“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” one spouse will say to another in my office. I have wished that I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say it. Then I think, “Oh wait, I’m a marriage counselor, I do have a dime for every time I’ve heard it.” But you get the point, this is a common sentiment.
It is common because human being aren’t merely fact machines. When someone gives us the facts, it isn’t enough. Similarly, when we are in conflict, being ‘right’ isn’t enough. If we are going to relate to each other as God made us, we will need to find a way to “speak the truth in love.”
So when spouse A says to spouse B, “It’s the way you say it,” they are asking to be treated with respect and love.
You know this intuitively when someone is giving you the “facts” without the context of love. You are disoriented, hurt and maybe scared. Although you might recognize the seed of truth in the middle of what the other person is saying, you have a hard time finding your way to it. Something is wrong, but it is hard to put your finger on it. So you do one of three things:
1 – You counter with other “facts” and fight back.
2 – You shut down and “pseudo-surrender” saying, “You’re right, you’re right,” but something is turned off inside. Neither of you benefit from the “truth.”
I said that there were three options. But those first two are the most popular by a wide margin. You can see that no one benefits from either scenario. These two types of interactions don’t produce reconciliation or the enlightened understanding. Instead, they produce a repeating win-lose cycle where people care less and less about truth and more and more about protecting some shred of dignity (at all costs). But your dignity is lost too, because you aren’t fighting for truth in love anymore, you too are fighting merely to win (or not to lose).
What about that third option?
The third option is to fight for your dignity by fighting for the other person’s dignity too. There is no one-size-fits-all type of response. They will vary according to the two personalities and the intensity of the issue. But I’ll give you an example that you can experiment with:
When someone gives you truth without love – ask them to repeat it. “You’re trying to say something important, and I’m having trouble getting it. Would you try it again?”
First of all, what have you got to lose? They are going to repeat it anyway. If you ask for it, sometimes it takes a little wind out of their sails (a.k.a. “A soft answer turns away wrath” Prov. 15:1). If you ask for it, it signals that you care enough about them to try to hear any seed of truth in there, regardless of how they are delivering it. This turns the heat up on them to reciprocate with similar integrity (a.k.a. “If your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink…in so doing you heap coals of fire on their head.” Rom. 12:20).
Over time, if this works, it will be because the other person has a good heart. Their good heart responds to ‘truth in love’ and they begin to reciprocate – by softening their words. Hey, you might lose a little time, but in the long run – you win your brother.
If, over time, it doesn’t work, then something is awry with their heart and you need to find that out too. And you need to find it out before you go down that dark hole with them, self-damaging your own heart.
Speak the “truth in love” for the sake of the other person and you end up finding your own power and dignity.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. In addition to counseling individuals & couples, Roger teaches & leads discussion groups about applying the Bible to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor, holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana & earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from UNCC. He is married to Jean, and they have seven children.