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?