I remember visiting my grandparents to make applesauce together. What should have been a nice family time of four generations gathered together was overshadowed by the incessant bickering of my grandparents. Both of them insisted on being in control, both were confident that they were right, both were determined to win every little argument, and both were oblivious to the social discomfort and relational damage being done to the family around them. My grandparents had not learned healthy patterns in their relationships. Before too long, I gathered my children and left. It was not a healthy place for anyone, and it was not the behavior I wanted modeled in front of my kids. There were so many better ways that my grandparents could have approached their disagreements.
They could have benefitted from applying God’s word to how they communicate. Scripture tells us that:
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly” (Proverbs 15:1-2).
There are lots of ways in which we can defuse defensive responses and head off an argument before it gets started.
One of the best ways to reply is just to receive the comment as information without offering a reply. Quick replies launch from our tongues without thought, and are too often unthoughtful. They are rarely seasoned with the grace that God calls for our words to carry.
"Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Col 4:6).
Pausing allows us time to breath and collect our thoughts. Reflection empowers us to respond thoughtfully.
If our words lack the seasoning of responding in grace, then we are failing to live out God’s love in our lives. After taking a beat to reflect, you may still need to respond and engage. So what are some grace-filled, soft answers that could be used to defuse an argument before it gets out of control?
Sometimes the thing we need most is to be seen and acknowledged. When we are irritated, it is too easy to react by either ignoring or rejecting, without pausing to listen. Paying careful attention requires more of us. If we can listen well and demonstrate that we have understood, we can lay down our defensiveness and respond well. Saying "I hear you saying" and and repeating what you think you heard demonstrates that the message was received and gives the speaker a chance to clarify. Listening ears tune in and pay attention to another person’s story. It is a gift to have our stories acknowledged.
Rather than debate what the details of who, where, what, why, and when; just consider that you may not be recalling things correctly. Our memories are imperfect and we can forget the details over time. It takes courage to allow someone else to be right and own our mistakes. It is not a sign of weakness to be wrong, but rather a sign of strength that you are willing to be vulnerable and own up to the mistakes that you have made. If we can acknowledge that another perspective is possible you are building a bridge of connection.
We will make more ground if we can acknowledge another person’s perspective, even if we have a different idea about the situation. Acknowledging their frame of thinking can help us to collaborate better as a team than as adversaries. If you're willing to explore, you might continue with "Help me understand...." When we can stop to acknowledge the validity of someone’s perspective even if we aren’t led to the same conclusions, we have adopted common ground for working together.
If you must confront a comment, you can make it more gentle by framing it as a question. Pose a thought as a question to ponder rather than an attack. Could it be that… Have you considered… Perhaps there are more ways to look at this? When we invite thoughtfulness, we keep the discussion moving forward in constructive ways.
Naming the pain or emotion someone is experiencing is a way of lightening a load by carrying a burden together. Empathy goes a long way in defusing anger and building bridges of understanding.
"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2).
Naming the emotion that the other person is feeling bears witness to their experience, even if it is different from yours. It also helps get past the surface issues and down to motivating causes of disagreements. Acknowledging the painful emotions can defuse the conflict and prevent them from sparking into something bigger.
Some moments are not well suited for hard conversations. Having other people in the room is a good example. In order to care well for your relationship, you should definitely address difficult concerns, but in private. Don't fight in public or in front of the kids. Choose to take important discussions seriously by making time and space to discuss them well.
Offering lament and asking for forgiveness approaches the situation with humility. If there is any morsel of the issue that you can claim ownership of, do it. Apologize for your contribution and pave the way for healthier dialogue going forward. Even if you would make the same choices all over again, you can at least name the tension and difficulty. Take the initiative and lead the way to a healthier relationship.
Choose not to sweat the small stuff and take a posture of humility. Care well for the people that God places in your path by leading with love.