“…if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” – Ezekiel 33:9 (NRSV)
Ever felt like you were just not getting through to someone? Ever felt like it was your fault?
This isn’t unfamiliar territory for me, and it’s not unfamiliar for several people I know. Try as hard as someone might, by logic, by emotion or by credibility, to persuade another or correct some activity for honest and healthy reasons, sometimes the other person is simply unable or unwilling to listen. In all likelihood, there could be several reasons for unresponsiveness—fear, guilt, tiredness, mistaken expectations, greed, self-assurance, confusion and (yes) our own mistaken self-interest. But whether or not we are mistaken, one thing is certain: whether or not someone chooses to agree, someone who chooses not to listen bears responsibility for that choice.
Once again: if someone clearly chooses not to listen, that is their choice not your fault.
“OK, but how do I make sure they are the one making that choice?”
A good question, with a few precautions:
First, we have to be sure that what we’re saying is correct. This is serious. If there are any possible counters, reasons, or excuses (yes, I said “excuses”) against what we perceive, we are not communicating correctly. This means making sure that what we say and the context for our thoughts are well considered before speaking.
Second, we need to be sure that the approach leaves no room for being mistaken. This may sometimes mean asking more questions than making statements. For example, when someone who only wishes to prove he only has to listen to himself comes and asks Jesus a question, Jesus responds by the same method: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Lk 10:26, ESV)
This question-asking does a number of things: it allows the potential listener to realize how it sounds to be asked a question about the same content; it puts the person on equal ground, instead of allowing them to remain self-elevated; it gives such a person no excuse for being wrong in response. In other words, putting it back on the person evidences personal responsibility for any further choices.
But sometimes, question-asking simply isn’t a productive or worthwhile response. Often, we’ll have to simply state what the facts are and leave them in front of the other person. However, this alternative approach is also delicate; stating facts is exactly that – it is not stating facts with our own emotions attached, whether those be our own fears, insecurities or goals.
This isn’t an argument for stoicism as much as it it’s a case for surety. We cannot expect someone who has the potential to ignore us not to take the opportunity to use emotions against us. Think this through. How often do you argue with another person simply based on the emotional charge to the words being said? Now: eventually, how does that argument end? Isn’t it true that eventually one person gives up and communicates something akin to a firm assurance? Why not skip over all the unnecessary, unproductive interplay and be sure that when we communicate, we are already assured of its veracity?
And don’t think it inconspicuous if we’re not sure. If we’re not sure, the argument will drag on. The emotions will ramp up. The lack of reason to any further questions or claims will be obvious well after the discussion. And then what have we accomplished, other than stacking the deck against our ability to speak up in the first place? It’s far better not to say anything than to end up in a situation like that.
The point is this: if we aren’t sure that what we say is true, it is a waste of time to say it at-best and destructive to ourselves and others at-worst. So if we want to be effective communicators in tough situations, we ought to make sure we can both state a fact calmly and leave it alone after uttering it, because we’re sure we have the right perspective and that perspective has nothing to do with us.
And yes, this might be an instance where “the pot is calling the kettle black.” I get it. But in that case, I need to hear it, don’t I?