Sermon: Speaking the Truth

This the final sermon in our Back to the Basics series called “Speaking the Truth in Love.” Stefan and Jacob, two members of our community, role played conflictual situations throughout this sermon.

So, we have started with ourself in this series. We have looked at our conflict styles. We talked about the importance of being present when in conflict so that we can access the wisdom of our emotions and our senses and our neofrontal cortex. We have cautioned against jumping over the net to tell stories about the other person’s motivations and intentions. And then last Sunday, Pat and Joanna talked about the “listening” aspect of speaking the truth in love — how to make space for and receive someone else’s truth. Finally, on this last Sunday of a series called “Speaking the Truth in Love,” we get to speak.

But what should we say? What do we really want to communicate? What is authentically true for us — and what is going to give us the best chance of getting our needs met?  Our first impulse in a charged situation is often to speak out of our reactivity. For instance, our impulse might be to spew our emotions and initial judgements:

Jacob (on phone): Honey, I hate to say this, but I’ve got to work late again tonight.

Stefan: What? That’s the third night a row! You’re addicted to your work. Do you even think of me when you make these decisions?

Now,  I want to make a brief case for spewing. There are some relationships and some circumstances, in which our raw, unfiltered reaction might be a good thing. Sometimes a bracing dose of someone’s raw anger can snap us out of unkind or unjust behaviors or attitudes. Sometimes, our spontaneous outburst of tears communicates better than any rehearsed words our emotions and needs Sharing this kind of raw, unfiltered reaction with someone can be a sign of intimacy. It’s like saying: I’m going to let you see my true face in this moment. I’m going to let you hear my raw truth, full as it is of undigested emotions and judgements. But, my experience is that even if round #1 is the spew, at some point, there almost always needs to be a round #2, where we dig below that surface level reactivity to get to a deeper truth.

Of course, our first impulse might not be to express but to repress our emotions and needs:

Jacob (on phone): Honey, I hate to say this, but I’ve got to work late again tonight.

Stefan (inwardly sad and seething): “Fine honey, no problem.”

I could make the case that repressing emotions and needs is every bit as damaging,  if not moreso in the long run, than spewing. We know where that repression leads — resentments, passive aggressiveness, distance, etc.

Much better is to communicate our authentic truth. As the Ephesians passage we have been reading throughout this series says:  “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”  The Greek word for “truth” here means “speaking reality into a person’s life.” It also connotes “that which can’t be hidden — an undeniable reality.” So, my truth is the undeniable reality of my experience — and it is this that the author of Ephesians says we should speak to each other. But how do I get to that undeniable truth AND how can I communicate it in a way that it is most likely to be heard? Here are four tools to help you get there. (These are from the field of nonviolent communication.) Pat, Jonathan and I are going to talk more about this during Education Hour and this sermon will also be posted on our blog — because there’s a lot here.

1) Go for observations vs. interpretations. What actually happened that caused the rub or the conflict? What is the thing that occurred separate from my interpretation or evaluation of it? Here, we’re taking a step back and looking at the event as if we were a neutral observer, a journalist.  We’re just getting the facts, the barebones truth. In our scenario, the fact is that Jacob is working late for the third night in a row. Anybody witnessing this event could agree to that. It’s specific, objective and verifiable.

But notice how Stefan immediately jumps to a judgement about that observation or fact:

Stefan: “You’re addicted to you work.” And, although phrased as  question

Stefan: Do you even think of me when you make these decisions?

It was actually a statement: 

Stefan: You don’t think of me. 

So, the factual observation is that Jacob is working late again; Stefan’s interpretation of that fact is that Jacob is an workaholic and incredibly inconsiderate. 

When we lead with those kinds of  judge-y interpretations, people get reactive. No one likes to be blamed. And often those judgments are quite broad and harsh. When there is less blame and criticism, people can hear us easier. They will be more open to understanding us and giving us what we need.

2) Go for feelings vs. thoughts. How do I feel about this observable reality? What are my feelings rather than my thoughts about it?  In our scenario, Stefan leaps over his feelings about Jacob working late again and goes straight to thinking. Our judgments, our interpretations, come from our thinking brain. They are not the same thing as our feelings, our emotions. But we often confuse the two. If Stefan were to continue this conversation by saying, to Jacob:

Stefan: I feel like you care more about work than me.  

Thats not a feeling. That’s a thought, an interpretation. Stefan is telling a story about Jacob: He cares more about work than him.

If Jacob responds to this interpretation by saying:

Jacob: “Well, I feel judged by you — in fact, attacked!” 

That’s also not expressing a feeling. He’s expressing a thought. Now, he’s telling a story about what Stefan is doing to him: Stefan is attacking him. 

This confusion between feelings and thoughts is so rampant that I spent a whole summer doing Clinical Pastoral Education as a hospital chaplain unlearning this confusion. On the wall of the room where we did our group processing were the four emotional food groups — mad, glad, sad and scared. We were not allowed to say “I feel” and follow it with any other word other than some variation of those four words. So: “I feel irritated (mad).” “I feel content.” (glad)  “I feel so hurt.” (sad — although that could be a mix of mad and sad)  “I feel anxious.” (scared) Saying: “I feel attacked” was not okay. If we said that, my supervisor would stop us and make us get up and point to one or more of the four emotional food groups: “No, Sheri. What did you feel actually feel? Attacked is not a feeling.” I felt scared. Or: I felt angry, defensive. Or: I was hurt; I was really sad.

3) Go for needs vs. conclusions about who or what is right or wrong.  Our “positive” emotions — like contentment, joy — come from our needs being met.  What we often call “negative” emotions — like anger or sadness or anxiety — signal to us that some need isn’t being met. But often, we don’t stick with the truth of our unmet need when we experience those emotions. Instead, we focus on the other person being right or wrong about something. Let’s return to our scenario, as it continues to go off the rails:

Jacob (on phone): Honey, I hate to say this, but I’ve got to work late again tonight.

Stefan: What? That’s the third night a row! You’re addicted to your work. Do you even think of me when you make these decisions?

Jacob: That’s not fair…

Stefan: (interrupting)  I feel like you care more about work than me. Did you marry your work or did you marry me?

Stefan has a need for intimacy, a need to be close with Jacob. But instead of speaking the truth of his need, he’s jumping to judgements about who is right and who is wrong. Jacob is wrong because, clearly, he isn’t taking their marriage vows seriously. Stefan needs intimacy — but is telling Jacob he doesn’t care about their marriage vows going to get him that?

Magic 8 ball says: Very doubtful. But speaking his authentic truth just might. Speaking his undeniable reality. Digging to the truth of what he observes, feels and needs. This truth is often more vulnerable to express than our interpretations or thoughts or judgements about rightness or wrongness. I think that’s actually why we don’t do it more often. 

Last, when we actually find the authentic truth about we’ve observed, what we’ve felt and what we need, we can… 

4) Make requests vs. a demand. A demand asks someone else to change their behavior — often with an “or else” implied. A request is something we need. It can actually help the other person by giving them a concrete way to fulfill our need. They might not be able to fulfill the need with the strategy we are requesting, but it gives us a place from which to talk about how to creatively meet that need. Demands shut options down; requests often open them up.

Let’s put this all together:

Jacob (on phone): Honey, I hate to say this, but I’ve got to work late again tonight.

Stefan is tempted to spew in anger. The relationship can take it; they’ll mend it eventually. But that will make for an unsettled and sad evening for both of them until that repair happens. He’s also tempted to say, “It’s OK. No problem.” But he knows that being agreeable means he will bottle up feelings until they explode over some stupidly simple thing. 

Stefan: (deep breath) Jacob, this is the third night in a row that you’ve worked late.  (me whispering: observation) I’m not mad at you for that, don’t worry. Well, maybe just a little. But really, it’s because I’m kind of sad.  (feelings) I miss you. I want to be with you. (needs) Could you come home? Maybe you could work after I go to bed? I would like if we could at least have a couple of hours together. (request)

Jacob: Well, I’m not working on something I can do from home. And I’m on deadline — this has to be in by tomorrow. But I miss you also. Could you come over and have dinner nearby, and then maybe we could go for a walk before I return to work?

Stefan: Sure. That’ll work. Thanks, honey. 

I hope you have seen that speaking our truth — our undeniable reality — is really about staying with ourselves — with what we see, feel, need, want — and not making so many judgements and evaluations of others. It’s really about giving the gift of our own selves, our own reality, to others.

I invite you to hear our passage from Ephesians 4 that we’ve been reading almost every Sunday one more time. This time, I’ve asked people to read  the parts that talk about “speaking the truth in love” in a variety of languages — because speaking our truth is like speaking in our language to others. Just as our we are enriched by having so many different language in this world — each of which holds its own reality, its own worldview — so we are enriched when we share our authentic truth with each other, when we share our undeniable realities. 

Ephesians 4 (selected verses)

I therefore… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Source of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ… Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another… Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.