Pastors are generally noted for their preaching and teaching — their communication skills.  Yet, have you ever noticed how often “expert communicators” have so much difficulty communicating?  I have been doing church consultation for almost twenty years, and the number one concern at both congregational and conference levels is often communication.  We know how important it is, we actually know what makes for good/effective communication, we’ve got good messages to communicate, and essentially we’re all on the same side — so, what’s the problem?  I believe there are three main problems we encounter that prevent or undermine good communication: 1) confusing “transmitting” with communication, 2) over-reliance on information as the most important part of communication, and 3) making assumptions about what people “know.”

Back in the dark ages of my college days, I took a communication’s class that offered a very simple five-part definition of effective communication: creation of a message, transmission of a message, receiving of a message, interpretation of a message, and application of (or response to) a message.  Applying this definition of communication to the church, it becomes quickly very clear that we focus most of our energy and efforts on the first two parts, then take for granted the last three.  We create and transmit all kinds of messages: sermons, announcements, newsletters, emails, posters, flyers, billboards, radio and TV spots, websites — on and on.  And we assume if we transmit our messages clearly, then everyone will know exactly what we mean.  But this assumption leads to chaos.  One mentor of mine used to say that the problem with communication (in this case preaching) is that “the preacher thinks purple, says blue, the congregation hears green and sees red.”  What happens to a message once it leaves our control is anybody’s guess.  People hear through filters.  People interpret.  People ascribe meaning and intent.  People sort,sift, ignore, delete.  And through all these layers of processing, a lot can change.  Unless the person communicating makes the effort to make sure what is being received, how it is perceived, and what impact it makes, we cannot say that communication has occurred.  This is why dialogue is so much more valuable than monologue.  Just “transmitting” is no more effective than shouting at the darkness.  It is like the SETI program — the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — constantly broadcasting data and information in the desperate hope that “somebody out there” will hear it and respond.  But at least SETI is also listening.  The problem in the church is that listening is often the poor second cousin to talking.  Case in point, prayer.  For the vast majority of Christians, prayer is all about what we need to say to God.  Prayers begin by invoking God’s name, then end with Amen — very few people praying give any time in silence to listen for God.  Prayer is all about what we want to say to God, rarely about what God might want to say to us.

A second problem is the false assumption that communication is fundamentally about information.  Information is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  All too often we think that a person doesn’t understand something or that they disagree with us because they lack information.  So we rally our argument, thinking that if we can just present our information clearly and persuasively, we can change a person’s mind.  But information gets processed through emotions, intuitions, opinions, values, beliefs, worldviews, etc.  Any bits and bytes of data and information we can present get shoved through a strainer.  Once we begin exchanging information, it gets changed, transformed.  In Stephen Covey’s, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the key habits is “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Taking time to make sure what everyone is thinking and feeling is an important part of effective communication.  Jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, “climbing the ladder of inference,” — these are problems to good communication, but they are also natural aspects of all communication.  Learning how to navigate normal is essential.  Communication becomes chaotic not because of a lack of information, but a lack of awareness of what is actually going on.  Communication is not essentially about information, but about relationship.  Good communication requires empathy, mindfulness, respect, consideration, awareness, and patience — all qualities that have virtually nothing to do with knowledge or information.

The assumptions we make about what other people know causes immeasurable problems.  Mortimer Adler presented in the 1950s an incredibly helpful concept, “the normative perspective.”  If I stand in front of a class to deliver a talk, I have a view of the whole room.  This view is “true,” it is “accurate,” it is “valid,” and it is “good,” but it is not universal.  My view is unique.  No one else is standing in my position, seeing what I am seeing.  Each person has a valid, accurate, true, and good perspective — for them.  The problem comes when we take a unique perspective and attempt to make it normative — to assume that everyone sees (or should) see the world from our perspective.  We all tend to communicate from the normative perspective, assuming that other people will naturally and immediately see things as we see them, understand the wisdom of our view, and agree with the logic of our reasoning.  When others don’t see the world as we see it, we wonder what’s wrong with them.  No one knows what we know.  No one else is aware of our thinking, reasoning, and logic.  No one else processes information and ideas exactly the same way we do.  To assume that others automatically understand our thinking is a road to chaos and conflict.

Good communication is art, not automatic.  We need to work at improving the ways we communicate in the church.  We need to adopt some simple guidelines to help us move forward.  Some ideas that come to my mind are:

  • everyone has a right to their opinion — we even have the right to be wrong
  • no one defends a position they believe to be wrong or stupid
  • we all have reasons for believing what we do
  • good communication is about achieving understanding, not winning
  • information is a tool, and like all tools we need to learn how to use it well
  • taking time to understand is the essence of real communication
  • asking as many questions as giving answers deepens communication
  • finding out what people hear and what they think it means is as important as creating a message and transmitting it.

What have you found to be essential to effective communication?

11 replies

  1. My church is in the phase where we need to grow but we want to stay small and intimate. A big part of that is the need to know EVERYTHING that is going on, which is becoming humanly impossible.

    The senior pastor imposed limits on the number of pre-service announcements because after about 4 or 5, people are tuning out. We did the same thing in the bulletin. We formerly published a calendar that was breathtaking in its detail and complexity; now we have to boil it down to the 3 major things we want people to know about — and we choose those 3 based on the knowledge that the one piece of paper a first time visitor may walk out with is the bulletin.

    I am studying effectiveness of media as we publicize a short survey we want people to fill out. I have separate URLs set up so I know what message drove the ‘right’ behavior. So far, the bulletin is so far back in last place, it’s laughable. Our weekly email is pretty good, but the winner by far is facebook. People stay glued to it, so our messages are part of their daily fabric.

    You’d expect the electronic media effectiveness to be higher, because people can just click through to the survey. But what I am seeing is also a higher rate of awareness and transmission… people notice the messages more. For example, when I post it on facebook, I see our friends reposting it, and commenting, and ‘liking’.

  2. Essential to effective communication in the church: I echo much of what has been suggested, maybe adding two things. One would be some sort of interactive electronic means. In my case, it was very simple–just frequent emails to the congregational list with a willingness to respond via email, phone, or conversation.

    Second, I think there’s a style of preaching that helps. (Anyway, I hope so.) Dan wrote, in part: “Unless the person communicating makes the effort to make sure what is being received, how it is perceived, and what impact it makes, we cannot say that communication has occurred.” While this can be done with some sort of feedback session, perhaps within the service or afterwards, it can be facilitated or fostered or encouraged by what I might call “pre-perception,” which might be as common as “knowing the people” or as semi-mystical as (and here words don’t come easily) preaching in such an intimate fashion that speaker and listener sort of “think” or “reflect” together. ISTM this is the kind of thing that might elicit an “I’ve-always-felt-that-way-myself” at the door.

    Such a thing–and the importance of repetition or re-inforcing–also argues for a theme for the worship experience, a working together of text, sermon, hymns, children’s time, etc. And visuals too.

  3. Don’t assume that one medium is more effective (and thus more time worthy) than another. The fact is that some folks will only hear the message when it’s spoken aloud by the pastor while others will only notice it if it’s in the bulletin. Things like blogs and Facebook posts may seem like a waste of time, but that is the commons where some of the church folks hang out, and you can make contact there. These days, if we want to get a message out, we find that we have to use a minimum of five means (verbal announcement, bulletin announcement, phone tree message, facebook message, and twitter message) and even then we miss people.

    • While I think multiple means are great and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to any single medium, the evidence for the value of dialogue over monologue is very persuasive and conclusive. Even with monologue, we have no idea how effectively we are transmitting information until we make the effort to find out who is receiving and what they’re doing with it. Also, monologic communication has a much higher chance of being misunderstood or misconstrued. as with so many things today, we choose the path of least resistance and cost — which is why impersonal, one-way communication is so popular.

  4. Being as clear as possible that I do not have answers, but responses and look forward to engaging other responses.

    Doing my best to alter my language from a definite article (the) to one that is more particular and open (a). This moves things from the doctrinaire (even things that don’t so sound, are) to the experiential and possible and yet revelatory.

    Use of humor, even though it is dangerous in that people can think I am laughing at them rather than the situation we have gotten ourselves into.

    Finding a metaphor from a different discipline that can illuminate the immediate situation. (Being stuck in religious language is to be mired in some world other than our current situation.)

    Dan – How might a Conference Communication Commission help in actual communication and not just technology? What feedback loops do most congregations/conferences lack?

    • Wesley, the willingness to admit our vulnerabilities as humans without all the answers has been a key help for me. Perhaps the most effective words I say are “I don’t know.” Unfortunately some think that admitting that we aren’t the “bible answer men” or that we don’t fully grasp the minutia of the UM Discipline is a sign of weakness that should be avoided. Being willing to say “I don’t know” more naturally leads into the more important question, “What do you think?” that provides the feedback we need to communicate effectively.

  5. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Or perhaps a better way to put it: Focus, Focus, Focus.

    If you say something once and then never bring it up again because you are moving on to twelve other things, you will not have much hope of communicating.

    Have a result in mind.

    I am communicating to “change the way people think about topic x”; “to change what people know about topic x”; “to get people to take a specific action with regard to topic x.”

    These are three entirely different goals and require different approaches.

    • What’s the old advertising adage? It takes a minimum of seven impressions to make an image stick. So repetition, using a variety of images and forms is very important.

  6. What have you found to be essential to effective communication?

    Speaking in as few words as possible.

    • Meeting of the minds — understanding, not necessarily agreement. Until I know what you have heard and understood, I have no idea whether I have communicated. The dance of listening and speaking is as essential to communication as inhaling and exhaling is to breathing. If we understand each other, we have a base from which to work. Short of that, we will encounter a lot more problems.

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