Together with some colleagues this week I experienced some in-service training on “Managing Difficult People.” (We even got a certificate for it!)
Of course before I rushed off with my new found enthusiasm and ‘expertise’ on how to handle challenging behaviour, one has only to scrutinise one’s own family relationships to see how improving the quality of communication is not an overnight success no matter how well versed one might become in some useful skills and techniques. The course leader reliably informed us that 85% of people “in the workplace” were passive or aggressive or sometimes just passive-aggressive. The remaining 15% of the working population therefore, are what is termed as “assertive” i.e. having a positive mindset and thoughtful or more conscious, shall we say, about how to resolve problems of communication and arrive at a solution rather than take refuge in the ‘fight or flight’ type of behaviour that many of us can give in to the temptation of doing. And let’s face it, if we’re honest, we can do that in our own family relationships from time to time, interspersed occasionally with the more common sense approach. (Well that’s how it can be with me sometimes as I make no claim to be a paragon of virtue on this but I am willing to learn and make progress especially in getting through to my children!)
Skills, ideas, techniques and tips are well and good and there is a plethora of them to read either in books or on the web. I don’t dispute them but I do think that as Christians if we rely solely on our own efforts to win, the struggle for better and more fruitful communication will fizzle out because the truth is, sometimes, in family and work relationships, what can be required of us is not just love and respect (family), courtesy and professionalism (work) but heroic virtue. And without grace we’re just not going to achieve nor have a hope of sustaining it!
So it’s worth reminding ourselves of the four hallmarks of what makes for real and fruitful dialogue outlined by Blessed Paul VI in his very first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (His Church) on the 6th August, 1964.
1) Clarity. Before any other considerations, we need to be sure that what is said is intelligible. “We can think of it as a kind of thought transfusion.” He says (spouses can be quite good at that sometimes!)“Examine closely the kind of speech we use,” he continues. Ask oneself “Is it easy to understand? Can it be grasped by ordinary people? Is it current idiom?”
2) Meekness. I think this virtue is often confused with being passive, almost allowing oneself to be a doormat to others. But that’s not the reality. The pope explains; our dialogue must be free of “arrogance, the use of barbed words or offensive bitterness.” We all know that bawling and shouting in the end gets us nowhere. Meekness has a gravitas and an authority when quietly and calmly “it affirms the truth,..avoids peremptory language, makes no demands. It is peaceful, has no use for extreme methods, is patient under contradiction and inclines towards generosity.” That already sounds like a tall order but with God’s help and frequent practice, it’s an art we can refine.
3) Confidence. This is about confidence in expressing oneself for sure but it’s also about always making allowances for the other and building trust. “Hence dialogue promotes intimacy and friendship on both sides..and excludes all self-seeking.” In short, we must do what we can to build genuine good will. Be genuine, don’t feign welcome (which is a sin) it will more likely pay off.
4) Prudence. I think this is a more difficult one to master because we live in such a frenetically-paced day to day environment, exacerbated by 24/7 social media use and emails that demand our instant response where we often deny ourselves time to stop, reflect and then give a considered response. (The course leader advised that one should always read an important email at least 3 times before responding.) This skill is about making “allowances for the psychological and moral circumstances” of others said the pope, “particularly a child, unprepared, suspicious or hostile.” (I am sure we can think of one or two adolescent family members or even others that might fall in to the last two categories!) Be at pains to the sensitivities of others urges the pope. We all know what that’s like. Sometimes one has to tread on eggshells in some situations and it can be time consuming and demanding but hopefully, in the end, worth the effort when it's ultimately rewarded by the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit; charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.“In a dialogue conducted with this kind of foresight” says Pope Paul, “truth is wedded to charity and understanding to love.” This is sage advice. And if all else fails and we really struggle to hit the right note with someone or we just don’t seem to be getting through or making progress there’s always the unfailing help of the guardian angels whose feast day we will celebrate on the 2nd October, just two days before the opening of the Synod on the family! Pope Pius XII put it best: (I have tried this devotion countless times in my life and believe me it works. Use it often!)
"In speaking with someone who is closed to your argument, go to your guardian angel and recommend the matter to him. Ask him to take it up with the guardian angel of the person you have to see. Once the two angels establish an understanding, the conversation with the visitor will be much easier."
More insights HERE!
- Edmund Adamus
Director, Office of Marriage and Family Life - Diocese of Westminster, UK