My five-year-old daughter has a loose tooth. While she is one of the most fearless little girls I have ever met, this tooth is really causing her some woe. I have tried to explain that it’s barely hanging on in there—connected only by a few tiny strands of tissue. It doesn’t have any big, scary roots, and she would be much better off if she just pulled it. Instead, she worries, and she does that disgusting thing that all kids with a loose tooth do—she moves it around with her tongue and adjusts it back into place when it slips around. Disgusting, yes? It’s an exercise in futility to delay the inevitable moment when the tooth slips out into a bite of food, and with great relief, your child admits that it would have been better to just pull it in the first place, before they reached the “dangling stage.” Oh, but my dear little daughter can’t see it that way right now.
“I’m afraid it will hurt if I pull it, Mommy.”
“But, it hurts now when you chew and brush your teeth, right?”
“…and it’s making a blister on your tongue from rubbing it, right?”
“Yes, but…it might hurt if I pull it.”
“It might, but for less than a second. Isn’t that better than it poking you, and causing a big, painful blister?”
“But, Mommy—it might hurt if I pull it.”
There is no reasoning with her that the brief twinge of mild discomfort when she pulls it is worth the pain she will prevent by not letting her jagged little tooth exist in uncomfortable limbo.
It seems silly when you think about it in the context of teeth, but I do the same thing with conflict. I go to great lengths to avoid it, no matter what pain it might be causing me. Rather than biting the bullet and experiencing the fleeting discomfort of addressing what is bothering me, I let it dangle around in my head and my heart, poking me with its sharp edges.
My husband and I are two of the most non-confrontational beings alive. While we’ve never raised our voices to each other and we have had very few arguments, every issue that requires a semi-serious conversation feels like an epic event to me. My husband, however, in addition to being non-confrontational, is also very pragmatic, so it’s not an emotional tsunami for him when these conversations arise. For me, it’s like I have a thousand little jagged teeth to pull at once.
My distaste for “conflict” is certainly not a result of my husband’s response to it. He treats me with love and kindness when I finally muster up the grit to ask him if we can talk. By the end of the conversation, I feel like a child—holding my harmless little tooth in my hand and wondering why I made such a big deal about getting it out. His sweet spirit and compassionate responses make me a little braver each time I need to discuss an uncomfortable subject.
If you ask my ex-husband what personality flaws I possess, I know that a lack of verbal communication tops the list. I have never been comfortable with expressing my feelings verbally, so I would resort to a carefully worded email or note, edited dozens of times. That was exasperating for him, because he is a “take the bull by the horns” (or “tie the tooth to the doorknob” in this case) communicator. When your communication styles are mismatched, it only serves to amplify the frustration of one person and the anxiety of the other. Both parties then need to work even harder to meet the other’s needs.
If you are on the other side of the spectrum, and you are a more…aggressive communicator, there are still a few things that can benefit both of us:
- Think before you speak (but not for days like I tend to do!).
- Pray, asking God to show you any hardness in your heart or irrational thoughts or expectations.
- Be honest with your loved one that communication is a challenge for you (whether you are a “puller” or a “dangler”), and ask for patience upfront.
- Don’t get so caught up in yourself and your carefully-planned words (or impassioned rant, as the case may be) that you forget to really hear what the other person is saying in reply.
I have so much work to do in the area of communicating with boldness. Unlike my daughter, however, who will continue to protect her loose tooth like a precious, stabby pearl, I am going to resolve to “just pull it” next time, and become the communicator my family needs me to be.