What do you do when you encounter a challenging person in your community? It’s a delicate balance sometimes between speaking your truth and being kind.
In one of the spiritual groups I attend there is a regular member – let’s call her Shelby – who can be confrontational at times. Over the past few months she has upset a couple of my friends to the point of tears. Recently we were discussing what to do about it and another friend (who is not part of the group) asked why no one has challenged Shelby about her behavior. Two women said that they were afraid of Shelby and her potential reaction.
Personally, I’m not afraid of Shelby or even particularly intimidated. She has challenged me a couple of times but I didn’t take it personally. She has offered me valuable insights at times, as well. She’s not my favorite person but she does add value to the group.
No one has asked me to speak with Shelby directly and it’s not in my nature to confront someone. My tendency is to treat her with kindness and equanimity, as I do all of the members of the group.
At the same time, I don’t want to hide my feelings about how my friends have been impacted by Shelby’s behavior. As Oprah Winfrey said in her recent award speech, “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool that we all have.”
Speaking truth to power can be an effective way of creating positive change. But it can also backfire and generate more hurt feelings and misunderstanding. It’s not possible to change another person. It’s not your life, but theirs, and their choices aren’t always easy to understand. Shelby might speak harshly because she’s feeling lonely or judged, or because she’s trying (in her own fumbling way) to inspire others. She might even suffer from a mental illness.
I find that often, letting your actions speak for you is a kinder way to approach situations like this.
For now at least, I’ve settled on the strategy of having firm boundaries and using gentle words.
In this and other situations where people are being hurt, there is certainly a time for outrage. Yet it is also key to deal with situations according to our own values, even when something upsetting has occurred. When inspired action kicks in, we know what to do.
Modeling the world we want to live in gets us further than lectures, angry diatribes or kicking people out who don’t immediately conform to community standards. That’s especially true when there’s a gray area.
In this case, I don’t think Shelby even realizes the negative impact she’s had on the other group members. The tears that were shed came afterwards, in privacy. She may not be aware that she’s caused harm.
In my ideal world, people like Shelby are gently shown the way to treat others. We give them another chance whenever possible and speak our truth with compassion. By being fully present we balance the situation so that everyone’s needs are met. This is not easy work by any means, but kindness is an ingredient that adds flavor and nutrition to any recipe.