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Friday, November 09, 2007


I’m in my favorite coffee shop, trying not to hear two women behind me who are having a heated discussion about what it feels like to be listened to. One woman just gave the other some pretty hard feedback, beginning with the phrase, “I’m going to be really honest now.” It makes me realize how unusual it is for friends to challenge each other this way and how rarely I do it.

There have been a few instances lately where I have bit my tongue when I was thinking something pretty critical about another person’s actions. In the interest of discretion, I will be vague about the details. (For those of my readers who are friends or meeting members, I’m not talking about any of you. In fact, it is highly unlikely the people I’m talking about will ever read this, so relax dear reader; this is not about you.) In two of the situations, I was in a position of relative authority where my feedback would have been appropriate, but would have also carried more weight and more potential to harm, or at least bruise egos. What I’m wondering this morning is whether my real motivation in keeping silent was the other person’s best interest or my desire to avoid conflict.

There is part of me that has become more humble over the years. So I think person X is making a mistake. What do I know? And who am I to think it is my job to correct him? If he is making a mistake, isn’t he more likely to learn from his mistakes than from me? Shouldn’t I strive to act like a clearness committee, listening deeply and occasionally asking questions that might help the person hear his own inner wisdom? On the other hand, one of the ways we learn is by receiving honest feedback from other people with different perspectives. Wouldn’t it be more loving to tell X what I really think, rather than nod politely?

I think the key is to look at my own motivations. Am I trying to show off and be the expert, or am I really led to speak honestly for the benefit of others? In the coffee shop discussion behind me, the challenging woman seems concerned about how the other woman is treating a third party, a student. Often I think that is what motivates us to share hard truths, concern about someone else. Yet even then it is often hard. This past summer I overheard someone say something racist and have been angry at myself ever since because I didn’t have the quick wits or courage to interrupt and object.

I once heard someone in a Quaker business meeting say that being Quaker to them meant being “nice.” I shuddered because I knew this person was trying to avoid conflict, and to me, honestly dealing with conflict is essential for us to hear God’s guidance in business meeting. It is essential in many other situations as well. I am reminded of M. Scott Peck’s book A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered which talks about the difference between civility and politeness. Real community, Peck says, has to be built on real honesty. Yet I think the woman who associated Quakers with niceness was not alone. There is a middle-class cultural norm of reserved politeness than sometimes shapes Quaker meetings as much as the real heritage of our faith. Weren't we once known as the “Friends of Truth?”

The two women have just left the coffee shop, their relationship seemingly intact. The man sitting next to me sighed and rolled his eyes, glad that they were finally gone. “Issues,” he said with a raised eyebrow. Maybe, but I suspect many of us have issues we just don’t confront. Although they might have picked a more private spot to do it, the two women were modeling honest communication. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.



Blogger Cloudscome said...

I just found your blog today and I am enjoying reading all your old posts. I like what you are saying about being honest and speaking/singing the truth. It is one of the hard things, and one of the most important things in relationships and in life.

9:03 AM  

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