We do it, our kids do it, but here's how we can change it.
About once a week, I overhear the beautiful sound of my two daughters talking as they work together to clean their room …
“I never want … to talk … to YOU … AGAIN!”
“Fine! Get out of here forever!”
Every single week for years now. For a while, I tried to ignore it, hoping they would tire out and finally agree to a compromise. That’s not what happens. These girls, who complain that they’re exhausted the instant they’re told to do a chore, apparently have unlimited energy to continue a running argument.
When the yelling didn’t stop, I tried splitting them up and having each one take a turn cleaning half the room. But it turned out that whoever cleaned first would have the opportunity to sneakily push some of the toys across the line to her sister’s half. So again with the yelling.
In any case, even if that strategy had changed the yelling, it wouldn’t actually have fixed the underlying problem. In certain circumstances, these girls — who normally are happy playmates — just can’t talk to each other in a civil, polite manner. There’s no sympathy, no patience, no attempt at understanding or compromise. It simply goes from zero to 60, from no worries at all to immediately yelling.
At those times, what we have is failure to communicate.
I don’t mean to publicly embarrass my daughters. After all, they’re young and learning, and heaven knows I’ve seen adults throw full-on tantrums and communicate in ways that make me want to pull my hair out. Communication is difficult at any age. Misunderstandings are abundant, anger leads to saying things we don’t mean or later regret, and we aren’t fair in the way we interpret and speak about others. Instead of talking these problems out, we instead choose to throw an adult version of a temper tantrum by speaking uncharitably about each other to anyone who will listen.
In a recent speech to journalists, Pope Francis identified what he calls, “sins of communication.” His talk was specifically about how the media communicates, but the lesson is applicable to us all. According to Francis, here are the three mistakes we make when communicating, along with ways that we might address them in our own lives:
This isn’t outright lying. It’s sharing just one side of the argument and leaving any other information out. This is actually more insidious than lying, because it’s a lot easier to justify. I know that I can, with a clear conscience, speak to others in such a way that my own actions appear reasonable and perfectly justified, but that’s only because I’ve left a lot out. I’m really only communicating half the story. In the end, disinformation distorts the truth just as much as lying. For instance, when I was a child, I would happily tattle that my brother had broken my Lego set and, for the sake of convenience, would leave out that he broke it because I’d just punched him in the stomach.
Instead of disinformation, let’s speak with clarity and total honesty. It may be more humbling to admit our part in a brewing conflict, but in the long run being upfront and acknowledging the whole truth will lead to a line of communication that’s much healthier.
Slander is the sensationalistic description of the actions of another, or an over-exaggeration of their words and motives. It’s tempting to slander because it makes our own response seem more restrained, but it leads to hurt feelings and at its most extreme allows us to dehumanize others and turn them into enemies with whom we cannot and should not compromise.
Instead of slander, we can hold ourselves to a higher standard of accuracy in the way we speak about others. In all honesty, what did that other person really say? What is the most positive motive I can ascribe to their words and actions? If we use what Francis calls, “carefully weighted and clear words,” when we speak of others, it keeps the lines of communication open.
Defamation is the habit of bringing back to light outdated flaws or past mistakes. I defame someone when I needlessly mention their flaws. I may be speaking the truth about that person, but the communication itself is unnecessary and harmful. Whenever I do this, I later realize that I did it to assuage my own feelings of guilt and make myself feel better, but it isn’t fair to continually bring up past mistakes to win an argument or get my way.
Instead of defaming others, let’s make a habit of speaking positively of them. Because I tend to have a cynical attitude, I had to go so far as to make a rule for myself. Whenever a person is mentioned during the course of a conversation, the very first words out of my mouth in response must be something positive about that person. Over time, this rule has become a habit and I find it easier and easier. Perhaps the most surprising result for me has been that, as my communication habits have changed, the way I actually think about people has become more positive too.
These are the lessons I teach my daughters as we work on forming positive habits of communication, and they’re just as helpful for me as an adult in speaking with others and having disagreements that remain civil. Their progress, and mine, are proof that constructive, positive communication is very much possible.