Yellow: it’s the color of caution. (That is, unless you live in Alabama, where it apparently signals blow every other car’s doors off trying to make it through this traffic light.) Yellow flag words, then, are verbal indicators of the need to probe for deeper meanings before moving further into conversation. If we don’t clarify these words or phrases, we can make mental leaps that quickly morph into misunderstandings. Consider:
“I can’t get that report to you by Friday.” This statement might seem clear on its face, but it could actually have several meanings, such as:
I want to get the report to you, but I don’t have the time.
I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to write it.
I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to submit it.
I don’t want to get the report to you.
If you’re the person counting on this report, imagine your response to each of these interpretations. Three of them are about barriers. A bit more discussion might reveal that you and the other person both value the work, and then you can brainstorm about ways to remove or maneuver around the obstacles. The fourth reply, however, would likely make your blood boil. The relational impact and the possible solutions vary widely based on which response the other person actually intends.
Some other examples of yellow flag words or phrases include:
“I’m not ready to take that step.” (What does ready look like for you?)
“I don’t feel supported in my decision.” (What kind of support are you counting on?)
“When the time comes, I’ll know what to do.” (When will that be?)
When there’s ambiguity around the meaning of words, ask an open-ended question. You’ll find out what your conversation partner does and does not mean, and you might also prompt some new awareness in that person around the power of her verbiage.
An ounce of curiosity is much less costly than an assumption that escalates into unhealthy conflict.
The most tempting button on Facebook – for me, anyway – isn’t the trusty thumbs-up, a sign of celebration and solidarity. In this election cycle, in this climate of increasingly divisive and belittling rhetoric, my less-dominant hand often has to restrain my clicking hand from lunging for the “unfollow” option.
While the majority of my Facebook friends share my political and theological leanings, I know and care about a lot of people – highly intelligent, deeply compassionate people – who think differently than I do. It would be easy enough to boot their impassioned statuses and their links to opinion pieces out of my newsfeed. I wouldn’t be going so far as to unfriend them, after all. They’d never know they hadn’t made the cut, so I wouldn’t be hurting their feelings. I could then go about my day with fewer inclinations to comfort-eat…and without the occasional pause to listen for apocalyptic hoof beats.
But the unwillingness to consider others’ points of view is how we devolved into divisiveness and belittlement, isn’t it?
It’s the age-old myth of scarcity at work, in this case with regards to airtime. If I don’t shout the loudest, I won’t get the chance to share my side. I can’t afford to use my debate platform to ask clarifying questions. I’ve got to spend it all on advocacy.
Truth be told, those on the opposite end of the spectrum are unlikely to change my approach to the issues with their Facebook activity. It would be arrogant of me to think I would have any more success persuading them. But I believe I have a responsibility to try to understand why others feel the way they do, to note how policy intersects with the lived reality of another human being. Because when I get the history, the reasoning, the pastoral care pieces behind the position – and when I share my own hopes and fears – I can still be in relationship with someone who comes at complicated matters from a different angle. (The exception here is when the way someone speaks sends me into a mental health spiral. Then self-care does need to kick in, so that I can tend to the parts of my soul that allow me to be in community with those who aren’t abusive.) Relationship leaves the door open for collaboration, or at least for compromise, in view of the common good. Even if we can’t work together, we still retain the ability to see one another as children of God.
If I can’t do something so simple as read a status update that challenges me, then I really should be listening for hoof beats…and it will be my need to be right hastening them.
[Disclaimer: this is not really a Rising Strong post, but it goes along with the idea of helping each other live wholeheartedly.]
There is a very important skill that most of us could stand to fine-tune. Anyone can offer criticism, but constructive criticism is a wholly different animal. And we all need to hear this kind of helpful feedback since it’s tough to step outside ourselves and understand how our words and actions affect others.
Whether you want to share your thoughts on the preacher’s sermon, your teenage daughter’s outfit, or the school board’s re-zoning plan, here are some questions to ask yourself before giving voice to your perspective:
Is this a real issue or a personal preference? Real issues need airtime. Personal preferences usually don’t.
Is the issue really the issue? Am I really upset about something else? If so, what?
What is my intent/goal? What do I – honestly – hope to accomplish by speaking up?
What is my relationship with the criticism recipient? Am I the right person to bring this matter up, or would it be more effective coming from someone else who feels the same way?
How best can the recipient hear my message? How can I keep the conversation going instead of putting the hearer on defense?
What am I willing to do to help the recipient make change or to support the recipient in change? If the issue is important enough to raise, it is important enough to invest in the follow through.
May we all be willing to refine our criticism-offering abilities, and may we have the courage to use them. Compassionate honesty breeds connection.