By David Hegg
Have you ever encountered this scenario? Someone comes to you with a gripe. There are really mad at you for something and as they begin berating you it is apparent they just don’t have the facts.
So, you jump in with “that’s not true at all! In fact, you don’t know the whole story! You are taking my words and actions out of context and twisting them into something horrible. I thought we were friends. Friends don’t do that to one another. I can’t believe you’d do such a thing …” and on and on.
Pretty soon the original gripe is forgotten as two people engage in a bitter battle, hurling words like daggers at the heart. Days later when you each try to explain what happened, it will be about the process, with the original charge all but forgotten.
I have been on both sides of this. And while being the target of unfair criticism is unsettling, I have found greater regret when I got offended to quickly, assumed too much, and charged boldly into accusations without knowing all the facts. Life and conflict are seldom as simple as we assume.
It is all too easy to fire up our anger based on half-truths, gossip and innuendo. We end up extrapolating meager evidence into outrageous conclusions that drive us into relational conflict, armed with mean-spirited, hurtful words. And it is simply a “no-win” situation. If we realize, on hearing the rest of the story, that we’ve been wrong in our assessment, the humiliation is hard to swallow. But if our criticism is met with anger and resentment, we end up injuring a relationship and even losing a friend.
So what to do? I have found that using three simple words is a much better option. Let’s say you come to think that someone else is being hurtful to you or harmful to others. Or maybe you hear about a decision that was made that seems wrong-headed. Instead of beginning to weave your own tapestry of what and why, approach the person in question and make a simple request. “Help me understand …”
It might be, “Help me understand if what I heard about the decision is true, and help me understand the thinking behind it.” Or, “Help me understand what you were trying to do when you …” Or, “Help me understand why so and so is telling folks that you said …” You get the point.
The reason behind this approach is so simple, but so good. Making this request frames the discussion as a mutual pursuit of truth rather than assignment of blame. Few of us react well when accused without the chance to give our side of the story. Nobody likes that kind of surprise. And most of us aren’t at our best when charged and convicted in the court of someone’s mind. We lash out, and that only exacerbates the situation, and the war is on.
But pursuing truth in a reasonable, unbiased way will also mean learning to keep our emotions in check until we actually have all the facts. It will mean shunning gossip, avoiding ungrounded conclusions, and restraining our natural tendency to think the worst of people and situations.
When we seek first to understand, we are allowing others the opportunity we would want for ourselves if the situation were reversed. Approaching others with a winsome and sincere desire to understand rather than condemn is the noble and virtuous way to start. After all, dealing with conflict honorably is foundational to healthy relationships.
Conflict is inevitable. We are different, from different backgrounds, with different views, preferences, experiences and values. These differences crash into one another, and life gets tense. The most natural response is anger, invective and bitterness. But those who deal with differences differently end up happier, with much less regret, and overall healthier lives. And I think that’s pretty easy to understand.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.