In the course of one day, I observed or participated in three conversations that escalated from a calm exchange to a tense, emotional conflict. As I watched the dialogue unfold, at some point the communication crossed a line and it became heated. Thinking back to each scenario, I wish that I or the other persons involved had chosen to hold our tongue. I’ve wondered, “How do I know when to put a sock in my mouth and be quiet?”
Here’s what I have decided:
I need to hold my tongue when speaking out of anxiety. One of the conversations involved a young woman who shared with a small group about her own struggle to forgive. She honestly admitted she hadn’t forgiven someone, couldn’t forgive him or her, and wouldn’t forgive him or her. As she acknowledged this, an older woman in the group quickly pounced, insisting that she must because, after all, Jesus forgave her. It was clear that the young woman’s honest confession made the older woman feel anxious. As expected, once the woman spoke, the young woman shut down, feeling totally missed.
When we speak out of anxiety, what we don’t understand is our anxiety says more about us than it does the person to whom we are reacting. It says that something about what he or she is saying makes us feel afraid, even shameful, and the need to hide. In this case, the older woman likely had fear that to admit one’s inability and unwillingness to forgive would invoke God’s displeasure and/or rejection. She felt unsettled and insistent that this young woman hide her true feelings or change them immediately!
I need to hold my tongue when speaking out of defensiveness. Another conversation involved me and someone close to me. This person berated a broad group of people of whom I belong—she attacked Christians. As I listened to her angry and condemning evaluation, I felt lumped in with those with whom she expressed disdain. I felt defensive and began to push back, totally missing this person and the hurt and pain she felt from experiences with Christian people. In my aggressive stance, I poked at her the way I felt poked at. In the end, I overlooked her, someone I dearly love.
When we speak out of defensiveness, we construct a shield that we use as a battering ram. We take what is being said personally, when it may not be intended to be at all, and we begin to shove back. Though I don’t think she intended these comments for me, because I took them that way, I gave up the chance to explore with her the pain and hurt she felt because my focus became all about me.
I need to hold my tongue when speaking out of anger. You’ve probably heard it said that anger is a secondary emotion—it conceals the true feeling beneath the anger, like hurt or betrayal. In the final conversation, I was a listener, as a friend described an encounter with one of her young adult kids. She needed to have a hard conversation and knew it would not be productive if she spoke out of her anger. She got in touch with her core feeling, which was hurt, and proceeded to share with this son. The conversation began well, opened up the relationship, and then suddenly “went south” when her son reacted to something she said. Unfortunately, both their emotions broke lose and the conversation was killed.
My friend had the right instinct. Speaking out of anger is dangerous because anger becomes a weapon to hurt back. When we feel anger rising up within us, it tells us there is hurt underneath. Expressing that we are hurt feels very vulnerable. So, we choose to use anger to protect our wounded heart. When we feel anger during a conversation, it’s a good time to take a breather or otherwise damaging words will fly. And then the conflict escalates with even more collateral damage.
Obviously, you and I must become aware of our feelings in order to notice anxiety, defensiveness and anger. Emotions are a window into one's heart and provide a warning light that something is going on inside us. When you notice one of these tell-tale feelings, a word to the wise: put a sock in your mouth! It gives some space to observe what you are feeling and to listen to the other person—an action for which you will be glad.