As any married couple can testify, good communication is one of the most important factors in a healthy relationship. Strong trust in the motivations and intentions of the other is equally important. In my relationship with my wife, as well as with collegial relationships with co-workers and across organizational boundaries, I began to notice a consistent pattern that went something like this:
This broken cycle may start spinning from any point, though in my experience, the point where it usually becomes evident is with unmet expectations. From there, the cycle just keeps spinning, and can pick up speed rapidly:
- Unmet expectations – What I wanted and expected did not come to pass, and the other person (not me) is to blame for failing me.
- Broken trust – Without realizing it, my trust in them takes a hit and unless I recognize what is happening and take immediate countermeasures, I will sink to a…
- Defensive posture – In order to prevent the hurt of the unmet expectation from happening again, I put up my relational shields and wait for them to bring a flag of truce (apology).
- Inadequate communication – My defensive posture, of course, further diminishes the quality of communication, which is what caused the misalignment of assumptions and expectations in the first place, but due to the emotional fog of the present conflict, I am oblivious to the fact that my defensive posture is making things worse.
- False assumptions – In the absence of good communication, assumptions get further misaligned, bringing us back to
- Unmet expecations – but this time with much more velocity for the next spin around this crazy cycle.
Breaking out of the spin
Good news! Reversing the cycle from a destructive spinout to a constructive building up is possible, but it requires that one of the parties do so unilaterally, not waiting for the other to do it first, and long before they feel like it. It seems to start at the point of graciously and patiently improving communication (which may be hard to do, depending on the intensity of the emotions involved). That can lead to recognition of false assumptions which then explains the unmet expectations. (Word to the wise: steer clear of the blame game at this point, no matter how clearly you can see where “they” fell short… in time, you will see where you also fell short!)
Three passages from Scripture to keep in mind:
“You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires” (James 1:19–20 NLT).
Listen well and assume the other person will fail you (so that you are not surprised by it when they do):
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful” (Colossians 3:13–15 NLT).
Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart, and proactively love the other, with the same love that God loves you:
“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7 NLT).
Be the one to quietly, graciously wade into the raging current and humbly withstand it, in spite of what you feel. Eventually, by the grace of God, the tide may change.