Here’s another classic argument starter – actually its more of an argument fuel-er, because the disagreement is usually under way when this “debate of classification” is engaged. So what is the difference? Both definitions below assume a difficult life situation.

“Talking At” is the act of engaging with another person in a virtual monologue for the purpose of releasing an unpleasant emotion. Two key components of this definition should be defined further. First, a “virtual monologue” is a conversation in which any dissent, alternative perspective, or even interruption is viewed as arguing or being on the other team. Second, the word “releasing” should be understood in contrast with sharing a burden. When “talking at” the goal is not to invite another person into your struggle, but to unload the struggle on the other person.

“Talking To” is the act of engaging with another person in a dialogue for the purpose of inviting them into your struggle and seeking perspective, correction, or encouragement to persevere in the difficult circumstance. The key element here is that the other person is viewed as more than an audience and the purpose of speaking is more than an emotional release. We are requesting a companion in hard/frustrating times; not seeking to speak against something to a mute set of living ears.

Have you ever been asked to 'talk to' me instead of 'talking at' me? What's the difference? Click To Tweet

So what is the problem when we “talk at” someone? While the list could definitely be longer, I would like to point out two problems.

First, “talking at” someone reveals a heart of pride and defensiveness. Anger is a proud emotion. Notice that in James 4:1-10 when he transitions from the theory of conflict (v. 1-5) to the practice of resolution (v. 6-10) the pivot point is pride (v. 6). When we speak with someone—usually a loved one—about a problem and do not want to hear what they have to say, that is a battle with pride. We have become the fool of Proverbs who resists instruction (4:13, 8:10, 9:9, 10:17, 13:1, 15:5, 16:22).

While it is not wrong to want to be fully heard and adequately understood before receiving instruction or perspective, sharing a hurt implies that we are inviting someone to speak into our life. It takes humility and courage to allow someone to do that. But to speak and not listen is like giving someone an invitation and rebuking them when they arrive.

Second, “talking at” someone detaches us from the “one another” ministry by which God intends to strengthen and encourage us. Galatians 6:2 says we are to, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The implication is that this is the normal interaction of believers. So while pride (problem one) reveals that my heart is not where it ought to be, this detachment (problem two) cuts me off from one of God’s primary remedies for this problem.

So what should I do to resist the temptation to “talk at” my loved ones when I’m upset? Consider the following suggestions:

  • Make frequent eye contact during conversation. When we “talk at” someone we tend to look though them or our eyes move all over the room.
  • Ask the person to pray for you after you finish telling your concern to serve as a clear conversational bridge between your sharing and the dialogue to follow. If that seems out of place, you’re probably out of control or defensive a way that will make the conversation unproductive.
  • Make sure you have a few questions in mind to ask after you’re finished telling your concern and that those questions are not merely rhetorical or yes-no questions confirming your perspective.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Communication” post which address other facets of this subject.