“Safe”–save face–communication

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.

Fictional examples:

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.”

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A fantastic love scene

I’ve heard it said, “Love is a verb.” I like that better than the idea “Love is a feeling.” Passionate feelings come and go–they’re cyclical—but true love, per my definition, is constant, devoted commitment to the happiness and wellbeing of one’s chosen.  It is an emotional bond grown of shared experience, respect, and intimacy.  It is manifest in small, daily acts of caring.  It feels good, yes, but that is the fruit of living love.

One of my favorite love scenes is one I saw played out in my grandparents’ nursing home bedroom a few weeks before Grandpa died. Grandma had dementia and could not take good care of herself. A multitude of bed sores were now on her legs. I had come to visit them with my children, and while there we witnessed the ultimate image of devoted love: Grandpa–himself dying of cancer yet ever the dutiful husband–slowly leaning his frail, emaciated body over toward his beloved to dab ointment on her sores. No matter his own discomfort, he wanted to take care of his wife of 69 years. Thank you, Grandpa Edward, for your example.  Kindness, to me, is the epitome of love.

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Enemy lost

Jim* was a tall, assertive, somewhat intimidating man who lived across the street and down a couple of houses from the home which my husband and I had recently purchased. After becoming acquainted with the neighbors, I soon noticed and appreciated the care with which Jim, his wife and kids cared for their lawn and flower beds. I was impressed with how clean they kept his large pick-up truck and trailer. I was pleased to learn that the family attended church faithfully. However, I was perplexed that whenever I attempted to make eye contact to greet him, or whenever I waved at him as he drove by, he never returned the salutation. He’d act as if I wasn’t even there.

This hurt my feelings, of course. I tried to imagine what I had done to offend him or cause him to lose respect for me. ‘Do I testify too long and too often in church? Is he put off by my frequent comments in Sunday School? Does he have some personal reservations against people who homeschool?’ I couldn’t be sure, but it was troubling and painful to always be given the cold shoulder.

After several months of this—during which time I never gave up on saying Hi whenever I saw him—I devised a plan. I’d heard it said that

the best way to lose an enemy is to make him your friend.

Having no reason not to like and be-friend this man, other than his inexplicable indifference toward me, I decided to give the truism a try. Figuring that the problem lay in his not knowing me well, I decided to invite him and his family to dinner so we would get the chance to visit and become better acquainted. His wife was always sweet to me. Maybe Jim could learn to enjoy me, too.

Feeling rather nervous (because I hate confrontation), I called his number. I had hoped his wife would answer the phone, but no such luck. Gulp! “Uh—Hi, Jim. This is Shaunalei Andersen. I don’t know if you guys are busy next Monday, but my family and I would like to invite you, Selma*, and the girls to dinner at our house. I thought I’d make Navajo tacos, if that sounds good to you.”

This was so awkward. What should I expect from this guy who refused to even look at me? A flat out “No”? The excuse “We’re busy”? A rude “We’re not interested”? What?! Since I was throwing this at him out of the blue, how would he react?

“Navajo tacos?! I love Navajo tacos. Let me talk to Selma to make sure we don’t have anything going on.”

“Thanks, Jim. That’ll be awesome if you can. I’ll talk to you soon.” We hung up. Yes!

Monday night, our two families sat down to eat. I had prepared not just by making scones and chili, but also by thinking of subjects of conversation which might interest Jim—such as “What should we look for when deciding upon a camping trailer?” (We were hoping to acquire one in the next year.) Jim seemed to really enjoy himself! He was chatty and engaging; such a contrast from his former coldness. Watching us all have a pleasant meal together, an onlooker would never have suspected that this man had been ignoring me for months.

After that experience, whenever Jim saw me coming down the hall at church, he was the one to go out of his way to lean over (making sure I saw him) to say Hello. Each time I was outside when he drove by, he would wave in my direction. Our families didn’t become bosom friends after that, but the cordiality and friendship that came to exist between us as neighbors was gladdening to my soul.

In my mind, it was a miracle. I had lost an enemy and gained a friend!

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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