Created for Life Together: Partnerships Between Men and Women Are Part of God's Design

by Ruth Haley Barton | April 30, 2004

In the introduction to his book The Different Drum, M. Scott Peck recounts a mythic tale about a monastery that had fallen on hard times.

What had once been a great order had, for several different reasons, deteriorated to the point that there were only five monks left in a decaying main house: the abbot and four others, all over 70 years old.

However, in the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a neighboring town occasionally used for personal retreats. As the abbot agonized over the fact that his order would likely die with the five monks who were left, it occurred to him that maybe the rabbi could offer some insight that might lead to a revival of the order.

The abbot decided to pay a visit to the rabbi. The rabbi welcomed his visitor but could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is. The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” And so the two old men wept together and spoke quietly of spiritual things. When it came time for the abbot to leave, the two men embraced each other, and the abbot asked one last time, “Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give that would help me save my dying order?” With apologies the rabbi responded that he had no advice to give. “The only thing I can tell you,” he said, “is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, the monks were eager to hear what the rabbi had had to say.

“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the weeks and months that followed the old monks pondered the rabbi’s enigmatic words and wondered whether there was any significance to them. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Or perhaps Brother Thomas, who has always been a man of light? Certainly he could not have meant crotchety old Brother Elred or Brother Phillip. But come to think of it, Brother Elred does have a great deal of insight, and Brother Phillip does have a gift for always being there when you need him. Maybe one of them is the Messiah. Of course he couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. But what if I am the Messiah? Oh God, not me! I couldn’t be that much for you, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

And so it happened that, without even being conscious of it, the people who occasionally visited the monastery began to sense an atmosphere of extraordinary respect that now surrounded the five old monks and seemed to radiate from them. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of life and spirituality in the realm.

Allow yourself to enter this story and imagine a setting where respect for fellow human beings is so vibrant and so real that it feeds people’s souls. What would it be like to have others treat you with high regard? What kind of person would you be if you were to treat others as though they were sacred and precious? What difference would it make if women and men were to approach each other with wonder and care? Though it may sound simplistic, there is a real possibility that if women and men learned to respect each other deeply — to see each other as the ones through whom God is made present among us — little else would be needed.

Much of the hurt that is present in male-female relationships has disrespect (or lack of understanding about how to communicate respect) at its core. When women lump all men together as power-hungry fools and view them with thinly veiled disdain or suspicion, we are disrespecting individual men who are willing and able to share power and relate effectively. Furthermore, we close our hearts to the potential within each man to move into more effective partnership with us.

When men exclude or overlook women in the process of filling leadership positions in the workplace or in the church, they are disrespecting women’s identity as those who are gifted and called of God to exercise responsible dominion. When we use sexuality as a means to limit, harass or manipulate, we are disrespecting the significance of this sacred gift. When we prejudge each other and jump to negative conclusions about each other’s words and behaviors without putting forth loving efforts to understand, we are not treating each other in the way that we ourselves wish to be treated.

According to Scripture, each one of us is a priest charged with the responsibility of offering up spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming the excellencies of Christ (1 Peter 2:9). The tragedy in the Christian community is that our pattern of limiting up-front communication to men while women labor in relative silence and subordination behind the scenes has obscured the fact that together women and men are a community of priests. We cannot see it because we never have the opportunity to see it! However, when we hold ourselves in conscious awareness that we are all royal priests and when we live it out in actual partnering relationships, there will be a shift in attitudes that will begin to transform our relationships.

Communicating and community building

The words community and communicate come from the same root word meaning “to come together.” Highlighting the relationship between these two words, Scott Peck points out that “the principles of good communication are the basic principles of community-building. Because people do not naturally know how to communicate, because humans have not yet learned how to talk with each other, they remain ignorant of the laws or rules of genuine community.” That is the bad news.

The good news, Peck continues, is that “the rules of communications and community-building can be simply taught and learned with relative ease. ... The vast majority of people are capable of learning the rules of communication and community building and are willing to follow them. In other words, if they know what they are doing, virtually any group of people can form themselves into a genuine community.”

In this article we will consider principles of effective communication as the primary vehicles for helping us come together in unity, especially as men and women in relationship together. We want to understand how adherence to these principles can help us as we move more intentionally toward partner- ship. But we must be clear that skills are no substitute for love and true openheartedness.

Acceptance

One key component of respect is acceptance, simply recognizing the other person as a worthy individual entitled to his or her own experiences or opinions. Men and women often have very different perceptions of and opinions about situations, ideas and experiences — even theology! When one or both assume their thoughts and feelings are more valid than the other’s, communication dies quickly. On the other hand, when we see diversity as valuable for our lives, we sup- port others in their uniqueness. We understand that if we can resist the urge to squeeze others into our own image we will have much to learn from the knowledge and perspective they have to offer.

One way to gauge our ability to truly accept others is to observe our own responses, spoken and unspoken, as someone else shares a thought or an opinion. Is my first response to begin formulating an argument or a counterpoint to what they are saying? Am I distracted from listening to what they are saying because I am concerned about what I’m going to say next? Do I make judgments about the validity of what someone else is saying based on my own experience? When someone states an opinion that is different from my own or reflects poorly on something in which I have a vested interest (my family, the church where I serve on staff, the corporation where I am one of the executive officers, a committee I am chairing), is my first impulse to defend my opinion or my territory?

Chances are, most of us can respond affirmatively to at least one of these questions. For some of us it takes a great deal of mental and emotional discipline to put aside our tendencies to argue, to judge and to be self-absorbed in our communication with others.

One way to develop a more accepting attitude is to acknowledge that someone else’s ideas and opinions make sense to them in their context. If increased effectiveness in communication is our desire, we will seek to understand how the content of someone else’s communication makes sense to them rather than arguing, offering counterpoints or defending our position.

If men and women are to progress toward community and partnership, we will need to accept each other and support each other in our communication efforts over and over again. When women talk about their experiences in the church, home or the workplace, men need to accept these admissions rather than offer arguments, counterpoints and reasons why they do not matter.

One of the reasons it is hard for us to extend this kind of acceptance or understanding — especially when we are communicating about issues on which we do not agree — is that we feel we are giving up a point in the argument. We might feel that if we acknowledge that what another person is saying makes sense on some level that will mean we have to give up our own perspective and agree with that person. This is not the case. Acceptance does not necessarily mean that two parties agree or that change is not needed. We can still hold our own experience of a situation or our own view while acknowledging the validity of someone else’s.

Active listening

With respect and acceptance comes a genuine desire to understand the people we encounter and support them as they try to make themselves known. We may be unsure, however, how to express this. Active listening provides us with several different avenues for communicating meaningfully with others.

The first and most immediate way that we show our regard and openness is through our body language. We all communicate with our bodies and read other people’s body language without even knowing it. In his book Interpersonal Living, Gerard Egan outlines some of the basic ways our bodies can communicate our attention to others as they speak.

• Face the other person squarely, as this is the basic posture of involvement.

• Maintain an open posture. Crossed arms and legs are often a sign of defensiveness or minimal involvement.

• Lean toward the other person as they speak. This is another sign of availability, presence or involvement.

• Maintain good eye contact, not for the purpose of intruding or “staring them down” but to demonstrate your continued interest in what they are saying.

• Be at home and relatively relaxed in this position but also in your own body. “Relative relaxation says to the other person ‘I’m at home with you.’ ... An effective communicator is relatively comfortable with involvement and intimacy, and therefore will be relatively relaxed even in this attending position.”

Men and women alike sometimes experience a level of nervousness and discomfort when they are with members of the other sex. Since we are not that used to being together — as ministry peers, business colleagues or even friends — we are not “at home” with each other, and it shows. I remember many occasions in my early ministry years when I would notice that some men seemed unable to look me in the eye when they talked to me. They would look right over my head or try to work things out so that they could talk with my husband instead. It is not that bad today, but I still often sense nervousness from others, and I sometimes feel nervous myself.

It can be helpful to be aware of any nervousness, tension, defensiveness or boredom you are feeling and how you might be holding that in your body. If your fists are clenched, your arms or legs are crossed tightly, or you are having a hard time maintaining eye contact, sometimes a shift in your body position can release some of the tension and provide renewed energy. Remembering to breathe deeply can also alleviate nervousness.

An active listener also provides timely feedback. Generally, women and men are still uncertain about whether the other sex is with them and for them or just tolerating them.

Directness

Another piece of the active listening process is to speak up if you are not sure what the other person means or if you are picking up emotion or body language that you do not understand. This is the process described in Proverbs 20:5 by which a person of understanding draws out the true meaning of what is in someone else’s heart: “The purposes in the human mind are like deep water, but the intelligent will draw them out.” Rather than assuming we have understood the person who is speaking, we check it out to make sure that what we heard is what they really meant. The process of clarifying will include such questions as: Are you saying that? I heard you say _________. Did I understand you correctly? What do you mean when you use the word ___________? I’m not quite clear on that. Could you say it differently?

When we clarify rather than assume that we understand, the speaker then knows that he or she has been heard accurately or has the opportunity to say, “Well, not exactly. What I really meant was ___________.” Over time, a trust develops between people who take the time to clarify; they communicate more freely because they know that if a misunderstanding occurs, there is a process in place in the relationship for making the necessary adjustments.

Empathy

While the skills listed above are helpful, empathy is really the highest form of listening. The discipline of empathy requires us to move away from our own experience as the measure of all things and to learn about life and perhaps even ourselves from someone else’s vantage point. It takes a very secure person to set aside his or her own beliefs and feelings long enough to fully enter into someone else’s.

Empathy is an especially important element in relationships between men and women because our experiences in our families, our churches, our society and even our bodies are so different. Our understanding of each other will be inadequate unless we know, to some degree, what it feels like to be in another’s situation. When a man enters into a woman’s experience by asking what it would be like to be barred — in subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways — from activities just because of one’s sex, he will be changed on some level. If, after listening, he insists on holding to a view that limits women based on their sex, hopefully he will at the very least hold his views with greater sensitivity. He might even find that it becomes a starting point for seeing certain issues in new ways.

Likewise, when a woman imagines how unsettling it would be to have all of her guidelines for relating with men turned upside down, she might sense God’s direction to discipline herself in taking a more compassionate approach as she communicates with the men in her life about the changes she seeks.

It is a rare and beautiful thing when men and women are willing to listen empathically before moving to the other types of communication, problem solving and policymaking. It is hard to suspend our task orientation and our urge to problem-solve long enough to listen. Husbands and wives are probably more empathic with one another than men and women in most other settings because they have deep love and commitment; however, empathy can be a challenge even for them.

In organizations and institutions the situation is often much worse. We are much more interested in unilateral communication or policymaking than we are in truly listening. In some cases, this stems from an unacknowledged fear of what might happen within us and what may be required of us if we are to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We do not necessarily want to change or be moved, and we certainly do not want to confront new issues for which we may or may not have the answers.

At certain times we may feel that we already have all the insight we need, so listening is unnecessary. In some cases that may be true, but in the area of gender relations we are nowhere near the point where men and women understand each other so well that empathic listening is no longer necessary.

Another reason we do not avail ourselves of opportunities to listen to each other is that we believe erroneously that change will happen if some respected person just gets up and pronounces it so. We fail to understand real change as a process that requires empathy and understanding before we move to dialogue, discussion, large group communication, problem solving and policymaking. Only in the context of empathic listening can we even begin to identify what the real problems are, let alone the solutions.

As men and women begin to share more fully in each other’s worlds, it will be easier for them to empathize with each other’s life situations. But in the meantime, we must make the extra effort to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, feel frustration with those who are frustrated, pain with those who are excluded, and confusion with those who are trying to understand.

This article was adapted from Ruth’s book, Equal to the Task: Men and Women in Partnership

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