In appreciation to Richard Martin who reminded me again of this important distinction.Not long ago I was invited by the Beyers Naude Centre at Stellenbosch to participate in a conference on Culture, Identity and Spirit. My assignment was quite easy, namely to share something of the Centre’s history and work. Although it took me a while to select the content and structure it in an interesting way, so that I felt some pressure in the preparation, in the end I really enjoyed offering a glimpse into the heart of our organization to an audience of mostly ‘outsiders’ – some of whom were visiting academics from the Netherlands. I felt relaxed and was enthusiastic as I took my listeners through our story, highlighting my own involvement as well as some of the very exciting challenges we currently face. From the expressions on people’s faces I could see that the talk was well received.
However, when question time came, it was a different story. I found myself at the receiving end of incisive questions, having to elucidate some of the information I had shared as well as having to explain some of the statements I had made. I knew the questions were asked in honesty and good faith, and yet I felt under attack. Some questions were sharp and critical, forcing me to articulate more clearly – which looking back, I felt I had not done as well as I would have liked to. In fact, some of my answers were vague, incomplete, disputable and far too hastily articulated. This was clear also from the frowns with which some of my answers were received. So, in the end I left the session feeling unsatisfied and a bit annoyed with myself.
Reflecting afterwards on what had happened, I realised that I had in that moment forgotten an important distinction which is often vital in communication, in dialogue with others. That is the distinction between a hasty reaction, (ie. giving an immediate, unconsidered answer to people’s questions, ideas or opinions), and giving a thoughtful and honest response.
Many of our hasty reactions or answers to people’s honest scrutiny come from a place of insecurity – in some instances even from a deep felt woundedness – and come across as overly defensive, if not outrightly aggressive. This is understandable because probing questions that seem to raise dispute, can irritate, put you under pressure and suggest that you don’t know. In turn, a hasty response to such questions and the apparent misunderstanding implied in that, can frustrate and even offend. There is an alternative to this: a considered and honest response that comes from a place of conviction and of quiet assurance.
A sincere response would entail the willingness to listen carefully, to understand deeply and then to respond cautiously; giving brief and clear answers, acknowledging where one does not know and indicating an openness to new perspectives. Such a response can disarm those who interrogate, can help us overcome a feeling of being under threat and can take forward useful discussion.
In a wider context, in our country and in other than the spiritual domain, there are far too many of us who do not recognize this important distinction. Many in positions of leadership react blindly and much too hastily to honest questions, projecting their own fears, anxieties and prejudices onto others, defending what is indefensible and stubbornly maintaining their own viewpoints. We could really do with growing numbers of ordinary people who can discern, who can listen carefully and respond thoughtfully and honestly. Then we may discover that the questioning voice is the voice of a friend from whom we can learn, rather than the voice of a foe with whom we need to do battle.