What’s So Bad About Cross-talk?

One thing that mystified me when I started attending recovery meetings was the weird rule against cross-talk. Why on earth, I wondered, is it so important for me to refrain from commenting on what someone says during the sharing time?  After all, we are meeting to help each other, aren’t we? What is so helpful about listening to a guy who doesn’t know what he is talking about?  If he is confused, why not enlighten him?  If he is depressed, why not cheer him up?  Why am I expected to patiently endure whatever someone says, no matter how messed up it might be, without offering any advice, correction, or biblical insight?

Over time I came to see the wisdom of the No Cross-Talk Rule.  I learned that although the sharing time is a communal experience, its purpose is intensely personal. The circle of brothers is a sacred space, a safe place for discovery and self-disclosure.  When I open up during the sharing time and speak honestly out of my own experience, I am shaking off the shackles of shame and stepping into the light.  When I find the courage to make an uncomfortable admission or pursue a dangerous thought, I am pushing back against a culture of conformity and pretense. In this vulnerable moment, any unsolicited feedback from another participant, however well-intended, can completely shut me down.  And I am not the only one who suffers, for by focusing on me rather than on himself the cross-talker forfeits his own opportunity for fresh insight and risks turning the entire session into a seminar or a circular firing squad.

In my mind, there are at least Five Good Reasons to Avoid Cross-Talk:

  1. Cross-talk is usually just correction in disguise.  When we choose to direct our statements toward a single person it is usually because something they said—or something they failed to say—made us uncomfortable. Feeling that our brother has fallen prey to falsehood or has overlooked some vital facet of the truth, we decide that we cannot let the moment pass without setting him straight.  We may try to do so without contradicting him, but our intent is clear to everyone in the room. We are correcting him.
  2. Correcting a man in the presence of others is shaming. Every man is sensitive to shame.  It was our fear of exposure, the deep belief that our true selves are unacceptable, that sent us into hiding in the first place. When our attempts at authenticity are met with anything other than respect—especially in public—we feel shame, and our natural reaction is to retreat and cover up. That’s why correction, even gentle correction, should be done privately whenever possible, and always by a friend. It is in two-man conversations rather than in public forums that “iron sharpens iron.”
  3. I might be wrong.   It is tempting for me to believe that I understand exactly what a brother is feeling or thinking or what he is really trying to say.  But what if my perception is distorted by the filter of my own experience?  If that is the case, then my effort to admonish or encourage my brother will feel to him like an unfair accusation. It is also possible that my stock answer is actually a relic from another time, a treatment that never really worked very well, even for me. If I will force myself to sit humbly in the discomfort of the moment, stifling the urge to dispense an easy answer, then a clearer vision and a deeper insight may arrive for both of us.
  4. It is a crime to steal another man’s epiphany.  When I can clearly see something that someone else is searching for, my first instinct is to point it out to them. I want to be helpful, and it is agonizing to watch a brother fumble for an answer that is obvious to me.  Any time I short-circuit a brother’s search for wisdom, however, I rob him of a personal discovery.   This is unfortunate, because secondhand wisdom has a very short shelf life. The insights of others tend to evaporate quickly. The statements that stick, the words that have the potential to change the course of a man’s life, are the ones he hears himself say in his own voice. My most helpful course of action, therefore, is to stay with my brother while he searches, providing only the feedback he specifically requests until the moment of illumination.
  5. Love listens.  Although cross-talk can sometimes be a twisted bid for dominance, most of the time we choose to preach because we are honestly striving for accuracy, for perspective, or for doctrinal purity.  Regardless of our motivation, however, we wind up behaving like Job’s friends, offering explanations and advice when what our brother really needs is company. More than answers, he needs empathetic friends, men who are willing to sit with him in his uncertainty and pain, who care enough to listen without lecturing. Our deepest longings are to be seen and known and loved.  Christ commands us to love one another, and love begins with listening.

I am not suggesting that we must always avoid confrontation or that it is never right for Samson guys to engage in debate. Debate can be healthy, and there are times when confrontation is absolutely necessary.  Difficult conversations, however, are only productive when they are conducted in the proper atmosphere, an atmosphere of trust. And trust can only be built over time in relationships.

While cross-talk is discouraged in our regular meetings, it is not at all unusual for Samson guys who know and trust each other to launch a designated discussion group or a feedback meeting in which cross-talk is allowed by mutual consent. Even in these meetings, however, charity remains the rule. Our purpose is always to assist one another in our common journey, and we now know that it is better (in the words of St. Francis) “to understand than to be understood.”