My name is Lindsey, and I frequently speak before I think.
I’ll never forget the time I innocently asked a new friend if it was 80s night at church, only to quickly realize it wasn’t. That’s just how he dressed. With no luck, I tried to back gracefully out of the conversation.
Sometimes my faux pas hit on more sensitive subjects. Once when speaking about the difficulties of homeschooling four kids, I discovered the woman I was talking to had only been able to have one child. What overwhelmed me was something she longed for. Then there was the time I expressed financial concerns to a close friend whose husband was in his second year of unemployment. I tried to choose my words carefully, but looking back, bringing up finances at all may have been foolish. I’ve also been on the receiving end of uncomfortable exchanges—like the time a friend voiced her humiliation over a high number on her bathroom scale that, for me, was a number so low I hadn’t seen it since college.
Whether it’s body image, money, joblessness, singleness, or infertility, personal hot buttons in relationships abound. We know these areas of conversation can be painful, so we try to avoid them like the plague. Rather than filter our words wisely, we relegate entire subjects to an ongoing mental list of untouchable topics. I call them “the things we dare not say.”
Yet building walls does little to foster open communication inside our spiritual communities. In fact, it can prevent us from seeking prayer and wise counsel, or pursuing repentance and confession. When a friend does dare to venture into one of these topics, rather than being quick to listen and slow to speak we think, “Why would she bring this subject up with me? Doesn’t she know how careless she’s being?”
But what if instead of ringing alarm bells, hot topics became opportunities to extend mercy? What if instead of creating distance, uncomfortable conversations became places to practice the gospel of grace? As speakers and listeners indwelt by God the Spirit, we have the best filter of all. Because of his omnipotent presence, we have the chance to gently de-escalate the emotional intensity of topics we’ve labeled “off-limits.”
Here are a few suggestions based on what I’m learning.
As One Who Speaks
1. Clarify whether you’re “presenting your requests” or “grumbling and complaining.”
Scripture is clear we’re to both present our requests to God and seek the wise counsel of others when we encounter trouble. It’s good to cry out to God like the psalmist, and it’s good to have believers support you in prayer. But too often our words are empty grumbling and complaining. Ask the Lord, then, to help you be sensitive to the burdens of those around you. In turn you’ll find that the perspective of others often exposes your burdens as foolish grumbling.
2. Know your audience.
Think of those hurting among you, and choose your words accordingly. This may mean treading lightly with certain friends whose emotions are raw, or even finding a different friend to share with. If you aren’t sure about those listening, don’t assume to know too much or too little about their experiences. Acknowledging the potential pain of others may help hurting listeners feel validated in their own challenges.
3. Prepare to be misunderstood.
No matter how humbly or carefully you communicate, at some point you’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person and inflict pain. As a follower of Christ, be prepared to apologize and care for another when this happens. Be quick to understand the damage you’ve caused and even quicker to ask for forgiveness, valuing compassion and love above being understood.
As One Who Listens
1. Strive to be a charitable listener.
Do you assume the best of others when speaking? They’re most likely voicing their own problems, not trying to inflict pain. If something said hurts your feelings, attempt to cover the offense in love and move forward. And when you can’t, lovingly bring it up for the sake of reconciliation.
2. Listen with ears that hear past your personal pain.
God allows us to experience personal pain and heartache so we might show compassion toward one another. Even when friends don’t voice their pain in palatable ways, draw from the compassion God has shown you time and time again—and freely offer the same love and grace to those who are hurting. Instead of filtering everything that’s said through your own experiences, strive to sympathize with theirs.
3. See their need.
Like Jesus, strive to see the needs set before you. Instead of thinking of yourself and how your friend’s problems make you feel, ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern what you can offer your friend in the moment. Whether it’s a listening ear, an encouraging word of truth, a faith-filled prayer, or a gentle admonishment, you’ll be better prepared to love and serve others when you focus on the person in front of you.
Like a Nursing Mom
As we seek to listen and speak in a way that honors Christ, we can learn from the life of the apostle Paul. In his first letter to the Thessalonian church, he writes that he became like a “nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). He gently cared for the needs of others. He was ready to share with them “not only the gospel of God” but also himself, because they had become “very dear” (v.8).
Whether we’re speaking or listening, is our goal to share “not only the gospel of God” but also ourselves? Even when we have our own personal pain and baggage? Do we consider others “very dear” and look to care for them with our words like a nursing mother?
If so, we must strive to regularly and systematically de-escalate the emotional intensity of “the things we dare not say” as both speakers and listeners. In doing so, we’ll be better equipped to carry the good news of grace, watch it take root, and ultimately bear fruit in our own lives and those we’re deployed to love.