Taming the Tongue: The Narrative Method

In seminary formation we were introduced to a form of counseling called “Rogers.” At least that is how we refer to it. It might be considered “narrative therapy.” We are not qualified as therapists of course and that really is not our calling. However, this slight introduction has been quite priestshelpful to my ministry, and has given me a moderate way to correct people while recognizing a perhaps sensitive nature that might not be open to correction.

As Ecclesiastes teaches us, there is a time for this and a time for that. We must be prudent in our discernment of what method we use to go about correcting one another. But one thing remains certain: we must be intentional about it, and not mastered by our own impulsiveness and anger.

I would like to introduce one method that is a bit indirect, and may not be used at all times, but is helpful at others.

<<Narrative Methodology>>

The supposition is that sometimes people create their own “narrative.” We fill in the gaps with assumptions and subjectively turn them into facts (when they are actually not true at all). That is to say, our subjective vision of our relationships is not aligned to reality. The “story we tell ourselves” needs to be re-written and aligned to the truth.

What makes a good lie believable? A measure of truth. That means that every lie is often associated with a mixture of truth, a half-truth, married to a lie. We have to “reframe” the narrative in another person’s mind, without losing the truth that is harbored. That means we have to manage to validates the wound or the truth held to, while dismissing or vanquishing the lie that skews reality.

 

I would like to offer therefore, two ways in which we can accomplish this:

 1.  Good-Grow-Great

When we get frustrated with a person’s behavior we often oversimplify the situation, and “seem to” condemn their whole view point. Of course we aren’t condemning the whole view-point, but that is how a direct Male Gossipapproach sometimes is interpreted. As a result, a person who easily interprets things in an overly-simplistic manner, will react. And this is not always the response we want.

 

In our “Toast-Masters” training we were taught to offer criticism in the following manner: GOOD-GROW-GREAT. That is the “ideal.” Sometimes things are so terrible the response is really: “Are you serious?” Which actually was a response from one of our judges during our persuasive speeches. It was funny.

 

In any case, the point of Good-Grow-Great, is that we begin with something good, phrase an area for growth in a positive manner, and end with what the highlight was.

Often times what actually happens is people say, “this was good, but…”

 

The word “but” is often interpreted to mean, “please ignore everything I just said and listen now to what I really want you to hear: the bad.” The emphasis of “grow” rather than condemn means that the “person” is someone we have faith in. We see their potential, and do not think the “person” is hopeless. That is important. We condemn ideas, definitely, but grow here is associated with the person, not necessarily the idea.

 

We end with what is great, not to underplay the area for growth, but to reassure them that we were not just honing in on the negative. We were not giddy, if you will, about what we didn’t like. This helps the person know we are being objective, and not on a witch-hunt.

 2. Repeat-but-reframe:

Often times people want their feelings validated. Without that validation, people feel alone. And when people feel alone, they don’t feel safe, they question themselves, they are also not being objective. But we also have to be careful that in this process we do not validate something that is untrue. It is a tough balance. Think of a field filled with weeds. It can be very frustrating to think that we can’t just scorch the lawn and re-plant grass. We have to do the hard work of weeding. Sometimes, as Jesus teaches us, we have to let the weeds grow beside the wheat. It is a matter of discernment. But if we can uproot the weeds without destroying the good, then we should try that. Be prudent.

 

So here is a technique that may be applicable. When people profess to you that they are experiencing x + Y and that it (=) makes them feel p, you have been given intimate knowledge.

However, you know that Y is incorrect, but x is true. You might respond, Barack Obama“What I hear you saying is that you feel p because of x. Is that fair?” In this way of talking,  you have validated the truth, but also reframed it so as to remove the error. You are also asking a question, which is good, because it gives the person the ability to correct you if you heard them wrong, without thinking of you as being someone who assumes or judges too quickly.

 

Here is a concrete example:

 

A: Yesterday, I was bullied by 5 of my class mates! Why does everyone hate me!?

B: “That is horrible! I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel hated by those five people.”

Here you have reframed the self-pity that exaggerates the wound. The person likely exaggerates the wound in order to convey to you that the wound is real, and it is hurtful. They might fear you will dismiss the hurt because only five people were in on it. But the problem with exaggerating the wound is that if the person says it often enough to themselves, they will begin to think that it is true, and thus have developed a martyr complex that is difficult to heal. It isn’t the truth that everyone hates them- that is the point.  And thank goodness for that.

Another example:

A: “My whole life is a waste of time. There is no meaning to anything.”

B: “Not knowing our God-given purpose is a very confusing place to be, isn’t it?”

 

Of course a lot more could be said directly. But if you get the sense that the person wants to have their feeling of being “lost” validated, it is important to do this. It doesn’t mean we validate the lie that they have no purpose. In fact, in such a response, we have reworded it in a rather challenging manner. We have suggested to them that they feel lost because they do not know their purpose. That presupposes they have a purpose, and that the solution is to search it out. All of a sudden we have constructed a mindset – if they accept it – that gives them a more proactive manner of approaching their situation.

Finally, sometimes you are dealing with people you know personally, and they are accusing you of things which are false.  It is easy to use this method with people we don’t know well, but with family, emotion and baggage can interfere with our capacity to have self-control over what we say.   To the person, they are subjectively believing a half-lie half-truth to be the truth. That is, they have convinced themselves of a lie. To make it challenging, that lie is mixed with truths. It becomes difficult to even know where to begin.

The solution? One might want to organize the thoughts, by breaking down each issue, one at a time. A laundry list of issues is no good, if it is listed and all over the place. Take ownership over the discussion and restrict the discussion to one issue at a time. Otherwise all that is happening is one is spewing/venting their anguish, and therefore using you as a means to beat you down. It isn’t helpful.

 

Also, the person might want to present themselves as transcending the situation, and forgetting that they are actually a part of it. Think of the PharUnhappy young couple having an argumentisee who said, “thank you God that I’m not like this sinner.” The moment a person doesn’t see how they are like others, is the moment that the person is not objective and is actually distant from the heart of the matter. Jesus refers to this as self-righteousness. This is where humility can be a great aid. Sometimes humility in recognizing our faults towards others (even if our fault is only 10 percent of the equation) can give us peace, in that we are doing this honestly. Some people will exploit that, but it is sometimes a thing worth doing for your own sake. Alternatively, humility can inspire humility in others. This is why self-deprecation can actually be very helpful.

If a person often apologizes, while another never does: it speaks for itself. The helpful (not better) person is the one who not only recognizes he or she isn’t perfect, but actually demonstrates this by being vulnerable enough to apologize for specific instances of bad choices. All of us are guilty, aren’t we? The first to genuinely apologize, no matter how small that is part of the equation is a person who opens the discussion to grace and love. Without that openness, usually the conversation never goes anywhere meaningful. It is an act of mercy, therefore, for some people to apologize first, even if in their mind the other person ought to do it first.

In returning to dealing with false-accusations and false narratives, sometimes the issue is only fueled further with snarky remarks that distract from cold-hard facts. We are all guilty of this. But we have to control our tongue. If you are face to face with the person, you get the chance to offer them “tone of voice” “facial expressions” and the content itself. As a result you offer the content of your discussion with a breadth of context that helps them understand whether it is coming from a good place.

As you do this, you may find yourself with an agitation, a desire to be “understood.” Control that impulse right away. It is better to seek argument2understanding of the other, rather than to be understood. This again, demonstrates that you are concerned not with just yourself, but with hearing the other person.  The ultimate concern should be in what the truth is, and bringing someone to that truth involves charity first.

What does it mean to seek understanding? In this method, it means that you ask questions, and you re-phrase statements to make sure you have understood them properly. “You felt that I did x, because of y?” Instead of running to the immediate conclusion of explaining yourself you have rephrased a false accusation without automatically defending yourself (thus not validating their emotion).

You have also stated, carefully, that their judgment is the person’s feeling, not the actual truth. “You feel” is a powerful statement, because it puts the bias where it belongs. If you say, “that is simply not true” the question might be asked: “my feelings aren’t true?” Or what actually happened?

You might again respond, “If that happened, I would be angry too. Would you mind if I explain what I was thinking?” This way, you make sure that a change to the narrative is welcome. If the person is not going to welcome your own understanding, then don’t bother discussing the issue. It is hopeless until both sides learn to seek understanding. But if it is welcome, you now have the chance to explain things.

Finally the conversation transcends personal biases and emotions, and now deals with cold hard facts. And the interpretation of those facts can be expressed. You have validated the person’s emotions according to their own narrative, but now you have given the right narrative, and their own response should become aligned to the truth. That might actually take time though. Emotional investments can occur over time, narratives can deeply impact the habits and attitudes that form the way of life we have. But if all of this is done with humility and love, you have invited grace into the situation.

 

Here are two resources that might also help. If you are a prayerful person, read these over and pray with them prior to entering into a difficult discussion with family, friends, co-workers, peers, and parishioners.

 

Litany of Humility

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, etc.
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, etc.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I go unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should,

 

 

Sacred Scripture: James Chapter 3

Taming the Tongue

3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Two Kinds of Wisdom

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

 

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