ask a simple question…
Have you ever asked someone a simple question only to have them react defensively?
“Could you put your dirty plate in the sink?” you ask.
“Well… you don’t always put your plate in the sink!” they retort.
Wow, you think, I can’t even ask a simple question. How are we supposed to have normal conversation if they respond like that? Even everyday interactions with a defensive person become painfully complicated. If we can’t talk about a dish, how are we ever going to resolve a deeper conflict? It is even possible to get close if I don’t feel safe asking simple questions?
This is a real dilemma. God made us (at least on the inside) to be cuddly creatures, but we seem to be surrounded by porcupines. Yes, a real dilemma.
Since those over-sensitive porcupines (you know how they are) are probably not reading a post on improving relationship, I’m forced to address this post to you – the cuddly-simple-question-asking creature that you are.
I want you to consider what may be a new thought. Or perhaps, you won’t find it as much new as strange. Here is the thought: what if your simple question isn’t as simple as you think?
Granted, it might have started out simple. A few months or a few years ago, maybe you meant and only meant “Could you put your dirty plate into the sink?” At first, your intent matched the plain definition of the words. But then something happened as you went back and forth with your defensive friend or spouse. Maybe they started it. Yes, for the sake of helping you read this, let’s say they started it. It was small at first.
You made a simple dirty plate request. And they reacted in a small defensive way. Let’s say they reacted with a pronounced sigh. “(SIGH). . . OK. I’ll put the plate in the sink.”
Just a sigh. Or a roll of the eye. But you felt it; a little twinge or recoil? And the simple request and response sequence is now complicated. But you didn’t say anything. The plate got into the sink after all. So, you decide to just keep moving.
But consider this: you likely made a small (almost subconscious) adjustment. “Hmm…That was tricky,” you think, “I’ll have to be careful.” And then your next “simple question” is subtly adjusted by this anxiety. You hardly notice it. You think that you are saying the same thing in the same way. But despite yourself, the subtle anxiety adjusts your demeanor. Anxiety (read that fear) always adjusts your demeanor. Yes, the words are approximately the same. But anxiety changes the delivery.
Maybe you add your own sigh. “Could you…(sigh)… put your plate in the sink?”
That’s the same thing, you might say. But it isn’t. It isn’t just a simple question anymore. It is now an anxiety-laced simple question. You’ve shifted from asking a simple question to now making a subtle accusation. Because you are feeling threatened, because you are slightly guarded, you become different. And you might not even notice it.
But that porcupine over there picks up on it. They may misinterpret it, but they don’t miss it. When porcupines sense accusation, they raise their quills.
“Why are you being like that?!” they say, sharply.
“Like what!?” you bristle back.
Now there are two quivering quill-raised porcupines. And the conversation isn’t about the plate anymore, it is about protecting yourself (this doesn’t bode well for a cuddly evening). Both porcupines think the other started it. They are both right, but they are also both wrong.
Again, since the other porcupine isn’t reading this and you are, let me ask you to consider another question: Are you willing to admit your anxiety-defensiveness, whether the other porcupine does?
It is an important question, one that will determine the quality of your life. You don’t want your life to be a cumulative reaction to other people’s porcupine-ness, do you? Or, in an anxiety-based cycle, for even your genuine attempts at conversation to be slowly twisted into veiled accusations or evasions? Of course not, no one wins in such a cycle.
Then you have to start where you can. You have to start with you. You have to, as Jesus said, “look at the log in your own eye” without rolling it or sighing.
Here are a few ways to start. Do this when you have one of those tricky, frustrating conversations:
1- Look inward and take responsibility for your own insecurity or pain by naming it. “Ouch, that hurt.” Or, “Wow, I felt nervous about that.” Don’t worry about being precise about whether it was an overreaction or not (time for that later). Just be honest about what you felt.
2- Look to God and take responsibility for your own propensity to quill-up by confessing it. “When they said that, I did _________” (fill in whatever you did: responded sarcastically/passive-aggressively/sharply, or maybe you shut down or ran away). Don’t worry about being precise about how much of a sin it was or not (time for that later). Just be honest about how you reacted.
The theory here is that your honesty helps you get off the cycle. Looking first at yourself is the only part you have a chance at controlling. If it slows you down, even a little, perhaps you can recover your ability to love (whether tough or tender) in a difficult situation.
Maybe that other porcupine will reciprocate in kind. But even if they don’t, one less porcupine (you) in this world would still do us all some good.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.