I was visiting in a home one day when the six-year-old granddaughter, who lived with her grandparents, arrived home from school. Her mother had died when she was only three. It was a hard time for the child. I had gotten to know the grandma and really liked her, which was why I was so surprised when I saw her interaction with her granddaughter. From the moment the girl opened the door, her grandma was on her case. One put-down followed another for this little girl. Before she knew what was happening, she was sent to her room to stay there the rest of the afternoon. I know the grandma loved her. But it sure must have been hard for her granddaughter to sense that at all. The little girl is all grown up now. I hope she has found better ways to parent her own children.
I once read that the first four minutes of every encounter are the most important. In those first four minutes the questions: “Do you still care about me? Do you accept me? Am I important to you?” find an answer in our words and expressions. What we do in those four minutes sets the tone of the remainder of our time together. It takes that long to reassure ourselves and the other that our relationship is still OK. This is even more important when the one we are greeting is going through a period of grief, loss, or an otherwise difficult time.
During those four minutes we have a chance to reaffirm our love and care through words that affirm and encourage. When our first words to a child are, “Did you get your chores done?” or “Take off that good shirt.” Or the first words to a spouse are. “You never . . . All you ever do is . . . ” your relationship suffers. Each of us needs to know that we are loved. Each of us craves affirmation. What otherwise has to be said, can wait four minutes.
Take a look at those troubled relationships. How often do you begin an encounter with, “Why didn’t you . . . ?” or “How come you . . . ?” Or, “I don’t like the way you . . .” How many times does that strained relationship become even more strained as blaming words flow to a spouse, child or coworker? Do your words or actions indicate that you care about that someone? We can never change other people. What we can do is change ourselves.
Try out the four minute rule. See what it does in some overly stressed relationships. The mark of any true Christian community or Christian family is seen in the love and respect members have for one another.
“Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18
*A version of this post was Originally published May 1, 2017 as “Difficult Relationships and the Four Minute Rule”