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:
- …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.
- Debate for debate’s sake
- To put you on the defensive
- To put you in your place
- 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.
- To distract you from more important topics
- Simply to satisfy curiosity
- To start an argument
- …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.
- …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.
- …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?