To understand in a good way

Ten years ago journalist Graeme Wood wrote that “change will never be this slow again”. One of the largest changes in the last 10 years has been the way in which we communicate. We live in a world where life is becoming faster, and communication is expected of us all the time. Our businesses offer us phones so that we can be on call at home. Our working life is encroaching on our home life and we are expected to respond immediately, all the time. If not on the phone, then by email. If not now, then certainly soon. The Internet has created an ability to communicate at speeds beyond anyone’s imaginings.

There is a cost to such speedy interactions. We are pressured to respond. In our haste, we misunderstand or misjudge the intent of the communication and respond with that misconception in mind. Unreflective and near-instantaneous communication removes some of the lived experiences of traditional communication, such as presence, body-language, tone, etc., all crucial to good communication.

The speed with which replies are expected results in less contemplation, reflection, and thought. As a result what should have been a simple sharing risks becoming a debate, or worse still, an argument. When we argue we become defensive and protective of our points-of-view. We respond with efficiency, but not always with enough charity.

I am sure each of us can think of examples where what we meant to say was misunderstood, or when we misunderstood what someone else was trying to say. Perhaps this was because we responded too quickly. In such cases we have a choice to clarify and to share our understanding, or we might end up having an argument. More often than not, our speedy knee-jerk reaction may be totally wrong.

St Ignatius offers a valuable lesson in how to approach misunderstandings or miscommunications. At the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises he notes that:

“It should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbour’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favourably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.” (St Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, paragraph 22.)

This advice was offered by St Ignatius to the Jesuits who were engaging with the Protestant Reformers during the Reformation. At the heart of this was a serious disagreement. Oftentimes we disagree with one thing and end up rejecting everything. St Ignatius’ advice reminded the Jesuits to always put a good interpretation on the statements of the other person. By consciously trying to place a good interpretation on their statement, and in trying to “understand the statement in a good way, [so that] it may be saved” our communication and interaction with the other person can be more thoughtful and more Christian.

Christian dialogue should be characterised by active listening and a deep sharing from the heart, as we try and listen to the voice of God in the other person.   

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia. @mcharlesworth
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