How we communicate with others is very important. I have the privilege of working with people who are going through difficult times. Some of these people are able to talk about those difficulties with grace and compassion. Others communicate their pain in ways that hurt the people with whom they are in relationship.
Those in the latter category typically transfer their pain to others.
The problem is, this does not work. The pain does not go away. It multiplies.
Let’s listen in on one typical conversation.
Bill: Carol, you seem like something is wrong. Are you ok?
Carol: I told you last week that this week was going to be rough. I have a big project due at work and I feel overwhelmed with everything I have to do here at home. How can you ask if I am ok? You ought to know that I am not ok.
Bill: Bite my head off, why don’t you? I am trying to talk with you and understand what is going on and in return you slam me. I should have stayed at work and done something productive instead of coming home to this.
Carol: That would be your norm, staying away and taking care of yourself. I need you to help out and do the laundry. I not only have to work to help with the finances, but all the housework falls to me. The least you could do is to do the laundry this week. You tell me that you love me, but the way you behave doesn’t show much love.
Bill: (he becomes silent and looks up at the ceiling.)
Carol: There you go. Once again you disappear and leave me alone.
Does this sound at all familiar?
Bill and Carol have history and have built their relationship over time. This fight is not the whole of their relationship, but it is becoming more common over time. Each fight reinforces their fears and deepens their expectation of impending attacks. More and more they distance from each other and they brace for fights when they are together.
There is hope for Bill and Carol.
Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love. Some of us speak truth without love. Some of us do not speak at all. How we speak, or do not speak, is actually diagnostic. We can see what is going on inside us as we think through our conversations. What we do is often a true description of our goals.
Bill saw that Carol was upset. He engaged with her and tried to communicate his concern. But, and this is a big but, he had not listened well in the previous conversations. He was present in the moment. He also needs to be present over time.
Carol erupted with complaints when she realized that Bill was unaware of her struggles with her demanding schedule. Things went downhill from there.
Bill and Carol can do a couple of things that will help them transform their relationship. The first is to do the hard work of understanding their goals. The second is learning the skill of constructive communication.
Both Bill and Carol are trying to deal with their pain. This conversation shows that each is hurt and that what they are focused on is how to manage their pain. They are, at the moment in a very focused place and their words and actions seem to be intended to minimize the impact of their pain. At least to minimize the pain for themselves. If we only focus on one goal we can move toward accomplishing it, but once we have accomplished that goal we will likely realize that we have missed, and probably set back accomplishing other goals that are perhaps even more important.
In this exchange, both Bill and Carol have focused on their own pain. As they speak to each other they are dealing with the pain they feel and expressing it to each other. They are not doing anything to help the other deal with their pain. To get away from the heat of the frying pan, they have jumped into the greater heat of the fire.
In dealing with pain, it cannot be “every man for himself.”
If I create more pain for others, I cannot escape that pain myself. If I hurt you, you will in turn feel the desire to hurt me. This has to be stopped, and I am the one in control of what I do. I would be selfish to wait for you to stop what I can stop.
Our goals need to be clear, and as comprehensive as we are able to make them. In a difficult conversation my goals, in light of Philippians 2, need to include caring for you and not just for me. In Peacemaker Ken Sande presents an helpful tool he calls the PA– USE principle. This includes a step of understanding all of what we both want. This becomes a great starting point for understanding the goals we should keep in mind as we talk and act.
Secondly, how we talk constructively is also very important. In current studies on a counseling methodology called “Emotional Intelligence Therapy” the importance of how we talk with each other has become clear. If my goal is to care for you in the process of dealing with caring for myself, how I speak will demonstrate my care for you. I will not speak in ways that bring you pain. I will cover all the same issues that we need to cover to bring resolution, but I will speak them differently. Rather than say “Bite my head off why don’t you?” I would say “I am not sure what I did to hurt you, but I do want to let you know that I feel attacked by your response.”
The skill of letting the other person know what we are hearing, feeling, and trying to say is a critically important skill in building relationships. Our focus in this way of communicating is to help the other person know me and what I am experiencing in a way that allows them to share themselves and what they are experiencing. We want to communicate this without any criticism or contempt.
I can honestly know what I am experiencing. I can have a careful observation of what you do, or do not do. I cannot know what you feel, think, or what your motives are, unless I ask and you tell me. Consequently, if I do not act on the assumptions I have about you, I show you respect when I ask you to tell me what is going on inside of you. I also show the wisdom that comes from knowing what I do not know.
One word of caution. It is very easy to think that I am asking questions to know you, and sharing only what I know and experience, when I am instead living with assumptions. This is a skill that takes time to develop and master. It also takes outside observers to help us understand not only what we think we are communicating, but, what we are actually communicating. God has created us to live in relationships, and this is one very big example of why we need others.
Feel free to write with questions on this topic. I will try to answer them.