Discussing How We Discuss Things

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A husband and wife come in for marriage counseling. Things are falling apart. They should have come in long ago but here they are and things don’t look good. She never apologizes. He always gets what he wants. She doesn’t feel like he cares about her. He never tells her that he loves her.   That isn’t anything new. He was never big on words from the beginning. He doesn’t feel very respected. She constantly brings up things from the past, expects him to read her mind, and berates him constantly. That’s what they are telling the counselor anyway. They are talking past each other, over each other…no one is listening, except the counselor.

What she hears is that they are hurt. It is a vicious cycle that must be broken but they just don’t know how. If they keep doing what they have been doing things aren’t going to get any better. At first they were too proud to see a marriage counselor but things have gotten so bad that they know if they don’t do something soon they will get a divorce. Where do they go from here?

John Gottman, who is a long time researcher on marital stability has written extensively on marriage and predicting divorce. One of his findings is that by examining the way a couple argues he can predict whether or not they will get a divorce with 91% accuracy. If you want to read a more lengthy summary of his findings you can read it or download it via this pdf. Here are his predictive factors:

1 – A Harsh Startup: “96% of the time the way a discussion begins can predict the way it will end.”

2 – The Four Horsemen: These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling (read the article for further description of these four things and things escalate)

3 – Flooding: This is when the negativity hits extreme levels that makes the other person shut down, withdraw or entrench further into their position.

4 – Body Language: This is when your body physically reacts to the emotions you are experiencing, making a productive conversation even more difficult to happen.

5 – Failed Repair attempts: Someone finally tries to reconcile but the other party won’t participate.

6 – Bad Memories: This is an inaccurate memory of the past, assuming things have always been this bad. Once the past can no longer be remembered for what it was (recognizing the good things that happened) things are in real trouble.

This is all about a marriage relationship but I think these same principles apply in how we argue as Christians. The way we talk with each other is important. I see these warning signs flashing all over Christian conversations…it should alarm us. This is not healthy. People are talking past each other, reading each other’s minds, implying motives of each other’s actions where we have no real knowledge it is true.

We need some counseling in order to save the relationships we have in Christ. I don’t claim to be that counselor but I know someone who can guide us into having this discussion well and that is Jesus. There were times Jesus was critical of others. There were times he escalated the conversation. There were times, I am sure, his body language was less than gentle. But, this was not how Jesus was generally speaking and Jesus was always interested in reconciling with people and people with God. Jesus had a way of disarming people, not making them defensive. Those who were defensive around Jesus had other issues going on.

Let us be aware of the warning signs that our conversations and relationships with others are in danger. Pay attention. Be willing not to point these things out in others…that is the temptation is to think he is the problem or she is the problem. No. They may be but you can’t do anything about that. All you can do is recognize these same tendencies, behaviors and attitudes in your own life, ministry, conversations and relationships and do your best to rid yourself of them. So don’t assume it is the “other side” that has the problem. It is rarely the case that the problem rests on only one side of a relationship and that is true in theological discussions as well.

Let us deal with each other believing these relationships are worth saving, maintaining and growing because they are. Let us not allow labels to get in between us and other Christians. Let us not perpetuate stereotypes but deal with real people in real time in Christ-like, God-honoring ways.

So let’s discuss how we discuss things. Until we do that we will keep running in circles in the downward spiral of failed Christian relationships. No one wants that so why do we keep perpetuating it? As with a difficult marriage, someone is going to have to instigate a better approach. I hope we can start that conversation now. Maybe the first words that need to come out of our mouths are, “I am sorry.”

If you have a moment, read the rest of the summary of Gottman’s findings, it will shed a lot more light on how we discuss things and I think you will find it beneficial for this discussion but also for any relationship you have. Here is that link again.

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