Disagreement among people is common. Often it turns into outright conflict. I read many editorial columns on computer news pages. Sometimes these news organizations allow people to respond. Many times these comments are vicious—attacking the character of the columnist. After reading several comments, I usually come to the conclusion that reading them is a waste of time. I am convinced that the critics hide behind the anonymity of the computer screen to say things they would not say if they faced the other person. Sometimes we do that, too. This type of conflict is not healthy.
Not all criticism is hidden behind the screen as we have seen in recent campaigns and debates of those running for president. Personal attacks should have no place among those who would like to hold the highest office in the land. Communication is very powerful and it can hurt as well as heal when proper purposes and direction as God, in creation, intended for communication have been violated.
Perhaps even more devastating are those comments made behind the backs of those they criticize. This is gossip. Sadly, gossip is not foreign to Christians either.
Much can be said about gossip, but most of that will have to wait for another time. Here I want to indicate that gossip tends to focus on another person rather than the issue. Perhaps our apparent inability to separate the issue from the person is why we do not confront directly. We tend to identify ourselves with our positions on issues, and thus we feel personally attacked if someone attacks our issue. The result, of course, is defensiveness that becomes a real barrier to healthy communication. Let’s carry this a step further: we may be afraid to confront because we cannot separate the issue from the person. Then our disagreement becomes a complaint that we voice to others rather than the person we need to confront. And that is gossip. Somehow we do not see conflict as having value. Many of my students report that they hate conflict but also that they do indeed gossip.
Notice that giving negative criticism is one of the easiest things to do. It is easier to attack than to defend. It is a way of keeping one’s distance. If I can criticize something, then, of course, I don’t have to support it. If I can criticize a group of people, I don’t have to work with them. If I can speak negatively about a person’s wrong lifestyle, for example, it becomes a way for me to stay away from that person and never help. If I can criticize from the outside, then I don’t have to get to work on the inside.
The effects of this negative criticism on those being attacked may be much more serious than complainers realize. A government official can hardly function adequately if he must constantly defend himself against constant detractors. A businessperson who is criticized negatively may be pushed into an overly defensive position. A minister’s effectiveness is weakened considerably if members of the congregation seek to pick apart every sermon. We all know of teachers who have simply quit the profession rather than put up with negative attacks.
Complaining becomes a lifestyle. Listen and you will hear certain people always complaining about something. Some appear to be angry throughout their lives. They are not attractive. They are not eagerly sought out by people. Of course some friends try to placate these complainers, but this goes on for only a while. Eventually the friends leave the complainers because trying to get them to see the positive side of life wears these friends out. Check to see how many close friends complainers seem to have.
It seems to me that purely negative complaining is unbiblical. Christ tells us that if we have difficulty with another person, we should go to that person in love to try to solve that problem. Matthew 18 is very clear on this. Complaining provides little insight.
So how should we respond? We may not close our eyes to evil or keep quiet when we should speak out against wrongdoing. But our criticism must be constructive. Try the following suggestions.
1. We need to talk face-to-face with the person with whom we think we have a disagreement. At first, it may seem hard to do, but if we focus on the issue rather than the person, it gets much easier. In large organizations, email is the easiest way to communicate, but sometimes it is not the best way. It is not a good way to solve problems. The same can be said for texting. Face-to-face interpersonal communication is the richest form of communication. It allows us the give-and-take of working through an issue without attacking the person. We can see very quickly if the other person is becoming defensive and then we can assure the other that this is not a personal attack.
2. Ask questions for further information; not questions which accuse. It may very well be that our supposed disagreement is based on false information. Asking non-accusatory questions allows us to focus more clearly on the issue rather than the person.
3. Communicating face-to-face will kill gossip.
4. Tell the other person what you appreciate about his or her work. We will recognize the gifts of the person as well as the challenges the particular issue presents. That then moves one toward making constructive suggestions toward solving the problem.
5. When you do need to say something negative, go ahead; but never give only negative criticism. Follow up with constructive, positive help.
Please do not look to the presidential campaigns or talk radio for any help in resolving conflict. They thrive on conflict, but that conflict builds no one up. Look instead to Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”1 Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)
Emphasis mine ↩
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Reading this, it strikes me that gossip and legitimate critical or political speech are very difficult to differentiate in practice. Internal dialogue of a critical nature seems both inevitable and necessary to human organizations large and small; the question is how to keep it relatively healthy and functional.
Gossip is regarded as a breach of comity within families, friendships, and circles of relations that do not like to see themselves as political, as focused on negotiation over power and status. Our thinking goes, “Because you can talk to me directly, you should talk to me directly.” No one would ever apply this to clear cut political speech — it’s not “gossip” to criticize one’s Senator, but criticizing the CEO is more of a gray area.
If we want our social relations defined by bonds of affection it seems we de-emphasize hierarchy and create a culture where leaders are accessible. It’s come to be appropriate in most families for a child to take their grievances to a parent directly, something that can be done to excess or inappropriately, but once it would have been seen as a complete taboo. In the professional domain our society is much more conservative about rank and status. It might be the case that home life is more comfortably egalitarian now than American work life which can remain quite emphatically hierarchical and even paternalistic. Communities and neighborhoods too can go in either direction.
Within a relatively healthy organization, candid internal discussion will exist but generally can’t (and shouldn’t) involve everyone. Ombudsmen and other intermediaries can play a helpful mediating role. The same can be true of the political domain, but when people are shut out in a position of marginal status and power, the bonds of comity and trust cannot be expected to exist. Whether it is ethnic or religious minority activists asserting themselves from a disadvantaged, subcultural position, when they find civil channels closed or biased against them, they tend to see aggressive criticism as necessary and justified. They are liable to be reacted to for what seems to others as their untoward criticism, slander or gossip. In these cases that is just the surface and the symptoms; what is at the root is the breach of trust and deeper justice issues. When the breach involves people and groups that are alienated and unable to talk to each other directly as human beings, the result is very sad.
Thank you for your insightful comments. You make a good distinction between political speech and speech in families and organizations. What I dislike about much political speech at the present time–besides personal attacks that are public–are the nasty comments made by people who hide behind the screen so we do not know what they are. Rather than complaining, I suggest people either get involved in campaigns or engage in good face-to-face conversation with those who do campaign. Recently, I have had wonderful conversations with people who asked for my vote in the Iowa caucus.
In organizations, it is important, as you seem to suggest, to work through appropriate channels. One cannot contact the CEO about everything that a member wants changed. On the other hand, water-cooler gossip does very little good.
The principle I am pushing is full respect for the other person. Consider his or her needs and then determine the best way to help. That principle fits all situations even though it gets worked out differently.