How to speak the truth in love

May 29, 2015 by

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Have you ever found yourself unable to speak your truth in an anxious conversation?

You’re not alone.

We might hold back speaking because we’re afraid what someone else might think. Or perhaps we hold back because we’re afraid of ourselves— that we might blow up, give up or walk out on the relationship altogether. Keeping the peace and keeping quiet is sometimes a temptation impossible to pass up when fear of broken relationships clouds our judgement.

Anxiety can make us do some pretty crazy things; things that don’t mirror our values.

Take my story as an example.

For years I refused to speak my truth about faithful relationships with the LGBTQ community. I was terrified that my support of the gay community would be interpreted to mean that I myself was gay. I chose to believe the lie that the abuse I’d suffered decades earlier happened because at least one young man assumed I was gay. And I was prepared to do anything to protect myself — even go against my values.

One of the doorways that activated me to get out of that emotional bondage was the concept of emotional health.

At the core of emotional and relational health is the ability and willingness to embrace both our individuality and our common bonds as humans and Christians. I like to think that we’re each one, and together we’re all one.

Family systems theory calls this “emotional health” or self-differentiation. It’s the ability to speak the truth for ourselves, allow others to do the same, and yet remain connected no matter what.

I can see the benefits of emotional health for my own denominations’ dialogue about how to be a community in the midst of difference, and perhaps you can too.

But here’s the thing, we’re not born self-differentiated, we have to learn to become it. Jim Herrington, founding director of Mission Houston and director of Faithwalking said, “You will bring all the dynamics of your original family and early childhood to your relationship with God and others unless you can bring to the light the lessons you interpreted and internalized about love, trust and forgiveness during those years.”

In other words, our only option for dealing with conflict is unhealthy, unless we intentionally learn a different life standard.

Self-differentiation: describes our capacity to speak the truth as best as we see it (share with each other what we are thinking, feeling, experiencing and believing) while remaining engaged with those who differ from us. We cannot be healthy people in healthy relationships without the capacity and agency to freely and meaningfully express ourselves.

Here are several core truths for emotional health:

Saying what is so for us . . .

Individuals grow in proportion to our ability to have our own thoughts, ideas and opinions and “to hold them with integrity even when others see it differently.” Speaking the truth about ourselves is essential business in our life of faith.

. . . in the right way . . .

I language, not “you” language.
“When you do ____ I feel _____.” Rather than, “You make me angry or ashamed when you ____.”

. . . to the right person . . .

Refuse to engage in triangling, projection, gossip or passive aggressive behavior. Say what you need to say to the person you need to say it to.

. . . with the right intent . . .

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29).” Be more committed to the relationship than you are to being right.

. . . not focused on winning or losing.

“Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Speak the truth, tell your story and don’t let anyone run all over you. The Jesus ethic does not demand you lose arguments. Honesty is essential. But so is granting others the same amount of respect you desire.

Take a learning and listening posture with everyone.

Remember, everyone is created in the image of God, and in the image of God you were created. (This is a good reminder when we’re talking about hot button issues, the color of church carpet, or relating to the LGBTQ community.)

Author Arthur Paul Boers says it this way, “Differentiation is a key notion. It is the ability to be a ‘self’ or an ‘I’ in the face of pressure by others or by systems to be part of, or blend into, the ‘we.’ To be differentiated is to know and act on one’s own mind, especially when our position is different from the group’s. It means to know one’s opinion, stand, or stance without imposing expectations or demands on others. It is the ability to state clearly and calmly our position without suggesting (with ‘must,’ ‘should,’ or ‘ought’ language) that others need to have the same position.”

Earlier this week I wrote about how to prepare for difficult conversations. This includes some practical questions to ask yourself as you emotionally prepare to engage people who disagree or conversations you’re uncomfortable with.

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount and writes at blog.chron.com, where this post originally appeared. He tweets @thepeacepastor and is on Facebook


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  • Stephanie Krehbiel

    Thank you for this, Marty.

  • Kristine Regehr

    When you teach the techniques of emotionally healthy communication, I feel happy and hopeful! ;-) Really though, building these skills and using them can help us get underneath our conflicts (usually intellectually framed) to acknowledge and deal with our emotional hurts. It’s peace church work on the internal scale, and it’s high time we attended to it. Thank you! — Kristine Regehr