Monday, January 7, 2013

Confronting Others to Foster Trust in Forgiveness

The meek lion with the lamb (photo: Trish Steel)
We are told in Scripture to always be ready to give an account to others about our faith, and we are to do so in meekness and with patience. (I always like to think of meekness as being “tame.” It is not a milquetoast attitude but manifests strength and competence that is tempered with self-control.) When we fall into disagreements with others, we can also borrow this same wise advice. We should not bury our concerns, but we can present them in a way that shows respect to both others as well as ourselves. But how do we learn how to do this? Most people find confrontation to be a difficult practice, especially when endeavoring to resolve conflict. We often talk about the standard but rarely talk about how we can actually accomplish this learned skill which improves with practice.

Assertive Instead of Passive Aggressive Communication

Passive aggressive behavior or communication describes the indirect or passive way that people manifest their negative feelings. For a host of reasons, the passive aggressive person feels uncomfortable with expressing themselves directly, so they deny these feelings, but they let them leak out into the relationship in other areas that feel less threatening. They'll say that everything is fine when asked about a matter, but concerning another unrelated issue, they'll express harsh criticism and disapproval. In so doing, they coat over their aggression with passivity or even sweetness as a way of avoiding their own discomfort, even thought they express it in other, indirect ways. Some people might call this “lip service,” something that I think Jesus defined well when He said, “You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.”

As we've read in Matthew 5 and Matthew 18, Jesus tells us to go to those with whom we have conflict to address matters with them directly in an effort to resolve the discord. This describes an assertive communication style wherein a person directly addresses specific matters with another honestly and with them personally in a discrete and respectful way. As stated, most people find this to be a stressful exercise, and they may avoid the stress by failing to follow through. Many people have no practice in voicing their concerns or feelings of offense.

I like to think of assertive communication as a way of expressing and defending feelings, wants and needs to another person. If you cannot figure out what to say, consider explaining directly to the party involved how you feel, what you want, and what you need at a bare minimum. It's a good framework to help you begin to express yourself:

I feel ________.
I want ________.
I need ________.

Working Agreements for Trust

Once we become familiar with direct, assertive communication, we might also consider some general rules that we assume about how to properly express our feelings, wants, and needs to others. These, of course, are behaviors that manifest the characteristics of those who are trustworthy, noted in the previous post. (Those characteristics are competence, reliability, integrity, and benevolence.) Borrowing from Larsen and Buckmaster, they identify four behaviors that can considered ground rules for the way that we interact with one another which foster the growth of trust in one another – rules that exemplify assertive communication and behavior.
  • We agree to assume positive intent and give generous interpretations to actions or words that we don't understand, then we seek clarity from one another.
  • We keep our agreements.
  • We cast no “silent vetos.” We speak up if we disagree.
  • We seek and offer feedback on the impact of our actions, inactions, and interactions.

How to Offer Feedback

We must also consider the manner in which we give others information concerning their behavior and attitudes. Again, this is something that many people take for granted, assuming that most people know how to offer feedback to others, even though it can destroy trust when offered improperly. But few of us have been taught any kind of rules, save for the general references to meekness and patience.

Narrowing the process down a bit more, we should offer feedback that is
  • Prompt
  • Factual
  • Specific
  • Supportive
  • Considerate

As recently mentioned in a previous post, David Augsburger points out prerequisites for confrontation which also advocate these same kinds of considerations for offering feedback. All of these factors can help foster forgiveness as we work to become trustworthy people, building trust in our relationships. Take note that in addition to the general “basis of trust” which ideally precedes advising others, Augsburger also points out the attitudes which manifest the character of the trustworthy. Empathy and caring flow from benevolence. Affirmation and support flow from integrity. Here again, they bear repeating.

From Augsburger's book Caring Enough to Confront, Pg 52:
  • A context of caring must come before confrontation.
  • A sense of support must be present before criticism.
  • An experience of empathy must precede evaluation.
  • A basis of trust must be laid before one risks advising.
  • A floor of affirmation must undergird any assertiveness.
  • A gift of understanding opens the way to resolving disagreement.
  • An awareness of love sets us free to level with each other.

Following considerations for building trust,
upcoming posts will explore how to *re*build trust after an offense
not merely just create the milieu which helps trust to grow.