choose to take the emotions out of an indignant dialogue, and react only to the changes requested or required. We're only accountable to God for our own behavior; we cannot control anyone else's. Sometimes we end up agreeing to disagree, but even this can usually be achieved with respect instead of condemnation, bitterness, condescension or angst.
Hurtful words and actions are like nails hammered into a fencepost. We can remove them (ie apologize) but the holes (ie damage) remain. If enough holes are in the fencepost, it will eventually weaken and splinter. Even when dealing with irrational people, those who are just plain angry and sullen, and non-Christians or others who might now 'fight fair' we can and should still be respectful and polite. In fact, you'll notice an effective tool used by law enforcement and psychologists to de-escalate an unstable situation, is to speak so softly that the other person has to stop ranting in order to hear you.
Paul summarized it best when cautioning the Ephesians (4:29) who were quarreling over petty issues: 'don't let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who hear.' So as Christians, let's not tear each other down, but rather uplift one another, and encourage our fellow brethren along this journey called life! Amen.
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