Speaking from experience: a technique that often limits me

For a long time I have struggled to figure out how to frame the comments I make within and about the church so that they seem supportive but might also lead to what I would deem as positive changes in our church culture. For a while now, I have operated on the model that couching my comments in terms of personal experience works best using the logic that while it is easy to argue with a person’s philosophical stance, it is hard to argue with how they feel about an issue or perceive an event they experience. For example, when I wished to explain to someone why I felt that the church could use more revelation on gender, I would explain to him/her how I felt great pain when I realized that I would not receive the priesthood, when I watched the young men receive much more attention than the young women, or when I could not learn about what the General Authorities told my Stake President about the state of the stake, since only the priesthood was invited to hear the news.

In general, I still believe that speaking about specific experiences rather than in terms of “truths” or philosophies leads to more effective communication between people and better testimonies, especially when we bear them to non-members (or, as a friend of mine deems them “friends of other faiths.”) I would direct you to my blog for a fuller discussion of my rationales. However, I have also found that speaking from experience can isolate and dis-empower me as a speaker when the occasion requires me to draw upon experiences when I felt hurt.

Although it is likely that many people share one’s experiences and views, to argue a point by citing how one experienced pain in a situation makes me bring up how I formerly felt powerless. This moves risks recasting me in a powerless position once again. It is very difficult to make an argument that draws pity to one’s self without sketching one’s self as in need of help and thus not a proper leader. In the particular case of when I have tried to mention to people how certain stances that the church has on gender make me feel excluded from leadership opportunities, I find this move especially problematic because it makes me feel more dependent on others than ever.

Speaking from experience can also make me feel extremely isolated, because when I speak from experience I choose not to speak about the systems that make me feel disempowered or the other people who might share my feelings. Speaking from experience demands that I put my life and consciousness on the line, and sometimes it causes me to feel battered down when I cannot draw on others for support or speak about systemic structures that contribute to my pain. To constantly use my (less positive) experiences as an example for why we should reform a policy emotionally wears me down. Admittedly, it is much easier to speak from personal experience when I am drawing on past successes.

Perhaps most significantly, I find that speaking from experiences sometimes introduces a situation in which only those who have had the experience feel authorized to speak. When the listener has not shared the experience, I suspect s/he is often overwhelmed by the speaker’s emotions and does not know how to proceed. For example, far too often, I find that men will not speak up in support of needed reforms on how we view gender, because gender has been improperly conceived as a category that only bears upon women and that only women can speak about. I feel that this situation is deeply unfortunate, because until gender becomes an issue that people of all sexes feel able to ask critical questions about, I cannot foresee our leaders seeking more revelation about such basic concepts as a heavenly mother and places for women within church leadership.

So, yes, there is a place for speaking for experience, but I wish sometimes that others would speak for and in support of me a bit more. I do not wish to be defined by and limited to my experiences when I interact with the world and shape my life within the gospel. I want other means of speaking and producing evidence in my repertoire.


  1. Natalie, I’m wondering how an interaction where one did not speak from experience might sound. Especially when calling for change within church culture.

    A while ago, Jana Remy posted a “Radical Feminist Manifesto” calling for change in an extremely empowered manner, and was roundly criticized. Granted, she went further than most of us would want to in her call for change. But she was asking for input and willing to revise her document. It seemed that no one took her seriously, in part because of her method of presentation.

    Can anyone give examples of interactions that would be possible and empowering, especially for women and those without traditional “authority,” in pointing out problematic areas within Church culture and practice?

  2. Method of presentation? I didn’t feel that Jana was criticized because of the method of presentation. I think Jana was criticized because (a) some of her issues were feminist in nature (b) she has some credibility issues, and (c) she grossly underestimated the women who don’t feel the way she does. Go back and read the comments.

    A great deal of church cultural issues are local — not institutional. They are fixed at local levels. I have not yet met a bishop in my adult life (going back 20 years) who didn’t listen to his flock on cultural issues.

    Then again … you have to draw a line between doctrinal and cultural issues. You want to make change at the grassroots level? Focus on the implementation of the doctrine.

  3. Sorry I mean to say, above, that Jana was criticized because (a) some of her issues were NOT feminist in nature. The lack of the NOT changes part of my point.

  4. Natalie, I agree with what you say here. The maxim “there’s no substitute for experience” may be true, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the blocker on conversations or our providing input. Are you thinking about the application of this beyond the spiritual?

  5. As a man, although it was not taught by my father, I heard “Men don’t cry” regularly. I, however, cry regularly when I am moved by the Spirit. For me as a male in our society, it is easier to accept sharing personal experiences that are positive than negative, since crying about the positive is seen as a sign of “spiritual sensitivity”, but crying about the negative is seen as a sign of weakness.

    I think that’s a terrible shame.

  6. Mark IV says:

    I wonder to what extent it is possible to get away from our own experiences. Even when I attempt to make a detatched, impersonal argument without explicit reference to myself, I suspect that I am not able to distance myself completely from my argument, and some of my experience, background, personality, etc. will still be visible to my interlocutor.

    We need to first be clear about the purpose of the conversation. Do we want to persuade, or do we want to convey the depth of our frustration or emotion? Do we honestly seek dialogue (and the opposing views that will, of necessity, accompany it), or do we really just want somebody to agree with us? Answers to those questions will help us modulate the language we use. Sometimes people ask a rhetorical question in a somewhat dramatic manner but forget that a rhetorical question is often a conversation stopper, since it is more or less unanswerable.

  7. I agree that the rhetoric of personal experience is double-edged. It can be very effective. It can be limiting, as Natalie has powerfully discussed above. Unfortunately, it also invites the response, “Yes, but that’s just one person’s experience.” When discussing our experiences of the enigmas of gender in Mormonism, Taryn and I are routinely told that our experience is atypical, that most men and women in the church are happy with the current lack of knowledge, etc. So there’s need for the abstract discussion that shows how our ignorance limits awareness and forecloses opportunities even for those who haven’t noticed that they are limited and foreclosed — the discussion that moves past experience.

    The problem, at the end of the day, is one of the psychology of persuasion. Most of us, most of the time, disregard information that comes from sources that we expect to disagree with. Democrats disregard information from Fox News, hard-line Republicans are right now in the habit of disregarding the Gallup polls, and those who are satisfied with the current gender situation in Mormonism simply don’t listen to those who feel pain or believe there is need for more. At some level, it’s just how our brains mostly work, and so the deck is hugely stacked against effective communication on an issue as emotional as this.

  8. Kristine says:

    A related issue, for me, is that when I speak in theoretical, abstract terms about the problems I see in (for instance) the treatment of gender issues in the Church, people start trying to fix my feelings, as a way of deflecting attention from the problem I’ve pointed out. The thing is, I actually feel fine. There have been times in the past when these questions bothered me emotionally, but they really don’t anymore–I’ve figured out how to deal with them at the local and personal level, and I’m really not unhappy in church. But no one believes me when I say that after I’ve pointed out what I see as structural problems with the church–the assumption is always that I’m unhappy or bitter, and, importantly, that whatever I’ve said is just a reflection of my warped psychology and not something that should be paid attention to at the level of rational abstraction. Even when I *don’t* speak from personal experience, people build it in in order to discount my words.

  9. “For example, far too often, I find that men will not speak up in support of needed reforms on how we view gender, because gender has been improperly conceived as a category that only bears upon women and that only women can speak about. “

    Do you really find that it’s only the men who will not speak up? It’s been my experience that women are the first to defend the status quo when gender issue reform is brought up. Perhaps that actually reinforces your point.

    I do see one problem with grassroots change, or calls for change, in an inspiration lead organization. For many people, the grassroots initiated change would indicate that the leadership is not in tune with the spirit. Many people in the church think that God micromanages the leadership of the church, that if God wanted something to change, he would tell the leadership. I don’t think technique matters in these cases. You can speak from experience, observation of others experience, or formal thesis and people will bristle at the idea of change.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    Victim impact statements during sentencing of murderers bothers me, the idea that the seriousness of killing someone depends on how sad the murdered’s friends feel about it.

    Introducing emotional experience into an argument is also problematic because it is off-bounds from criticism. (“The problem isn’t the institution; it’s you and your feelings.”) Still, without emotion and experience, whatever we’re considering doesn’t really matter.

  11. I’d like to second Kristine’s comment above, # 8.In my latest post calling for changes in the church, quite a few commentors accused me of being whiney and having a bad attitude. I am no stranger to whining, but I was innocent of it here.

  12. I can’t remember where, but I’ve heard it said that rhetorical styles are often gendered in exactly the ways you’re talking about–‘feminine’ speech is said to be rooted in experience, while ‘masculine’ speech is said to be rooted in the abstract.

  13. I just wanted to say thanks for this post–it has definitely coalesced some of my own thoughts on the subject. I’ve been doing some thinking lately on rhetorical styles and which styles grant authority (there’s nothing like a declarative statement!).

    But anyway, because of the reasons you’ve outlined, I usually choose to speak about my struggles with gender and the church in terms of my personal feelings and experiences. But you (and Kristine and RT) have outlined some downsides to choosing this rhetorical practice. Which is why on my blog, although I tend not to make generalizations which I apply to everyone, I do alternate rhetorical modes (between the personal and the more abstract).

  14. Natalie, your post reminded me of a few comments I read some time ago on some other blog.

    Ardis commented on gender differences in tendency to talk in terms of personal experience or not, and how that relates to who gets taken seriously on Rosalynde’s “Crunch the Catalog” post.

    Eve and Nate Oman also discussed the issue on one of Adam Greenwood’s abortion posts last year. See in particular comments 76, 84, 90, 92, and 103 for their discussion.