ASK | Addressing the root causes when people ‘bark’ at us

Dealing with what’s underneath the surface is always better for the person and better for finding a resolution

Moses, Father Chris Martin's dog
People who know me know that I’m kind of a dog nerd. I grew up with dogs and have kind of a knack for training and dealing with them. My 7-year-old golden retriever, Moses, is a great companion and a fan favorite around the parish and grade school at St. Clare of Assisi. Hands down he’s more popular than I am!

A while ago, I read a book that discussed how wolves evolved into modern dog breeds. An interesting fact it pointed out was that wolves don’t bark, they howl. So why, and when, did dogs begin to bark instead of howl? The hypothesis is that they began to bark in order to communicate with humans. For people, being able to differentiate between a “happy” and “angry” bark is one thing, but knowing why a dog is barking is much more helpful. When a dog “angry” barks at you, it is typically because the dog is either territorial, scared, hurt or anxious. Knowing how to react will help the dog calm down and keep you from getting bitten!

So why do I bring this up? It has occurred to me that when people become argumentative, send an angry email, or leave a nasty voicemail, it’s similar to a dog barking at me. My natural inclination is to become defensive and argue (bark) back, but often the person is scared, hurt, anxious, or feels like their territory has been infringed upon. Dealing with what’s underneath the surface is always better for the person and better for finding a resolution.

If someone is scared, yelling and arguing aren’t going to help. I need to ask myself, “Why do they feel threatened?” People can be afraid of the future, of circumstances, of others and even afraid of God. It’s best to let the person articulate his or her fear, to lend an understanding ear and to let them know they are not alone. The most common phrase in Scripture, after all, is “be not afraid.”

If someone speaks of hurt, they need healing, not correction. If someone walked up to us with a broken arm we wouldn’t ask them about their haircut. Pope Francis referred to the Church as a field hospital that needs to triage the wounded before focusing on the minutia. If someone feels betrayed or that damage has been done to their reputation, inviting Jesus as healer is the best thing one can do. In the same way, we need to be attentive to the things that are sometimes really hurting people on the inside if we are going to be able to lead them to Christ.

Another reason why someone might be barking at me is that they are anxious. I always liked the fact that in the previous translation of the Mass, we would ask that the Lord would “protect us from all anxiety.” (Now it is translated “protect us from all evil,” which isn’t bad either.) It points to the fact that we are intrinsically anxious people who spend a lot of time worrying about things out of our control. God is with us in the present moment, and we do ourselves and others a tremendous favor by focusing on the present reality instead of our imagined futures filled with destruction.

Lastly, I have had the experience of people being upset when they feel that an injustice has been done to them because their “territory” has been infringed upon. As a priest, this can happen if I absentmindedly allow a new volunteer to join a ministry that someone else is in charge of and they think that I have overstepped my bounds or that I am trying to take away their ministry. Everyone likes to have a place at the table, and if someone feels that they have been or might be pushed out, we need to make them feel welcomed and appreciated.

These are just a few ways that my dogs have taught me to be a better priest and Christian. Dogs bark to let us know that something is wrong. When people get upset at us, let’s pray for the grace to look past the bark and to see what is really going on.

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