She was in the fourth grade, maybe fifth. Back then, one of the few regular occasions of conflict between us involved me helping her with her math homework.
When she didn’t understand, she got defensive. When she got defensive, her tone and words sometimes veered into disrespectful territory.
I accept the lion’s share of the blame in these conflicts. I was the adult, the parent, the person in charge. But I often reacted, rather than responded. I hadn’t yet learned the art of walking away, of setting aside for a time. (I still haven’t mastered this skill, but I have gotten a little better at it.)
One particular day, however, I made a conscious decision. I would speak softly. I would smile. I would not get irritated or aggravated, no matter how many buttons she pushed.
I actually did all of this, too. And yet, when we got to a point where she struggled to understand, she said something interesting.
“Mom, stop screaming at me.”
I confess. There have been plenty of times in my life as a mother when I have raised my voice. I’m not proud of these moments. I try to apologize for them when they happen.
But this was not one of them. In fact, it was exactly the opposite.
And right there in the kitchen, math homework in hand, I had a little epiphany.
When I said something she didn’t like, she translated it as screaming.
To my way of thinking, my daughter’s statement about my quiet words bordered on ridiculous. But given her sensitive nature, combined with past comments about other situations, it also made perfect sense.
Since then, I’ve discovered that my girl is not the only one who does this. For example, my hair stylist recently told me that when her mother gets angry, her voice gets lower and quieter. But when she speaks, my stylist hears screaming.
These things came to mind recently when I was a third-party observer to some conversations where I heard one thing and the actual participants felt something else. I was intrigued to realize that what I interpreted as regular talking came across to them as much angrier communication.
It’s possible that they were reading more into the situation than was really there. It’s equally possible that I was oblivious to what was really going on. Either way, one thing is certain: We heard the same conversation and came away with completely different impressions of what had transpired.
Here’s the thing. As odd as it seems to me, sometimes, when people hear something they don’t like or disagree with, they translate what’s been said as more intense than it might actually have been. Instead of normal conversation, for instance, they hear screaming or yelling.
When I consider my response when this happens to or around me, I need to remember that perception is reality, even if that reality is not actually real. As a result, trying to convince someone (including me) that what he or she feels is not accurate is often as beneficial as trying to teach geometry to a duck.
All I can control is me. And when another person’s interpretation of my words is inaccurate—or at least not in accordance with what I felt or meant—I have some choices to make.
When the situation involves one of my children, I can—and often do—take it as a learning opportunity. They will be interacting with people all their lives, so if I can encourage them not to take offense, to listen wisely and to understand that there’s always a back story, I will be doing them a great service.
Their perceptions also help me understand them better. What seems like a small thing to me might be huge to them. And asking questions about what they felt and heard as we spoke gives me the opportunity to do things differently in the future. (Sometimes, for example, they simply would prefer that certain conversations take place at home, in private, rather than in the middle of the public library.)
I do have other options, of course, whether I’m dealing with my kids or with other people.
I could adopt the attitude that they are being oversensitive and need to get over it.
I could engage right then and there and try to convince them that their interpretation is wrong.
Or, I could pray.
Other choices might be easier or more convenient, but only with prayer do I have any chance of selecting the response that is right for each individual situation.
I don’t always pick this option, mind you. I frequently react rather than respond, much as I used to do in those after-school homework sessions with my daughter.
But if I want to respond in a loving way more often, here’s what I need to pray.
• That the people with whom I’m interacting will be discerning—that they will see things how they really are, rather than through the lens of defensiveness or emotional baggage.
• That I will see things how they really are, rather than through the lens of my need to be right, my need to convince them that what they think isn’t accurate, or my tendency to be less sensitive than I could be.
• That I will accept feedback and humbly acknowledge when I have come across in a way that was different from how I intended.
• That I will come across in a loving way, that I will be able to tell when someone has misinterpreted my words, and that I will have the wisdom to know when to say something about it or just let it go.
That’s a lot to remember, I know. But casting every bit of it before the One who hears all, sees all and knows all is my only hope of ever getting it right myself.