I often think of faith communities as tapestries, every thread and every colour representing a person or significant event in the life of the community. Tug gently on any one thread and the ripple effect is felt throughout the entire tapestry.
Humans come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and personalities. Within the crucible of community, each of us brings our wounds and insecurities, as well as our strengths and our God given gifts. Within the context of a faith community, we are particularly vulnerable to people who come seeking to use the fabric of our tapestry as a place to play out their personal agendas. We can be so focused on “being nice” that all sorts of problematic behaviours remain unchallenged. Fortunately, faith communities also attract many compassionate and spiritually aware souls who come seeking to make the world a kinder and gentler place to live.
Seen as a tapestry, the threads representing difficult people and destructive behaviours are worn and thin — vulnerable to breakage. The threads representing the compassionate souls seeking greater good form the strength of the fabric. As a spiritual leader of a faith community, I think of the difficult souls as wounded people needing extra grace and compassion so that one day, they too will form the threads which hold us together rather than tearing us apart. The challenge is to offer grace and compassion without either getting tangled in their personal dramas, or enabling their difficult behaviours. Here’s my top six list of strategies which I use to help me walk that path.
1. Listen Deeply. Listen deeply, and without judgment. It is not necessary to agree with what you are hearing, nor is it necessary to even like the person you are listening to. Respectful listening helps a person feel heard and cared for. Be careful not to get hooked into their issues or to engage in conversations that largely feature discussion about other people who are not present for the conversation. If you feel yourself becoming hooked, it is time to walk away. If you notice the conversation has drifted to a place where there is naming and blaming of another person, pause and ask that the person reframe their conversation to use “I language” instead of “he/she language”.
2. It’s Not About You. Wayne Dyer once said, “When you judge another, you do not define them … you define yourself.” When faced with an “extra grace required” person, be aware that they are playing out their own woundedness in their behaviours and their conversations. If they are attacking you personally, it’s not really about you, it’s about something in their own heart that is causing them to behave or speak the way they do. Wounded people wound people, and in so doing, often cause great tears in the community tapestry. Let the person know you are willing to listen, to send them love and light, and be clear about your personal boundaries. Let the person know you are not willing to be part of conversations that are harmful to themselves, or others.
3. Be Aware Of Language. Extra grace-required people use words that are intended to inflame or provoke an emotional response. The words “always” and “never” appear regularly in their sentences. Don’t let inflammatory language go unchallenged. Ask for specific, factual and current examples of what the extra grace required person is talking about. When you hear words like “bullying” or “attack”, ask for specific behaviours. Inflammatory language is often intended to control or manipulate your response, and creates an environment where drama thrives. Be aware of how language is being used to perpetuate the speaker’s personal agenda, and shift the conversation to a more gracious and compassionate tone. Redirect the conversation away from polarizing statements or conversation that focuses on someone being right and others being wrong.
4. Future Orientation. Extra grace-required people spend a lot of time talking about past events. Looking backward makes it next to impossible to move forward. “Historical rhetoric” is damaging to the spiritual and emotional well-being of the speaker, as well as the listener. Taking a future orientation means saying, “I understand you are feeling (name the emotion) right now. What sorts of strategies do you use to take care of yourself?” It is quite likely that the person will be unable to name any, which provides an opportunity to encourage the person to be gentle with themself and to suggest life-giving alternatives to their current behaviour. Be prepared for resistance at this stage. Extra grace-required people rarely want to move out of the past.
5. Problem Solving. Extra grace-required people tend to focus on what’s “wrong”, and are ready to name a long list of real or perceived grievances. This type of communication is often intended to dominate and control, rather than to sincerely take care of issues. If they are complaining about another person’s behaviour, talk about ways the complainant can engage in relationship that is more helpful for themselves and the person they are complaining about. For example, when you hear statements like, “Suzy is always snapping at me, and she never says thank you when I do something nice for her.” respond with, “Have you let Suzy know how you feel?” Chances are, they haven’t. Scripture provides us with how to proceed with love and care for all involved, and here are a few of my favourites:
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)
6. An opportunity for Mutual Growth
All of our relationships mirror our inner worlds back to ourselves, and provide an opportunity for us to see the places in ourselves which need extra grace and healing. The qualities in another that upset you are often those aspects of yourself that you are trying not to see, or are unaware of. Ask yourself, “What am I meant to learn about myself in this situation?” As Ram Dass says, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
Rev. Paula Ashby is the pastor of Creston’s Trinity United Church.