When is the last time that, out of the blue and with no apparent reason, somebody said or emailed something hurtful to you? Sadly, it is not that uncommon.
And what went through your mind when that happened? If you are like most people, you might have thought in terms of “fight or flight”. That is, you might have begun thinking how to defend yourself by responding in kind and lashing out at the person (“fight”), or you might have avoided a confrontation by holding back and saying nothing (“flight”).
The problem is that neither fight or flight is a very good choice. If we decide to “fight”, we often find that we’ve just made a bad situation even worse. And if we choose “flight”, we are often left with smoldering resentment.
Is there a skillful and compassionate response to this kind of situation? Actually, this recently happened to Doug, a pastor friend of mine. Doug received a negative email from one of his congregants. He was surprised, since there seemed to be no reason for this. But rather than respond in kind, Doug found a compassionate way to resolve things.
I asked Doug how he was able to stay calm in the face of his congregant’s harsh words. The key, he told me, was being aware that the hurtful message had nothing to do with him. Since he had done nothing to provoke such an email, he knew that it had to stem from the congregant’s own unresolved hurts and fears. This awareness allowed him to maintain a compassionate perspective.
Doug mentioned something that Prof. Michael Nichols writes in The Lost Art of Listening (p. 114): “A listener’s emotional reaction seems inappropriate only as long as you can’t see his or her memory.”
In other words, the reason that a person is reacting in an ‘over the top’ way is because something in that person’s history is being triggered. If we knew the history, we’d know why the person is behaving this way. But even if we don’t, this awareness makes it easier to respond from our hearts and to avoid lashing out at them.
So how do we best respond to people’s hurtful words and reactions in such situations? We can take a page from about this from Doug. He didn’t blame himself; he knew he had nothing to apologize for. And aware of the Nichols quote (above), he didn’t pass judgment on his congregant.
Instead, he responded to his congregant’s concerns in a caring manner. He also set a boundary; he included a statement about what kind of communication he is and is not willing to receive. The congregant, in turn, wrote back with a heartfelt apology.
It is not always easy to keep this perspective in mind. When people come at us with hurtful words, the natural instinct is “fight or flight”. That is, either attack or run away. That is what makes Doug’s behavior so special. He held a compassionate perspective in the face of hurtful words, and simultaneously he set boundaries. Another way of saying this is that he honored both himself and the other. And that is true compassion.