Grace in the Gray
I’ve never learned anything while I was talking.
My sister once stabbed me in the arm with a pencil. I still bear the mark. If you look just above my right elbow, you’ll see a little faded gray circle of lead just beneath the surface of my skin. I’m not trying to paint my sister in some villainous light. The truth is, I deserved it.
I forget what we were arguing about, but I know I had spent the better part of an hour harnessing all the agitative force I could muster to see just how angry I could make her. After enduring my assaults for longer than I had expected any human being to last, she slowly turned her gaze in my direction. With one glance at the wild look in her eye, I recoiled. She made two moves simultaneously. In a flash, she grabbed her mechanical pencil and lunged at me with all her might. I shot away from the table and was able to elude her reach for four or five sprints around the kitchen. She maniacally waved the pencil over her head and screamed, “I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE!”
I slipped as I turned the corner to traverse the staircase. Seizing her advantage, she dove and plunged her writing tool deep into my right biceps. It dangled from my arm for a few moments before falling to the floor. I turned white with shock and finally yelled, “YOU STABBED ME! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU JUST STABBED ME!”
She did not respond immediately. Rather, she stood up silently, flattened her wrinkled top, and collected herself. Then, with a casual toss of her hair, she said, “Well, now you’ll think twice before you aggravate me.”
She was right. We didn’t fight much after that.
I understand not everyone has lead buried in their upper arm from a childhood grievance, but I do know we all carry scars from the disagreements we’ve encountered throughout our lives. Anecdotal evidence suggests we could all use a couple of lessons on how to handle confrontation.
How do I know? Well, everyone who’s heard me explain the premise of this book has chuckled and said, “Oh yeah, I’d like to read a book on that. I think the world could use a little more grace right now.” While maybe some were just being kind (thanks, Mom), I think most meant it. The world could always use a bit more mercy. What if we learned to lean in instead of lunge at one another?
You just proved it too. The fact that you’re reading this likely means you’ve had fights of your own. You wouldn’t read a book on the subject if you didn’t sense your need for it. Let me encourage you—if you’re interested in learning how to disagree in a more loving way, you may not feel it just yet, but change is possible. You proved it by opening this book. Great job. You’re already on your way. In the following pages, I hope I can help you find a way to lay your pencils down and learn a more elegant way to disagree.
Here’s the hardest part. Before we do anything else, we must learn the art of making room by leaning in. If we are to love in the gray spaces—the places where our arguments find justified footing on either side—curiosity and kindness must lead the way. Our desire to be heard must not overpower our need to hear what others are saying. Our desire to be understood must not overshadow our need to understand others.
But how on earth do we do that? When you feel unheard in an argument, it feels excruciating to shut up and listen. How do you lean in when the other party is already lunging? But as I heard during an interview with the great Jeff Goldblum on the YouTube series Hot Ones (while he was eating an assortment of increasingly spicy vegan hot wings), Goldblum’s acting teacher Sandy Meisner once quipped, “You’re only interesting to the extent that you’re interested.”1 That might not make sense, so let me unpack it. I think the world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Jeff Goldblum’s acting teacher. By that, I mean that when someone is sitting across the aisle from me and they’re showing no signs of caring about my perspective, I want to learn to lean in with curiosity rather than demand they pay attention to the brilliance of my argument.
That is the heart of this book. I want to cultivate interest and fascination. Everyone wants to be interesting and fascinating, but those characteristics begin to show up only as a by-product of learning to be interested and fascinated. I want to cultivate a “tell me more” posture. I may win fewer arguments, but I might just learn a thing or two about the other person—and about myself—if I talk a little less and listen a little more. If you’re on board with that aim, if you share that simple desire, let me explain to you how I got there.
Relationships Can Be Les Misérables
As I’ve already alluded to with my pencil-stab story, my upbringing had a bent toward controversy. I’d like to think our parents instilled a deep sense of justice in us at an early age, but for whatever reason, we Doneheys love a good row. My family will sit around a Thanksgiving table for hours “discussing” everything from foreign policy to the best movies of the year. I say “discussing” because the first Thanksgiving my wife spent with my family, she had to retreat to the bedroom on several occasions.
“Why does your family get so angry?” she croaked out between tears.
“Who’s angry?” I answered, a bit too emphatically.
Looking back, it’s funny now. I was a bit like a frog in a pot of water. I was so used to the heat that I didn’t even notice when the atmosphere might be boiling for someone else who was just getting dumped into the pot. I had no idea every family didn’t operate like mine. I am pleased to say, we’ve matured a lot in this area. I’d even say, though we are a tempestuous lot, we don’t carry around many hidden grievances. You don’t have to wonder where you stand. But the point is, I grew up learning to argue. I guess you could say it was part of our culture at large and my family culture specifically. We never shied away from a good old-fashioned tussle.
Knowing that I was brought up in that environment, you can understand why it’s taken me most of my adult life to learn to appreciate the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t see things my way. It’s been a whole new art form to learn how to lean in with grace extended instead of jump in with weapons wielded. In my early years, if I couldn’t win someone over to my position, I would either assume they were an ambassador of Satan or dismiss them as needing medication. Let’s say I didn’t exactly possess the gift of inviting criticism or of giving grace. Sometimes I’d rage. Sometimes I’d deflate. Whatever the result, I couldn’t stand walking away when things ended in disagreement. In my mind, things were always black or white. Mystery was not an option. There had to be a clear winner and a loser, and that’s just the way it was.
What’s worse, when a heated conversation would stall, I used to antagonize my opponent until they climbed back into the ring with me. Remember exhibit A, “The Pencil Story”? There was no quitting on me. I’d pester until the tension found traction again. And if agitation failed, I’d switch tactics. If I thought my challenger was wriggling their way out before the fight concluded, I would simply dial up my passion. I found early on that when logic fails, escalation is a simple ploy to keep things interesting. If I couldn’t be convincing, I would be loud. The problem with getting louder is that it’s often the opposite of leaning in. No one leans toward someone who’s shouting. We wince. We pull back. Offense leads to defense, and the battle continues.
Looking back, the louder I got, the more I trapped myself in my own perspective and pushed away the very person I was trying to pull in. Have you experienced what I’m talking about? You get louder in volume and greater in tenacity, and then suddenly everyone else gets a bit more muffled. Cultivating an atmosphere of curiosity will help expose our uninspected tendencies. For instance, if you yell at a football game, no one will notice the noise. But try shouting at that same volume in a library. Every head will turn in alarm.
What helped change my ways? To put it simply, grace happened. And when it did, the space around me got quieter.