Christian Growth

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Digging For The Truth

  • Author: Lisa Pineira
  • Published: January 1, 2009

"That's enough, guys!" yelled 2-year-old Taylor Smalley, as she walloped her dad on the backside with a wooden spoon. The shock of a reprimand from their daughter stopped Greg and Erin's squabble and made them double over with laughter. Greg had just announced he was dropping a required class for his doctoral studies, but his wife, Erin, had shot back that she didn't want him to quit, and an argument had erupted.

Later, after they both had a chance to cool down, they talked it through and uncovered the hidden thoughts behind the fight. Greg didn't want to spend extra time to pass such a difficult class, but Erin wanted him to finish his doctoral studies on time.

"When someone offends us, we often react without thinking," says Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries. "Soon it is as if we are sliding down a slippery slope, and things are going from bad to worse." Whether our natural tendency is to run away or run over people, most of us dislike conflict.

But what if instead of looking at conflict as a minefield to avoid, we looked at it as an archaeological dig site to explore? Stopping to unearth what's below the surface of a conflict can often lead to what our hearts really want—stronger relationships.

"The Bible teaches that conflict comes from the desires that battle in your heart (James 4:1-3)," Ken writes in The Peacemaker. "Some of these desires are obviously sinful, such as wanting to conceal the truth, bend others to your will or have revenge. In many situations, however, conflict is fueled by good desires that you have elevated to sinful demands, such as the craving to be understood, loved, respected or vindicated."

If the battleground is in our hearts, it makes sense to stop and discover the underlying needs for things like acceptance, appreciation or affirmation instead of arguing, reacting or defending ourselves. Rather than grounding a teenager again, grab a spade and dig down to see why he keeps acting out. Instead of complaining to a roommate, ask your friend why she withdrew.

Like an archaeologist who delicately collects artifacts from out of the ground, we must take care to unearth what's in our hearts. And we must take action.

"The Chinese character for the verb 'to listen' contains the symbols for ears, eyes, heart and undivided attention," says Mary A. Kassian in Conversation Peace: The Power of Transformed Speech. "Active listening means giving our undivided attention; hearing with our ears, observing carefully with our eyes and understanding with our hearts."

James puts it this way: "Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger" (James 1:19). That's how my husband responded the first time I confronted him. Gil listened intently, making great eye contact, and nodding his head periodically. When I had poured out my heart, he waited, still maintaining eye contact as if I may say more. Then Gil summed up what I had said, letting me know he understood. "What do you need from me?" he asked.

As an avoider, it had taken everything in me to bring up the issue. I had no clue what I wanted or needed. "I'm not sure," I replied. We sat together as I figured out what I needed and verbalized it to him. He thought for a few minutes and said, "I can do that." I felt heard and valued when Gil was quick to listen. His gentle question helped me uncover the underlying unmet need in my heart.

When our conflict resolution doesn't go this well, it's usually because I speak too quickly. Dave Marshall also spoke too quickly when his wife appeared to be telling him what to do. He immediately got defensive with Cristi in front of their three boys. Conflict usually affects more than just two people. "A lot of our conflict comes from not being able to look beyond ourselves," says Dave. "How we respond can create more conflict."

Dave and Cristi excused themselves and went into another room to talk in private. Later, Dave came back to the boys. "Just so you know," he said. "What I did today with Mom was wrong. I apologized to Mom and asked for her forgiveness. Now I need to ask your forgiveness as well."

Timing can be crucial in dealing with conflict, especially if we haven't addressed issues as they have come up and have let them fester. During pre-marital counseling, I learned when not to bring up a matter. When you or your spouse are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, HALT. When my husband walks through the door after work hungry and tired, it's better to wait and address something after he's had a chance to read the paper and eat. He'll be more ready to hear what I am saying and less likely to get irritated or angry.

Yet sometimes it takes getting mad to stir those like me who would rather avoid discord. Like a warning light on the dashboard, anger tips us off that something is going on inside our hearts. Disregard the warning, and the next day it will likely bubble over like water in a too-hot radiator. The apostle Paul suggests, "Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity" (Ephesians 4:26-27). Using anger as a tip-off to explore what's in our own hearts instead of as a club can help us communicate more effectively.

When we decide to excavate our hearts with someone, where do we start? The Bible steers us to first own up to our own feelings, attitudes and actions (Matthew 7:1-5); then speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15); and remember to forgive as God in Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). Humility makes it easier for someone to listen to confrontation and admit wrong.

Gary Oliver discovered this through some unexpected frustration from his friend Joel. "I had no idea that you were upset with me," the marriage and family counselor said when Joel called. "Would you be willing to get together and share some of your concerns with me? I'll try to listen, understand and not be too defensive."

Within 30 minutes Joel came to Gary's house. "As a psychologist, I know that confrontation can be valuable and is a necessary part of strong relationships," writes Gary in Mad About Us: Moving From Anger to Intimacy With Your Spouse, "but that doesn't necessarily make it easier." As he and Joel talked, it became clear that both of them had made some assumptions and had jumped to some negative conclusions without checking them out. By the end of their conversation, they apologized, laughed a little and thanked God together.

"Because Joel was willing to risk compassionate confrontation, we learned to understand and trust each other a bit more," says Gary. "Our friendship grew a little broader and a bit deeper."

It takes painstaking excavation for an archaeologist to find buried treasure. Instead of running away from conflict or running over people, let's build stronger relationships by digging deeper to uncover the underlying needs in our hearts together.

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