Friday, March 27, 2015

The Art of Understanding is Not a One Way Street

Did you ever wonder what causes misunderstandings and comments being taken the wrong way?

I have a theory that the cause is presuppositions.

Let’s say we have a conversation with someone. And we say something and, unbeknownst to us, the person we’re talking to becomes hurt or offended. But the person never asks for clarification as to what was actually meant by our comment. They just assume, based on their presuppositions at the time, that something untoward was just aimed at them!

By presuppositions I mean, “a thing tacitly assumed beforehand” (online dictionary).

Presuppositions can easily be entangled with some sort of personal vulnerability. For instance, if we have put on a few pounds, and are not happy about it (and who ever is?) and someone says something like, “I remember how much you love ice cream,” we instantly hear, “My, you’ve put on a few pounds!” Or, if we are financially strapped and someone says, “We just bought a boat. Just shows what you can do when you develop a good savings plan and put a little away each month.”  In our minds we hear, “Too bad you never learned to manage your money.”

It happens with world views as well. If someone is unsure of what they believe about anything: religion, faith, God, Jesus, at-home moms, working moms, at-home dads, homeschool, public school, etc. then anything said positively about the worldview we are not currently in can be taken out of context. And by that I mean we take it in our context. 

This is where the old adage “walk in another man’s shoes” or “put yourself in their place” or “try to see things from their perspective” can save the day. We tend to forget that we are not the only ones living in a context! Other people are living in a context as well, and we need to keep their context in mind to ward off taking everything personally.

This is how relationships become strained and even end: taking things too personally or out of context, and failing to take into account that others most likely are not aware of our sore spots. When we neglect to ask a simple question, such as, “What did you mean by that?” entire friendships can come crashing down.

Here’s the other thing: if two people have a good relationship, and both have solid track records of being folks of integrity, why do we often let one statement cause us to so quickly think ill of the other? Why, when our friend or loved one has said so many encouraging and supportive words over the years, do we jump to the worst conclusion about them over a few words that we may not have properly understood (words, again, that we didn’t take time to have clarified)? 

Why do we so quickly think the worst of people who are usually, if not always, sincerely seeking our best? (and if we don’t have this proven track record, it still doesn’t let us off the hook for further clarification). These are questions we need to be asking ourselves to discover the root of our proclivity.

Peace and unity in the Body of Christ is often tripped up over these sorts of misunderstandings. We take something said by someone we have always had a high regard for and a good relationship with and on short notice think the worst of them: we insult them with our thinking that they would somehow be out to hurt us or convict us, when most likely they have no such intent. Again, it is more likely our presuppositions, our context and our sensitivity that is the real problem.

I believe prideful and defensive reactions often come from a place of insecurity. I know they have come from that place in me. When I am not sure in my own thinking, my vulnerability spills over to the feeling that I’m being judged or found fault with. That’s when I’m most likely to take something someone said or did out of context, and in my haste and hurt feelings never follow up. It’s much easier to simply write that person off, give them the silent treatment, hold a grudge and find a new friend (or retreat from the world altogether).

Christ is doing an amazing work in me to correct this, according to his teaching in James 1:19-20:

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

Quick to listen doesn’t mean quick to read into what someone else is saying, or quick to hear what is playing in our own head in response to what we are hearing from someone else. No. Quick to listen means looking at the person (or reading their words if using social media or mail) and give their words our full attention. And be in a conversation with those words, which means follow up, gently, with questions right away.

Many mountains could have remained sidewalk anthills or flat land altogether if a little further dialogue had taken place in cool, calm, patience and with the sincere desire to properly understand one another.

But, one might ask, "What about those people with whom we can never do anything right, those who are always finding fault, those who can’t seem to break out of a pattern of always criticizing but never complementing, praising or supporting? What about them!!?"

I would say that it is only right and natural for us to take everything they say with a grain of salt, to “consider the source,” and don’t spend any more time with them than we have to. Comments from these folks, as hurtful as they can be (and very clear in their intent), aren’t worth losing sleep over, though many of us still do. I think it would indeed be beneficial to ask for clarification from these folks as well, because they are usually never asked to explain themselves; never held to account for their habitually brash words (it might help us to keep our blood pressure down as well). Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) by holding them accountable through a request for clarification might just be what they need to start being more careful about how they speak in the future.

But for the most part, someone who is known for their freely and vehemently stated strong opinions, insensitivity and gossip is not who I am talking about in this essay on misunderstandings.

When it comes to dialoguing with others, then—and email and social media can make it very difficult—I believe we can improve our communication skills, and thereby reduce misunderstandings, by simply asking for more information.

We also need to check our vulnerability at the door and end the cycle of being so quick to feel hurt or attacked. We need to recognize the areas in our life where we find ourselves susceptible to jumping to conclusions, and ask ourselves why? Why are we so easily wounded in these areas? Why do we feel attacked by what are actually very innocent comments spoken by others? Why do we feel people are out to get us when they aren’t? These are questions we can easily take to the Lord and He will give us insight.

Pastor Chuck Swindoll said a great thing in one of his sermons: he said that one time a woman came up to him after a sermon, all in a huff. She took him to task for something he had said. He kindly responded to her, “Well, miss, if I was preaching into the well and you were in the bottom of it, then so be it” (not an exact quote, I’m writing it from memory).

That quote jumped out at me because I recognized myself in it immediately (as the lady in a huff!). How many of us, when we start to find fault with someone, realize it is because the person said something that is absolutely true? It’s what’s called “hitting a nerve.” We don’t like the person for being right, and as we all know, the truth hurts! And so instead of letting that truth take us to higher ground, we turn on the person who spoke truth and make it their problem!

How many of us have not liked something someone said out of justification for our own opinion, outlook, worldview, attitude or behavior? 

The leader of my first Bible study matter-of-factly commented on my being consistently late for our meetings. Oh, the anger that welled up in me at her statement; the “how dare shes!” that protested from my self-righteous heart! I left her house that day promising myself I would never return. But, as I drove home, and her words sank in, I knew she was right. And I became convinced, too, that God was speaking a truth through her that I desperately needed to hear, because I wasn’t just late for Bible study; lateness was in every part of my life, and encroaching into my children’s lives as well.

By the time I got home, I was done licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself and I reluctantly agreed with God that my lateness had to stop. And it did. All because a woman I respected, in a very non-dramatic manner, made mention of my sin: being late. And my entire life, and that of my kids, was instantly better because of it.

Beware of twinges of conviction that we quickly transpose into animosity toward others: if we pay attention and deal with the conviction by going to God with it, we will be so much better for it, and we’ll have the person whose words initially stung us to thank.

Not everything everyone says need be taken the wrong way if we simply follow up with questions and further dialogue, and remember our own vulnerability. Some words, when they prick, may have truth in them that God is sending our way as a correction (God disciplines the ones he loves, Hebrews 12:6).

We also need to honor a friend or loved one who has a proven track record with us by not allowing a comment or remark of theirs to negate all of their past love and support. Again, how would we feel if someone we love did that to us?

When it comes to interpersonal interaction, none of us are mind readers (not everyone “should have known better” because not everyone knows what I know in my head!). It’s up to us to use our God-given discernment to attain understanding. If we’re not willing to ask for clarification, then we have no right to blame or malign other people for something they may, or may not, have said.

We all want to be understood by the other person. We need to remember, though, that the other person also wants to be rightly understood by us. The art of understanding is not a one-way street.

copyright Barb Harwood

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians 4:1-2

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:12-13

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