Why Not What

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think most of us can admit that there are things in our personality that are just a little off. These things could have been caused by events in our past, genetic predispositions or inheritance, behavioral dysfunctions, or just the luck of the draw! But no matter what the cause, my experience is everyone has their thing.

And whatever that thing is, it works out just fine – there’s no problem at all – until you have to interact with somebody else. Then eventually your thing – and their thing – will start causing you trouble. This is why I tell people around me that I’m an “EGR” person – Extra Grace Required! My thing, or things as it turns out, tend to be pretty frustrating to people and those close to me certainly need patience and a lot of extra grace to deal with me at times.

But, on the other hand, their things are no picnic either….

Which gets me to what I want to talk about today. When we’re dealing with each other’s things, we tend to ask ourselves the wrong question when we’re trying to figure out just what is going on. When someone close to us has one of those moments where their issue starts to interfere with logical thought and rational behavior, the default question in our head is, “What are they thinking?”

Have you ever noticed that no matter how many times you go through something that question is never really fully answered? Well, that’s because it’s the wrong question. The truth is, most of us in the heat of the moment aren’t really thinking, we’re reacting to some causality in our psyche and instead of having rational thoughts, we are defensively responding to emotional and chemical triggers that are much harder, if not impossible, to control.

Like you, for years I used to mutter to myself, “What’s wrong with that guy?” or “What in the heck is so-n-so doing?” It’s just been in the last several years I’ve realized that I needed to change my “what” questions to “why” questions if I hoped to have any understanding, compassion, grace, mercy, and/or forgiveness in my life.

“Why” is the key to relationships in my mind. If I can understand why you are doing what you’re doing I can then respond in a way that is not only compassionate and caring, but helpful and productive. I think we’ve all been in those arguments that go around and around as each tries to prove their point and the other is trying to figure out how in the world the person can actually believe what they’re saying! If you’re married, you know what I’m talking about.

But if you can slow down and ask yourself, “Why is this person making this argument?” you find that the answer usually is deep, meaningful, and comes from a place of emotional experience (good or bad) that may or may not make any sense logically.

When we deal in the “why” instead of the “what” we get to causality, which is vitally important in communication, especially communicating opposing positions. You’ve perhaps heard it said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s Third Law). Well, when we argue with each other it could be equally true that every word or statement has an equal and opposite rebuttal. That’s the what. But have you ever wondered why?

Think of your own life. I am sure you can remember some argument you had in the past where the things the other person said just set you off. Why? Well, they touched on sensitive areas – not logical ones, but emotionally sensitive areas. When you think about those areas, it actually makes perfect sense – at least to you – why you would react in such a way. The problem is that the other person’s experiences are not the same as yours and because of that they can’t understand your reactions because they don’t have the same emotional stimuli. Your response to them is, “Why can’t you get this?” Well, the answer is simple: they don’t have the same experiences and you’ve probably never shared with them how your experiences affect your worldview.

Now turn it around. Think of an argument you had with someone where you were not very compassionate about their responses, which are just as valid as yours based on their emotional history and experiences. Do you see that how they reacted made no sense to you but could, indeed, make sense if you better understood why they reacted the way they did?

This may sound simplistic and it is. But it also is something most people don’t do, which causes no end of arguments, heartache, and undue emotional pain in relationships. I see it in families; I see it in marriages; I see it in church. People listen to respond not to understand what the other person is saying. They listen to the what but never think of the why behind what is being said. And the end result is predictable – lots of misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

Now I’m not saying figuring out the why is easy. It’s not. First, the person with the thing must understand why it’s a thing and be able to articulate that clearly to another person. Second, the other person must have a soft enough heart to accept the things a person brings to the relationship and work hard to understand why someone struggles with their thing so as not to exacerbate that thing during discussions. And third, both parties need to work on making their things less volatile and reactive and instead work on healing so that the thing isn’t a thing anymore!

Whew, that’s a lot. But nobody said relationships were easy! When my wife and I counsel those seeking to marry we warn them that marriage is different from anything else they’ve ever done. You choose to love and stay together because marriage is hard and it is work. Most of that work is communication and acting and reacting to each other in a way that honors God. But that said, I think you could say that about any relationship to a lesser degree.

After writing this I hope it makes sense. It’s a strange topic but one I think is so important to the health of relationships that I wanted to share a few thoughts on it. My prayer for you is that the next time you end up in a discussion with someone, ask this question when things heat up, “Why are they doing what they are doing and how can I better understand why they are reacting the way they are?”

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