What do you do when someone tells you something about someone else?
I had an experience recently that led me to ask myself this question. "How do I handle a conversation when someone complains to me about someone else; when they tell me that they have a concern, or that they have been offended, or when they denigrate or demean someone?"
We (Jill and I) were once part of a community of believers that had a covenant between us about how to conduct relationships. We were very intentional about how we handled situations like I described above. These were the guidelines:
1. We committed to not participate in a conversations where the topic became about someone that wasn't present.
2. We agreed to encourage the person with a concern about someone to approach the other person directly.
3. We promised to approach the person in question after 24 hours to ask them if the person with concern had spoken to them
The upshot of this was responsibility in relationships consistent with Jesus teaching in Matthew 18:15. Direct communication and direct confrontation.
"If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you..."
Admittedly, this full passage is directed at those that have sinned and offended, but it seems to be good practice for lesser concerns.
How do you think Jesus handled his disciples concerns about each other? Can you imagine the circumstance of one coming to him to complain about another? And how do you think he responded? My guess is that he re-directed them to the person with whom they had a concern, and that this was part of their training in relationships; to be direct with each other.
When a friend comes with the gift of feedback, I appreciate their courage and benefit from their perspective. It's easier to hear when they combine affirmation with concern. "I appreciate your heart and passion. And, because I believe in you and what you're about, I have some feedback about how you affected me and how I perceived you when _______." Such conversations help me to see myself and to grow.
However, if the same person comes as a messenger for someone else, all sorts of bad things happen. "Hey, a couple people have mentioned to me that they were offended when _______." OR "Someone you know well approached me but they're probably not going to talk to you, so I'm going to tell you that _______." Yuk. I really don't like this. Do you?
Why did the messenger listen to the complaint instead of re-directing the complainant?
How does it enable the complainant to remain immature in relationship?
What do I/you miss in terms of opportunity for a potent relationship because someone that supposedly cares about us offered feedback third-hand?
Unfortunately, to my observation, this manner of conducting relationships is common, and direct communication is uncommon. It is unpopular to do otherwise.
Here's my commitment going forward:
1. The moment someone complains to me about someone else (or tells me about how they've been offended, etc.) I'm going to ask them to stop. "My personal policy based on Matthew 18 is to not listen to gossip or slander about others."
2. I will urge the complainant to speak directly with the person they'd begun to talk about.
3. I will not complain about anyone or give a bad report to anyone about others. If I have a concern about something that has happened between me and someone else, I'll go to them myself or keep my mouth shut.
Will this mode of operation in relationships make me popular? Probably not. No one likes to be cut-off or somehow "corrected" about what they share with us. But, I'll have a clear conscience about doing my part to increase the potency and health of relationships, and I hope that I will increase my reputation for being positive and trustworthy in conversation.
Finally, there's another ramification to ceasing talk about others. We'll be free to talk about other things! Like what? Ideas, visions, projects to help others, to build the Kingdom of God.
Mama taught me when I was young that small people talk about people, bigger people talk about things, and the biggest people talk about ideas to help others and to change the world. In the context of having limited days of life to live, that's what I want to spend my time doing; changing the world in the ways God gifted me to do it. And if He prompts me to be part of helping another person to change themselves, I'll do it directly.
Learning and growing, Jeff
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