Crucial Conversations QA

Sometimes It’s About the Conversation You Don’t Have

Dear Joseph,

I attend a church with a small congregation. One of our members sings at the top of her lungs and is very much off key. Always. She overpowers the rest of us. I have witnessed people plugging an ear or intentionally sitting farther away. It seems that something could or should be said to her. Everyone wants to be loving and kind. No one wants to offend her. We want to embrace our members and I want her to enjoy her singing. How would you approach this situation?

Silent in The Pew

Dear Silent in The Pew,

I’m going to take a leap since you use the word “church” and assume you worship in a Christian tradition. Please forgive me if my assumption is incorrect and translate what I say to your own faith.

My answer to your question depends on your answer to mine: Why do you go to church? What do you really want?

I could give you advice on giving tough feedback to a potentially defensive person. I could help you manage your emotions, so your judgments wouldn’t corrupt your communication with her. I could even give you tips on how to reconnect with her if she spiraled into defensiveness after you let her know what you think of her singing. But all of these would be like perfuming a pig. Aesthetic treatments don’t change the animal.

Before I elaborate, let me sympathize. I know what it’s like to feel persistent eruptions of judgment and I hate that feeling. I suspect everyone has some pet peeves that trigger an unpleasant cascade of irritation, resentment, and even anger. For example, when I’m on an airplane and the person behind me speaks to the person inches to his left at 96 decibels for almost the entirety of a five-hour flight, I can Crock-Pot my resentments into a malodorous stew for the full journey. The question is, is it his volume that is heating me up?

I’ve learned something absolute about hot-flashes of judgment: my judgments are always about me. His decibels don’t correlate with my derision. I know this is true because I can look to my left and right on the plane and see that others seem to be largely unaffected. They are reading their books, gazing out the window, or carrying on their own conversations without being consumed with vengeful fantasies like I am. How can this be?

It happens this way because his loudness is alchemized by my thoughts: how inconsiderate; he thinks he is so important; he knows better and is doing it anyway; he’s an egotistical jerk . . . you get the idea.

Could thoughts like this happen at church? Yup. Could it be that your feelings about the woman’s singing are not just about the lack of musical quality, but are produced by judgments like these? Yup.

It’s possible you’ll find relief by getting her to lower her volume. But you won’t find growth. So why are you at church? Are you there for music appreciation? If so, by all means, have the conversation. If you’re there because you’re trying to learn to create a Christian community, then her pitch and volume might be the greatest gifts she could give you.

Please don’t read me as self-righteous in what I’m about to say. This sermon is for me, and you’re welcome to listen in. When Jesus organized his small congregation, he first invited lepers with ghastly sores, hated tax collectors, scandalous adulterers, and, perhaps, even a bad singer or two. His offer was to gather all those who were off-key in their own unique way and help them learn to be one. I think the harmony he was after began first with each learning that their judgments were their judgments—and wouldn’t be solved by fixing the other. They would be solved by receiving and then offering grace.

I suggest the best way to find the harmony and beauty you’re after is to ask yourself in those disturbing moments: What do I really want? Then raise your voice in glorious cacophony with your sister.

Best Wishes,

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