Confrontation: Handle With Care
“I hate you!”
“I hate you too!”
Ouch! Too many of our “conversations” turn into confrontations, and then degenerate into shouting matches. After it’s all over, neither side feels very good. These battles can be bruising—and even deadly.
How can a spiritual perspective help us to communicate well both with those we love and with those we consider enemies?
We start by working on developing direct and caring communication with those we are closest to. After all, if we can’t communicate well with our friends and lovers, how will we ever communicate well with our enemies? Good communication takes time and effort. But it also pays big dividends in closer and deeper relationships, and a happier life.
When we find ourselves in situations of conflict and confrontation, the skills and practice we have gained in communicating well during the good times can turn what could have been a breakup or a war into an opportunity for spiritual and interpersonal growth.
It all starts with developing love and respect both for our friends and for our enemies. Yes, we are commanded to love our enemies! Developing respect for them can be even trickier. But the rewards of doing so are well worth the effort.
Direct, Caring Communication
Our lives are filled with communication. We talk to the people around us at home, at work, at play. In our technological society we have vast, intricate systems of communication that keep us in touch with people all around the world, as well as with our friends and lovers.
With so much time and money going into communication, it must be a vital part of our lives. And it is not only vital to our material existence in this physical and social world of ours. It is also vital to our spiritual life.
A spiritual perspective can also lift up and deepen all of our communication, whether it is about material or spiritual things.
What does it mean to practice direct and caring communication—especially with people and in situations where we might have a hard time communicating at all, let alone in a direct and caring way?
Love and Respect
Before we look at times of conflict and confrontation, we’ll consider what communication is all about in better times, with the people we are close to. If we can’t engage in direct and caring communication under these circumstances, we will certainly not be able to do so during times of tension. On the other hand, if we do practice direct and caring communications during our better times, it may be just the practice we need to communicate well under difficult circumstances.
There are many different factors in direct and caring communication—more than we could possibly cover in this short piece. However, two of them are so basic that without them, none of the others make any difference. Those two are love and respect for the other person.
Though love and respect are related to each other, they are not the same. We can love someone that we don’t respect, such as a close family member who, through stubbornness and bad choices, has made a mess of his or her life. We can also respect someone that we do not love, such as a boss who is very competent and professional, but lacks a sense of warmth and caring.
Love is something we do with our heart. It may be conditional or unconditional, but the most genuine form of love is unconditional. We love our children whether they make good or bad choices. And like a parent, God loves us whether we make our bed in heaven or in hell, to use the Biblical phrase (Psalm 139:8).
Respect is something we do with our head. When we recognize skill or integrity or some other good quality in another person, it makes an impression on our minds. Because of that, we give him or her respect.
Communication in Close Quarters
The best conditions for direct and caring communication are when we are with people that we both love and respect. Our love for them gives us a strong desire to communicate with them—to share with them our thoughts and feelings, our ideas, aspirations, and concerns. Our respect for them prompts us to share these things in the best way we know. When we are with people we respect, we put all the clarity and depth that we can into the things we say to them—or that we communicate to them in non-verbal ways, such as through a gesture, a touch, a hug.
It is especially important to have open, direct, and caring communication with the people in our everyday life. The members of our family; the people we work with each day—these people form the core of our interrelated world. Without direct and caring communication we do come into contact with these people, but we do not really touch them, nor do they touch us. With direct and caring communication, we share ourselves with each other; we share both our minds and our hearts. In this way, we form a network of mutual support and care that adds richness and depth to our lives, and keeps us going through our more difficult times.
The Care of Communication
We may think that good communication just happens automatically. That is a big mistake. As too many of us have found out, it is possible to spend days, months, or years in the same home or workplace with each other, and still be like strangers. We get caught up in our own work, our own hobbies, our own concerns, and before we realize what has happened, we no longer know the people that we share our daily lives with.
One of the first things we must do to have direct and caring communications is to make time for it. We may think we have too many things to do; that we couldn’t possibly carve the time out of our day just to “sit around and talk.” However, that is a decision we make. Of course we have work to do. Of course we have hobbies and other interests. It’s a question of priorities. How important are our relationships to us? Are they as important as our work? Are they as important as our sports or hobbies?
When we opt not to take the time to communicate with the people around us, we are making a decision that those people are not as important to us as the other things we do. We may not want to recognize it, but when something is important to us, we devote time to it. Are the people around us really important to us?
If we pay close attention to the things we devote our time to, we’ll learn what we truly consider important. It’s also worth paying attention to the things we do not devote our time to. Perhaps we assure ourselves that we care. But if we really do care, we will express it by making sure that a good chunk of our time is spent with the people we say we care for. If not, we are in danger of losing what we profess to love. All too many divorces and breakups come after a long history of neglect.
The positive side is that if we do care enough to make time for sharing and communication—and for simply spending time together doing things we enjoy, or pursuing interests we have in common—our relationships with the people we love or work with will continue to grow stronger and deeper. There is no end to the levels of connection and trust we can achieve if we devote ourselves to a relationship in this way. Once we have felt the deep rewards of sharing honesty and love with others, we will wonder how we could ever not have taken the time to build up this wonderful kind of relationship.
Let’s return to our consideration of love and respect. At its core, love applies to all, and it brings everyone together into connection and unity. Respect is a function of truth, which distinguishes between good and bad, better and worse.
This presents us with a problem. I said earlier that without love and respect for the other person, we might as well forget about direct and caring communication. But what if we have no respect for the person we are attempting to communicate with?
When we don’t respect someone, we usually don’t think that person is worth the effort it takes to combine directness (meaning honesty) with caring. In fact, there may be reasons we do not want to be honest at all, such as a fear that the other person will use against us, or against people that we care about, any information we may provide. So how can we possibly have direct and caring communication with someone we don’t respect?
This is where our communication skills are put to the test.
But it is more than our communication skills that are being tested. It is our willingness to love others as we love ourselves. What is being tested is our ability to care about and love others even when we have a hard time respecting them. If we can’t find it in our hearts to love the people that we are in a confrontation with, we will never be able to find enough respect for them to serve as a basis for direct and caring communication.
Love Our Enemies?
It may seem like too much to ask that we should love the people that we see as enemies. But this is exactly what the Bible commands us to do. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
It is easy to love those who love us; it is very difficult to love those who hate and abuse us . . . or those whom we think hate and abuse us. Yet compelling ourselves to heed the Biblical command and find some scrap of love for our enemies is the starting point for handling confrontations with care.
It’s a Matter of Perspective
When there is a conflict, our perspective is not the only one. In fact, we may not have a good perspective on our own part in the conflict.
Even when we are partially or wholly in the wrong, we tend to blame the other person for the difficulties and conflict between us. However, we may simply be projecting our own wrongs onto the other person. One of the first steps toward developing some respect for those we consider our enemies is to recognize that we also may be mistaken, or at least partially in the wrong, and that those we are confronting may have some valid grievances against us. Once we take this critical step in our mind, we have a beginning that can develop into respectful communication.
Admitting that we could be at least partially mistaken is a good and necessary step. The next one is to actively look for the good and the right in the other person’s position, and actively work on understanding the other person’s grievances. This can make it possible to develop the respect needed as a basis for direct and caring communication. Perhaps we are right and they are in the wrong in certain areas. But in other areas, we may be mistaken, and they may hold the key to helping us fix problems that exists within ourselves and in our own words and actions—problems that are among the original causes of the conflict.
Our natural tendency is to see only the good in ourselves, and only the bad in those who oppose us. In order to engage in direct and caring communication, we must balance that. We must also be willing to see what’s wrong in ourselves, and what’s right in the people on the other side of the conflict. If we can do this, then no matter what the outcome of the confrontation, our opponents will have done us a valuable service. They will have given us an opportunity to overcome some of our self-centered tendencies, and helped us to develop our capacity to love those we consider our enemies, as we are commanded to do.
Confrontation with others must always be handled with care. There may be times to shout; there may be times to cry; there may be times to grow angry; there may be times to yield. If, during peaceful times, we develop the ability to express ourselves directly and honestly, yet with concern for the other person’s feelings, then perhaps during the more turbulent times we will have had enough practice at it that we can avoid a destructive blowup, or even worse, a cold war. Perhaps we can turn confrontation into a time to build our character by developing mutual understanding, respect, and even love for our former enemies.
This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden