Quick to anger, slow to listen (part 2)

The apostle James teaches us that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (1:19) — but as I suggested in part 1 of this post, we often get it backwards. Anger may be our first reaction to what someone else says or does. Our heads fill with angry chatter: How dare you? Who the heck do you think you are? I’ll show you! We’re quick to pour out self-righteous words, trying to force the other person to listen. But we ourselves don’t slow down enough to actually do any listening ourselves. After all, we’re right — right?

Why do we do this?

To some extent, it’s the way we’re built, embedded in the inner workings of our brains.

Think of it this way. Our brains are like a complex organization with departments that have to communicate with each other for the good of the whole. The maintenance department takes care of the routine operation of the plant, and for the most part, they operate in the background. But there is also a security department that keeps watch over any threats and signals the executives upstairs when trouble looms.

This is a vast oversimplification of what neuroscientists have called “the triune brain”: the idea that the brain is comprised of three interacting regions, each with its own function. Picture, then, what happens when the organization keeps having to deal with threats: the security people get jumpy. They begin to overreact to anything that reminds them of past threats, operating on the principle of “better safe than sorry.” They flood the executive suite with phone calls and warnings, overwhelming the lines. And they take action before any official decision is made and passed down from the higher ups.

When we get angry at someone, even when we know we’re overreacting, it’s because something they’ve said or done triggers the emotional memory of past hurt — even hurts we can’t remember explicitly. Anger is a self-protective mechanism that operates quickly, before we’ve had a chance to consciously and deliberately think things through. We feel the urge to push the other person away, to punish them or shut them down.

And of course, the other person may respond the same way, resulting in what family therapist Harriet Lerner has called “the dance of anger.”

All of that is to say that it’s “business as usual” to be quick to anger, quick to speak, and slow to listen.

But the kingdom of God, embodied in the life of the church, is not meant to be business as usual.

We can understand why we ourselves get angry, and offer ourselves a bit of self-compassion for the way we’ve reacted. But at the same time, we also need to make a conscious decision to see the other person through the eyes of compassion as well.

That, of course, is easier said than done. But with the help of the Holy Spirit we can, over time and with dogged intentionality, build habits of thought and behavior that will make a difference. And one of those habits is to commit to listening, to doing whatever it takes to understand the other person’s point of view.

What does that actually look like? I’ll make some suggestions in the next post.