We should keep a list of how our words have damaged relationships and undermined sensitive conversations. Our growth in wisdom depends on remembering and changing our foolish habits.

For example, one of my foolish habits during disagreements with my wife has been to prioritize my own sense of being rejected. When I perceive rejection from her, it seems to reach into my soul and rob me of spiritual power. Suddenly, I can’t hear and can’t love, and it is all her fault. A truly foolish, deadly practice. I am gradually prioritizing my relationship and my calling to love over my sense of rejection, but the pace seems glacial.

What is on your list? Listen especially for words spoken calmly. These are easy to miss.

You know you trashed a conversation when you . . .

Say “never” or “always.” We know this and still do it.

Say something like “Look who’s talking. That’s exactly what you do.” Does anyone not do this? It has everything to do with being right-er and nothing to do with love, but it still evades detection.

Say nothing and walk away. Some couples agree to do this—a cooling-off period—and it is better than violence, but too many people never return for a follow-up conversation.

Confess your sins but don’t invite more discussion about what happened. Confession turns the trashed conversation in the right direction; it is not necessarily the final word. Let the other person say what is on his or her heart.

And here is one more. You know you trashed a conversation when you invoke witnesses who are not in the room, but who allegedly agree with you.

“Your mother says the same thing about you.”

“I was talking with _____ and he/she said _________ (“you can be very difficult”; “I am a saint”; “you are crazy, out of control”; “most people would never be able to live with you”).

You have just dragged the conversation into a courtroom. There, you don’t listen, love is not even a relevant category, and you march out witnesses to support you in the accusation of your adversary. Like most other diabolical strategies, it is cruel and divisive. Yet you feel righteous in it all and are blind to the consequences on the other person. You think, perhaps, you are helping people see themselves more clearly. To make matters even worse, you have just trashed, or at least complicated, your adversary’s relationships with all the alleged witnesses. You might not be lying about what other people have said, but your witnesses would probably say that you certainly misrepresented them and they resent being used that way.

What keeps us from seeing this? Perhaps it’s because our self-assessment is limited to, “Did I speak the ‘truth’?”  If yes, we think we have done well. And, with this example of court witnesses, we are certain we are right because we know other people agree with us. Case closed.

But the apostle Paul would ask, “Did you speak in love, ‘with all humility’?” (Eph 4:2). Here, it gets tricky. “Well . . .  I spoke what is true” (1 Cor 13:6). But the New Testament’s use of truth is more often the truth about Jesus. That is the non-negotiable truth. Our claims to accurate judgments [i.e., “truth”] about another person, especially when we have a vested interest in those judgments, are not always reliable and are best approached with a bit less confidence in ourselves. At about this point, we remember that we would be clueless apart from the Spirit himself, who opens our eyes to see the selfish motives of our hearts.

The Spirit has, indeed, come to us, so we don’t shy away from these careful searches. Given how our confidence in our right-ness can blind us, we also ask others to help us see clearly. The Spirit graciously reveals sin and takes us immediately to Jesus, our High Priest, who is full of mercy, so our true confidence is that we can draw near to him, receive power to stand against these tendencies of our hearts, and be peacemakers in God’s kingdom.