The Explanation Trap


All three of my jobs — pastor, professor, and therapist — require me to explain things. I explain constantly. Explanation is a critical part of teaching. A teacher who is unwilling to explain will not be very effective.

But explanation, at some point, and often insidiously, crosses over into defensiveness. When I find myself defending my spiritual views/ideas, or defending something I am trying to teach my students, or defending something I said to a client, I am probably already moving away from helping the person I’m talking to. That is why I limit how much debate I will even engage in here on this blog. Even though I sometimes want to defend myself, it’s just almost never very helpful.

There’s a myth here that I have believed for years, without realizing it.

The myth is that understanding follows explanation.

But this is true only when:

  1. …the person you’re explaining to is actually seeking understanding. People can seek many things other than understanding when they demand that you explain yourself.
    1. Agreement
    2. Debate for debate’s sake
    3. To put you on the defensive
    4. To put you in your place
    5. To arm themselves with further ammo against you or trip you up on your own words. You are probably almost never obligated to enter into a conversation with a person who’s main intent is to hurt you or judge you.
    6. To distract you from more important topics
    7. Simply to satisfy curiosity
    8. To start an argument
  2. …it is possible for understanding to flow from the explanation itself. Many times, in all of my various jobs, I am trying to explain very difficult concepts that ultimately a student will really understand only in the real world.
  3. …the person you’re explaining to is capable of hearing you. Many times in the gospels, Jesus says, “Let the one hear who has ears to hear.” A lot of times a person just doesn’t have ears to hear what you’re saying. Their own biases, fears, and life experience may prevent them from being able to hear you.
  4. …explanation is being driven by the need of the student to understand, and not the fear of the teacher that he/she always owes an explanation, or that a student not getting it is always due to the teacher’s incompetence. 

The mere fact that a student, a parishioner, or someone from the community demands some of my time to explain something does not obligate me to schedule an appointment and spend a great deal of time. This may be advisable, but when I sense that, for any reason, explanation will likely not lead to understanding, I may be better off letting the student learn on their own, or helping them explore what personal blocks may impede learning.

Finally — as I said earlier, explaining is always the role of a teacher. Every teacher needs a willing and open student. When someone is not approaching me as a student, but rather as an adversary in some way, learning will almost certainly not happen. Since I am a teacher, called to teach those willing to learn, time spent merely explaining things to satisfy the curiosity of another person is almost always wasted.

Let me hear from you in the comments! Here’s some food for thought.

  • Have you fallen into the explanation trap, thinking that if you can just find the “right” words to explain something, the other person will automatically understand where you’re coming from?
  • Though I wrote this largely around the formal discipline of teaching, what parallels do you see here to your own life and relationships?
  • What personal work is required to learn how to stay out of the explanation trap? Hint
  • Can you think of (and share!) a time when you were unable to “hear” what a person was trying to explain to you? What changed that?
Opt In Image
Like this post? Get notifications of new posts in your Inbox
and receive a link to download my e-book The Spiritual Journey free!

I respect your privacy. No one else will ever see your email address.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

6 thoughts on “The Explanation Trap

  1. Please consider this: We are all trying to find the answer and reasoning behind our unique and personal earthly experience filled with bumps and bruises. And we tend to look in every direction and manner for the answer except were the answer is truly found, which is “Christ and Him Crucified.” Paul–one of the most educated persons communicating God’s message–said, “the Spirit is life because of Righteousness.” No matter how hard we try and no matter the effort put forth, we cannot (fill in the blank). It is The Holy Spirit that is in every Believer Who is only able to do this work (with much patience, encouragement and love) and only within the confines of the Finished Work of Christ. (Referenced Rom. 8:10). In this, my spirit found rest.

  2. this is why the evangelical approach to conversion usually doesn’t make sense to me. The process of spiritual formation develops ears able to hear, or a persons own life experience causing them to arrive at a place where they are open to teaching, it’s not a place someone can be talked into. I ran into alot of argumentative people in my line of work, but because the last word was concrete legislative policies, and I was naught but a lowly worker with much humility, it eventually became clear that arguing with me was fruitless. I’m really glad that you explain this so clearly, the motivation behind some peoples constant need to debate and argue, as yes, it is very exhausting and you need to conserve your energies and rest from fruitless endeavors to better use your time sharing your gifts with those able/willing to benefit from them. I was unable to hear what others tried to point out were serious flaws in my ex husbands character, the experience of living with them is what got me over it. Experience is the best teacher.

  3. Hi David,
    I find that a lot of it comes down to listening.It’s so frustrating when someone interrupts me and starts arguing when I haven’t finished saying what I think. They’re then arguing with their perception of what I think rather with what I would like to have been able to finish saying. In such a case I will now stop them and tell them that they’re not arguing with me because I never got to finish saying my point of view!

    On other occassions, yes, it’s easy to fall into the explanation trap. Sometimes it seems SO clear to me, that if I just share again, or rephrase, surely they’ll get it!! I think the times when I’ve most been inclined to do that have been in church or ministry situations where either I, or someone else, has been misgjudged. If someone is determined to misjudge though, I’m not sure that there’s anything that could be said to change their view on that. Sometimes, the extra information might help them to reconsider and I guess it’s that hope that keeps me explaining. But yes, it’s true that not everyone will hear. That’s a very good point. There comes a time when we need to stop pouring energy into explaining to those who aren’t prepared to listen. Defensiveness is exhausting!

    • Yes, Rachel! When we feel that urgency to respond, that sense that if we can just say it one more time all will be understood, we can almost surely know that nothing we say after that will be healthy. It springs from our own fear and not from a desire to be helpful. I struggled with this for years, and still do enough that I have a small group of people I run certain things by before I post/say them, because I don’t always know my own heart or what I’m really communicating.

Comments are closed.