A friend of mine, Carole Jensen, sent me an interesting discussion chain a while back in which several people were addressing the importance of respectful communication, even (or especially) when the subject matter is emotionally-charged. A woman who owns a secular publishing company specializing in homeschool materials had received several death threats as well as phone messages warning that she will “burn in Hell” for publishing a science curriculum for grades k-2 which introduces them to the concept of evolution. The woman lamented,
I am willing to sit down with anyone and exchange ideas and to respectfully disagree, whether it is in respect to evolution, religion, or which laundry soap does the best job on grass stains. Clearly, there are those who cannot respectfully disagree and must resort to insults, threats, or worse. Do I wish those who have sent us threatening messages would be willing to sit down and share viewpoints and agree to disagree, while we still keep an open mind to actually hear the other’s point of view? Of course, but I just don’t see it happening outside of my safe UU [community].
Another woman noted that even UU congregations are not always the havens of religious tolerance they claim to be: “In my congregation . . . something will happen or something is said that causes our theist/Christian members to feel hurt, offended, and/or marginalized. In the cases I’m specifically thinking of, the hurt and offense was not necessarily deliberate — the person wasn’t going out of their way to hurt anyone, but nonetheless hurt was caused.”
Reading their words made me want to consider, once again, what constitutes respectful communication—safe, “save face” communication–that is a foundational building block for meaningful and enduring relationships.
Here’s what I came up with:
I guess the key to being respectful is to “own” our opinions and allow others the right to own and explain theirs.
It involves remembering that ‘what appears true to me may not appear true to you’–as well as the more obvious converse. It is based on the recognition that what people need more than the conformity of our convictions is the loyalty of our love and our willingness to hear them out. Respectful communication inspires compassion in human relations, and keeps people from demonizing one another.
Disrespectful, offensive language
“You deserve to die for what you’re doing! You better watch your back because, as Revelation 18:21 states, ‘with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.’” (speaking to the publisher)
“You’re insane to believe God would try to test faith by placing dinosaur bones from other planets on earth!! Didn’t you go to school?!” (speaking to the “young earth” believer)
“You will go to Hell for publishing anything supportive of evolution! ‘Better that a millstone be hanged about his neck than that he should offend one of these little ones!’” (speaking to the publisher)
Respectful, tentative language
“I think it is damaging to teach evolution to children. I can’t imagine there being any benefit to telling children that humans came from apes. Would you be willing to explain to me your perspective? I’m baffled.” (speaking to the publisher)
“What makes you distrust carbon dating?” (speaking to the “young earth” believer)
“Do you feel concerned that God will judge you someday for eroding the faith of children with this curriculum? I’m a little worried for your salvation.” (speaking to the publisher)
“Owning” our statements, our perspective, and asking open-ended questions is much more palatable to others than condescending remarks that assume one reality only. Simplistic platitudes which leave little to no room for debate tend to silence the meek, anger the assertive, and put off those used to more equitable exchanges. (Teenagers especially hate “one-reality” answers. It is very frustrating for them to hear, by way of explanation, “. . . because that’s the way things are around here.” It is much more respectful—though time consuming–to share with them a broader picture of an issue: “ . . . because, honestly, I don’t feel like it’s a good idea. It sets a bad precedent—an unhealthy habit—which I would hate to encourage. But I can see you have strong feelings about this. I’m willing to listen to your thoughts, though I’m not promising I’ll change my mind.” etc.)
It’s fairly easy to talk about effective communication strategies, but it’s another thing to catch oneself at the point of departure. Last night I felt tempted to “correct” one of my children who shared an opinion with me. I began to counter her comment but, thankfully, soon noticed her body language—her emotional reaction—and switched gears from correcting to inviting: “You seem to be really concerned about that, [daughter]. Can you tell me why that bothers you so much? I’m ready to listen.” What she shared with me was enlightening—I learned much about one of her current struggles, of which I’d been oblivious—and I was stunned to think that I would have missed out on that relevant information, and the opportunity to grow our relationship through our discourse, if I had just proceeded with my retort to her opinion. There is an opportunity cost to being pedantic, preachy, or absolutely obstinate in our conversations: failure to learn from and understand others.
Making soft, “safe” statements invites sharing and inspires mutual understanding. Ideally, we’d all learn to say, “I love you and value you. This is my understanding, but feel free to share your perspective with me if you think there’s more to the story.”