Reacting To Someone Who Feels Misunderstood

How do you typically respond when a person accuses you of not understanding them?

It’s easy to make two opposite but equally disastrous mistakes – get fearful or get angry. Sometimes we get angry and snip, “I understand you completely. Actually, you don’t understand me!” Other times we get anxious and whimper, “Never mind. Sorry I brought it up.” Both silence and violence will block mutual understanding and destroy trust. But, learning to respond with grace and truth will relieve tension and enable the kind of communication that clears a path through the gridlock caused by alleged misunderstandings.

By looking to the Bible, and Jesus’ example, we can train ourselves to respond with grace and truth when someone accuses, “You don’t understand me at all!”

  1. Remember God’s patience. Adam was the first person to imply someone else did not understanding him. He believed God had it all wrong. He told God the real problem wasn’t his disobedience it was “the woman you put here with me. She gave me some fruit and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) From the beginning, God’s patience has been abundantly clear. In Exodus 34:6, God proclaimed his name saying, “I am Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” In as much as we remember God’s patient toward us, will we have the ability to be patient toward others who (rightly or wrongly) feel misunderstood.
  2. Stay curious and engaged. It’s easy to either feel provoked or to grow apathetic when your repeated attempts to address an issue are met with the counter-attack, “You don’t understand!” It’s hard to stay calmly engaged. But remember, God didn’t crush or ignore Adam. Instead He patiently asked questions, “Where are you? Have you eaten from tree I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 2:10-11) We reflect God’s ways when we respond with grace and truth. Get curious, not furious, in the conversation. For example you might say, “I am sorry you don’t feel understood. I want to hear you out. What am I missing?”
  3. Relieve the need to be right. When misunderstandings linger, often the most common cause is a perceived need to be right. The consequences of being wrong, whether real or imagined, prevent people from admitting error. This fear is relieved as people sense they will be accepted even if they admit their failures and faults. You can develop safety by taking the first step to admit how you may be wrong. Show your willingness, even contentment, to be wrong. Clarify that the goal isn’t to prove each other wrong but to learn and then to be willing to change as a result.
  4. Stubbornly nourish hope. Nothing undermines a person’s confidence to resolve a misunderstanding like the loss of hope. Take orphans for instance. Compared to other children orphans tend to be very suspicious. They constantly test other’s intentions. They stubbornly resist the very help they require. While their behavior is not difficult to understand, it is counter-productive. Without patient intervention, their learned hopelessness (evidenced in the cries “No one understands me.”) will make them increasingly bitter and isolated. Jesus responded to such hopelessness not with dismissive platitudes but with empathy. He gave up his rights as God’s son and was abandoned on the cross. But, Jesus didn’t stop at empathy. He stubbornly fought for victory over the misery caused by betrayal, suffering, evil and death. Then he promised, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). In as much as we understand this good news we will possess a hope more stubborn than anyone’s despair and we will offer it at every turn of the conversation.
  5. Be careful with “I’m sorry!”  As the causes of the misunderstanding become clear, we must not stop short of true reconciliation. Many people wrongly assume that saying “I’m sorry” is sufficient, but that may rob everyone (including themselves) of a more satisfying resolution. Saying “I’m sorry” is appropriate for uncontrollable events or unavoidable mistakes. Beyond that, we should be more circumspect. Sometimes “sorry” remains appropriate for an unintentional accident.  For example, “I’m sorry I bumped into you. I did not see you behind me.”  However, if you are in a habit of rushing about the office your apology will not suffice. You are being careless. Legitimate reconciliation usually happens when offenders confess their wrongdoing, reflect empathy, ask for forgiveness and offer appropriate recompense. To illustrate you might say, “I was rushing and not aware of my surroundings (confession of wrong) and I caused you to drop your stack of papers (reflecting empathy). Will you forgive me? (surrendering the upper hand with a humbling request) Can I help you reorganize them? (offer appropriate recompense). In the same way, don’t assume you can resolve a misunderstanding with a simple “I’m sorry”Work for a mutual understanding and a real reconciliation. The benefits will be well worth the cost.

Mastering these five principles takes practice but they will make a big difference. We can’t guarantee any particular person will feel understood, but we can create an environment where mutual understanding is the norm.

(This article is a follow up to Finding Hope When You Feel Misunderstood.)

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In the Name of Religious Diversity Speak Up, Don’t Cower

As a Christian minister to college students for nearly 20 years I’ve discovered there is one topic, more than any other, that causes an uproar when broached on campus. Surprisingly, it’s not the doctrine of hell, nor the problem of evil, nor the perceived battle between science and faith. Those topics certainly spark lively discussions, but they remain civil compared to discussing the idea of exclusivity.  It’s considered anathema to suggest that one religion (or view of god) is true and the others are false.

Over the years, students I’ve worked with have written opinion articles in their college newspapers. Articles that address important religious topics such as: “How can a good and powerful God allow so much suffering?” or “Does religion cause violence?” rarely provoke a written response. But when an article titled “Is there one true religion?” was answered in the affirmative, it provoked several strongly worded rebuttals. All of them basically stating how ridiculous, arrogant and intolerable it is to make such spiritual truth claims.

“We have been told since we were very small children that Christianity is the one true religion. We were also told that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and brings presents to the worlds’ children on Jesus’ birthday…My parents didn’t lie to me about Santa and my pastor didn’t lie to me about Christianity.”

“To those of us serving on the Interfaith Council, the article on Christianity does not reflect what we believe are indispensable values — the support of tolerance, the practice of humility, and the encouragement of religious diversity… we simply believe the sentiments expressed are contrary to [the] college’s goals as a liberal arts institution.”

You would think the article that sparked these responses was filled with mockery or profanity. It wasn’t. The article was gracious but it deconstructed a very old, and well known, Jainist parable about a group of blind men and an elephant. (The elephant represents spiritual reality.) This parable has become the gold standard for acceptable religious expression on today’s college campus.

One blind man feeling the elephant’s trunk says, “It’s long and flexible like a snake.”

Another touching the leg says, “Not at all, it’s round and rough like a tree trunk.”

“You are both wrong, it is large and flat like a boulder!” says the third blind man feeling its’ side.

Since none could envision the entire elephant, each blind man described the elephant in part. Each man is properly rebuked for thinking they understood the truth. The parable teaches the nature of spiritual reality. The moral is: “It is ridiculous to bicker over equally valid belief systems”. It is argued that each religion sees spiritual reality in part and no religion can have a comprehensive vision of truth.

The problem with the parable is that it backfires on itself. As Dr. Tim Keller writes, “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?” (The Reason for God)

One student responded, “the elephant is likened to the ‘unknown’ something that cannot be fully understood or agreed upon.” To say he missed the point is a gross understatement. The moral of the parable falls apart if there is no special revelation given to the narrator and denied to all others. Who knows, maybe the ‘unknown’ is three different things: a snake, a tree, and a rhinoceros?  In that case, there would be reason to disagree and hold your ground out of respect for the truth. You could do so humbly, but you’d be arrogant to insist each blind man was grasping at the same thing.

Unfortunately this parable has been used, time and again, to shame Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even atheists when they express exclusive views of spiritual reality. But no one should be intimidated into silence by the Jedi mind-tricks of relativist.

Certainly we must humbly recognize that we can learn from anyone. But, Jesus calls us to do more than tolerate others. He calls us to love everyone, even our enemies. At the very least this means sharing the truth about what Jesus claimed about himself, even with people from vastly different religious backgrounds. The hope of Christianity is that God has revealed Himself in the flesh. In other words, the “elephant” has spoken and declared who He is.

The unavoidable truth is that everyone, even elephant-loving relativists, make authoritative truth claims about spiritual reality that not everyone shares. They are free to do so, but lets be clear about what they are doing. They are making exclusive claims about spiritual reality that boil down to “I am right and you would do better to convert to my view.”  Surely if is it permissible for them to work for conversion then how can they deny that right to others. In the name of religious diversity, the biggest favor we can do for our relativistic friends is to point out this hypocrisy, so they may be more self-aware.

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The Secret for Overcoming Despair

For a long time scientists have wondered why some people linger in despair and others pop out of it. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and past president of the American Psychological Association, was acclaimed for scientifically dissecting despair in the laboratory to see how it works. Despair is no longer a mysterious black box. Hopelessness can actually be measured by how you choose to explain bad events. He writes,

Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair. . . People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.”

Seligman developed the “hope score” which measured the degree of pervasiveness and permanence a person showed when explaining bad events in their lives.  

He also tested a third variable of the “hope score”, not as determinative as the first two, called personalization. Those that internalize bad events by blaming themselves are more pessimistic than those that externalize bad events by blaming others or circumstances. But, Seligman writes an important disclaimer:

Although there are clear benefits to learned optimism – there are also dangers. Temporary? Local? That is fine. I want my depression to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures? Most assuredly we want people to own up to the messes they make, to be responsible for their actions. Certain psychological doctrines have damaged our society by helping to erode personal responsibility: Evil is mislabeled insanity; bad manners are shucked off as neurosis… I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility.”

Seligman’s research has helped millions identify their own pessimistic explanatory styles and replace them with optimistic explanatory styles. But there were two limitations presented by his research. First, He didn’t resolved the dilemma about personal responsibility. Second, his laboratory experiments measured localized and temporary pain, not permanent and pervasive suffering.

But, what if the bad events in your life are in fact pervasive, permanent and personally caused? Suppose these nasty p-words are not just in your head, as an explanatory style, but are objectively true!  

Joni Erickson broke her neck diving off a pier and became a quadriplegic. Her broken neck is tragically pervasive, inhibiting every aspect of her life. It’s also permanent, binding her to a wheel chair for over 50 years. What kind of hope can we offer a person like Joni?  

If this life is all that there is then Joni Erickson’s spinal cord injury is truly permanent and pervasive. Explaining away her darkened reality with an optimistic explanatory style sounds ridiculous. But, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened, then this life isn’t all there is. God guarantees another. When Jesus returns, those in Him shall rise with new physical bodies in a fully renewed cosmos. Joni imagines that day and writes,

“The first thing I plan to do on my resurrected legs is to drop on grateful glorified knees, kneel quietly before the feet of Jesus and then I am going to be on my feet dancing.” She continues, “Can you imagine what hope [the resurrection] gives someone with a spinal cord injury like mine?”  

When Tishira Duffy clipped a family’s minivan while driving at 92 miles an hour, she killed Meg Abbott’s mom, dad and two brothers. Tishira is personally responsible for robbing a six year old girl of her entire family. How does Tishira deal with her personal fault and yet find hope?  

Unless there is a God who forgives, she never will. But if Jesus Christ really died for sinners, then Tishira may appropriately externalize her guilt to him. Jesus will take her blame and pay the penalty for her crime. But there is a catch. First, Tishira must take responsibility for her guilt (which resolves Dr. Seligman’s concerns). Admitting sin and asking for forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of hope with Jesus.  

The secret is out! Through empirical research, Dr. Seligman has stumbled onto truths Christianity has proclaimed for millennia. Jesus’ substitutional death and bodily resurrection provide an explanatory style capable of returning unexpectedly high “hope scores”  for people trapped by permanent and pervasive suffering — even when they’re personally to blame.

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