What Did You Say?
41.9 million hits are populated in .5 seconds when you run a google search for “jokes
about communication.” Additionally, just about every television show, regardless of
genre, will at some point make fun of communication. Why is this? Because typically
we are really, really bad at it. How many problems or altercations have you seen in
your family, among your friends, or even in your local congregation that were the
result of failed communication?
Yet when you think about it, it’s really no wonder that we are bad at communication
because no one teaches us how to communicate effectively. In school we have
classes on how to make sense of numbers, learn from history, and write effectively,
however there is no emphasis on helping us learn to understand and interact with
those around us in a healthy way.
Fortunately there are a few simple changes we can make that will revitalize the way
we speak to and interact with our loved ones. First of all, we need to acknowledge
that much of the time rather than truly listening to understand those who are
speaking to us, we listen to respond. James 1:19 reminds us to be quick to hear and
slow to speak, yet for many of us this is a constant struggle. I believe there are a few
primary reasons for this: reason number one being that we don’t realize that
understanding and agreeing are not the same thing.
I believe there is a part of us that is afraid if we truly listen to someone who is saying
something we disagree with; they will interpret it as us agreeing with them. At the
same time, if I’m speaking and you don’t agree with me then clearly you haven’t
been listening. After all I’m right, and I have good reasons for why I’m right, so if
you’re really listening to my reasons you will think I’m right also. While these are
the thoughts that frequent our subconscious they are absolutely false. It is entirely
possible for someone to fully understand what I am saying and where I am coming
from and still not agree with me.
We see an example of this in Philippians 4:2 with our sisters Euodia and Syntyche.
These two women were wreaking havoc on the church because of their fighting
amongst each other. In handling this situation Paul did not say, “OK Euodia, you
need to admit that Syntyche is right so we can all move on.” Nor did he say,
“Syntyche you need to apologize to Euodia because you know this is your fault.” Paul
said nothing of the sort! He said, “Ladies, you both need to get off your high horses
and agree in the Lord!” Does this mean that they had to fully agree on the issue they
were so divided about? Not at all! It meant that they need to remember that their
unity in Christ must always take precedent over any earthly dispute.
We have become a society that is terrified and threatened by disagreement, and this
has filtered into the church. Romans 14 gives us a beautiful picture of how we
should handle disagreements in the church. It’s not by becoming angry and
defensive, but rather by listening to and respecting each other. Neither of which can
take place if we aren’t willing to invest the time and effort in truly understanding
where each individual is coming from.
A second reason we listen to respond instead of to understand is because we are
defensive. We can be so anxious to speak and be heard, to clarify and explain
ourselves, that we don’t really hear what the other person is saying. We need to be
intentional about giving each other the benefit of the doubt. This means trusting that
those closest to us will be willing to hear us out when the time comes so that we can
focus entirely on what they are trying to communicate to us.
Thirdly, I believe we listen to respond instead of understand because we are afraid.
We are afraid of silence, and we are afraid of not knowing what to say. Especially if
the person speaking to us is really upset, we at times start talking even before they
are done in the hopes that if we say enough things, something we say will be “right.”
When we are interacting with others we need to remember that silence, and not
knowing what to say, are both completely acceptable.
This leads to our next step in improving communication: what we refer to as
reflective listening. This simple communication tool has revitalized my marriage,
improved my children’s relationships, increased participation in my husband’s Bible
classes, and has frequently been the most significant contributing factor in bringing
healing to my therapy clients. While “reflective listening” may sound fancy, it’s very
simple. All you need to do is repeat back what the other person is saying in your
We see this demonstrated for us in Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus in John
chapter 3. Jesus is conveying some hard truths to Nicodemus throughout this
conversation, and even though his heart was sincere Nicodemus was struggling to
come to terms with what Jesus was saying. In this discussion we see Jesus give a
teaching, and then Nicodemus respond with a clarifying question, over and over
again. We see no indication that at any point Jesus became frustrated or annoyed
with the questions, but rather Jesus patiently and calmly answered each question
until Nicodemus understood what Jesus was trying to communicate.
For me the easiest way to accomplish this is to occasionally say, “What I’m hearing
you say is…” and then paraphrase what I’m hearing from them. This lets the speaker
know that I’m fully engaged in the conversation and genuinely want to understand
what they are saying. It also gives them the opportunity to correct things if what I’m
hearing and what they are trying to say are not the same thing. This simple step is a
game changer because it automatically validates those who are speaking to us. With
one simple phrase we have shown them that they are worth our time and energy to
hear and understand.
Additionally, this ties into the previous step because the majority of the time, when
people are sharing struggles, concerns, doubts or fears with us, it isn’t because they
want or expect us to miraculously step in and fix things for them. When we rush to
speak and offer “solutions,” much of the time we unintentionally send the message
that what they are struggling with is insignificant or easily fixed, and really they
should just get over it. On the other hand reflective listening shows tremendous
empathy and validates their fears, concerns and struggles.
Finally, if we are serious about improving the way we communicate and interact
with our loved ones, we must eliminate distractions. I’m a Licensed Marriage and
Family Therapist, can you imagine the reaction of my clients if I spent their session
staring at my phone! I wouldn’t be employed very long, that’s for sure! My dear
sisters I assure you, what your spouse or children are trying to share with you is no
less important than what my clients need to share with me.
We are raising generations of young ones who have absolutely no idea how to make
eye contact and verbally communicate with those around them. They don’t know
this basic life skill because we are not teaching it to them! Every time we look down
at our phone or glance at the tv when someone is trying to talk to us we are sending
a loud and clear message that we don’t care and they are not important. I believe we
have lost tremendous depth and closeness in our relationships because we do not
take the time to focus on each other and look each other in the eyes when we are
Dear sisters, communication is the backbone of every relationship we have, and
even of our commission to seek and save the lost. True communication only occurs
when speaking, listening and understanding all transpire at the same time. As with
any skill this doesn’t come naturally for most of us, but we can learn and do better! If
we will take these simple steps: listen to understand rather than respond, engage in
reflective listening and put away distractions, we will be amazed at the positive
change that will happen in our relationships.
Despite all of the jokes, unhealthy communication is no laughing matter. It can
destroy relationships and dismantle entire congregations of the Lord’s church. But
what a tremendous opportunity for the people of God to be different! Let us put
forth the effort to learn better communication habits. Let us show the love of Christ
by demonstrating, through the way we communicate, that we genuinely care about
those around us!