Many years ago in the midst of a particularly heated argument with my husband, I made a tearful plea: When I’m angry, what if rather than getting defensive you just listened to me? An unfamiliar look came over his face and he stood speechless. Clearly, this was a new thought. When he dialed down, he made space for me to talk, which de-escalated my anger. It also helped him to see that I was not imagining a problem but rather responding to something real. He eventually apologized for over-reacting which allowed us to address the actual issue rather than endlessly eddying on the surface.
This was not an easy shift for us. Over the years, I’ve had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He’s had to patiently endure my shutdowns and develop more self-control. After 26 years, we’re still learning how to do this well.
I’m not a sociologist but I wonder if this same dynamic is responsible for fueling some of the racial tensions that we’re experiencing in the United States.
When white folks witness people of color (POCs) expressing anger or frustration over a real injustice, their response can be all over the map. For some, there’s deep empathy and sorrow, perhaps even shared anger. But others feel angry because they hear their black brothers and sisters’ words as an indictment, which then triggers defensiveness.
Defensiveness rises up when we feel threatened. It protects us from unpleasant feelings such as shame, the pain of being misunderstood, or, as was the case for my husband, the vulnerability of powerlessness. Though it’s a natural human response, defensiveness prevents us from listening and makes real conversation impossible.
By defending our perspective and cataloguing all of the potential reasons why someone else is wrong, we’ve effectively invalidated their experiences. Furthermore, when we’re defensive, we tend to dominate conversations. As speaker and writer Austin Brown wrote, “Resist the desire to control. A conversation is going to be the easiest form of releasing power; if you can’t do that, you will have little success doing so in systems, structures, and interpersonal relationships.”
The parallel here between my husband’s response and systemic racism, is that our defensiveness does not help POCs work through their pain and anger—or help us find solutions to this evil. It also prevents us from exploring our culpability.
In order to push past his default reaction, my husband had to ask himself, What kind of marriage do I want? Am I going to get there by defending myself or by listening to and offering empathy to my wife?
Similarly, as members of the body of Christ, we must ask ourselves, What kind of neighborhood, church, and nation do we want? Is it more important to defend our opinions or to become the kind of men and women who allow others’ stories to move and transform us?
Adam McHugh writes in The Listening Life,
Hearing is an act of the senses, but listening is an act of the will. . . . Listening is about more than straining to hear voices; it’s about preparing the conditions of our heart, cultivating an openness inside us. In this way, listening is a posture, one of availability and surrender.
By offering our spouse, our co-workers, our neighbors, or our perceived adversaries the sacred gift listening, we move toward each other and toward transformation. Though there will inevitably be moments of discomfort, listening will help us lay down our rhetorical swords and with God’s grace, even learn how to love each other.