Let’s Be Clear

I am fast coming to despise email.  Not just the quantity, nor the spam — but the high level of miscommunication it engenders.  Three examples:

  • you’re not the kind of example I would expect from The United Methodist Church.
  • I have never heard such nonsense about the church before.
  • The kind of change you’re talking about would make us a completely different church.

Are these three sentences (each lifted from an email I just received this morning) positive or negative; praising or condemning?  The first two are (apparently) praise, the third angry — though without tone, inflection, facial expression, cadence and other cues, it took me awhile to catch on.  The first woman commends me later in her email as being “a breath of fresh air in a stale, musty church,” though she also earlier said, “I’m not sure where you get some of your ideas from,” and “what do you think would happen if we threw away all our time-tested beliefs?”, so I wasn’t really sure whether she was happy with me or not…

The second woman led her email with “I have never heard such nonsense about the church before,” and went on to cite four or five things I have written in my blog, so I thought I was being torched until the second paragraph where it became apparent that she was merely incredulous about some of the things I have written — until she checked into them for herself and confirmed they are indeed true.  From there on, the email was filled with praise and questions.

The third, from a pastor, ripped me up one side and down the other for trying to change the church.  Apparently my conviction that God is love and that we should treat others with respect, dignity, compassion, kindness, and acceptance makes me “the lowest kind of liberal democrat dog that is trying to destroy this fine country and God’s holy church.”  I have yet to figure out how kindness makes me a liberal, but I am okay with it.  It will come as a blow to my conservative and republican friends that they are “acting liberal” when they are being kind, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

Our emailing/blogging culture is taking us some pretty fragile places.  I marvel at people who seem to gleefully jump on any ambiguous phrase to misread, misinterpret, and misrepresent something someone else has written — taking innocent statements and making them something completely different.  Clear, effective communication is difficult enough without going out of our ways to make it harder.  It seems we will not allow the same grace to the written word that we might to the spoken word.  We are much quicker to “climb the ladder of inference” and ascribe negative intentions and meaning to words in print.  Many read to argue and debate, not communicate.

Because communication is hard, and good communication is often painful.  Being clear takes work.  One mentor of mine said of preaching, “you think purple, say blue, people hear green and see red!”  What we mean, once it leaves mouth, pen or keyboard is no longer ours alone, but is at the mercy of the hearer, the receiver, or the reader.  What we say and mean may be perceived very differently.

One of the best courses I had in college was a communication class where the professor talked of the five parts of communication: the creation of the message, the transmission of the message, the reception of the message, the interpretation of the message, and the application of/response to the message.  Elegant and sublime, simple and problematic.  Problematic because we only “control” two of the five essential elements of communication.  A common failing of modern communication is it is ALL about creation and transmission — we don’t take the time to find out what people receive, how they interpret it, and what they do with it.  We ASSUME our wonderful ideas and communiques are being received and read unfiltered — that people are hearing us and knowing exactly what we mean.  This is why dialogue is so often superior to monologue — it gives us immediate feedback about the last three essential elements of good communication.

We so often end up talking “at” each other rather than “with” each other.  My understanding you is sadly not as important as your understanding me (at least in my mind…).  I have a right to my opinion, you have a right to my opinion, but I have no real interest in your opinion. (A common blind spot of blogging.)  I don’t want you to get upset with what I say — I simply want you to know what I mean and agree with me completely.  This, alas, is not communication, but narcissism.

It is even worse when we are sure we are right.  Then, what I say is “truth” while what you say is “opinion.”  What I say is “right” and what anyone else says differently is “wrong.”  This is where communication ends and debate begins.  I have yet to meet anyone who has “won” a communication, though I know many who pride themselves on “winning” a debate.  Healthy relationships — the best reason I know for communication — are not about winning and losing, and our life in Christ is about relationships.  If the body is to remain strong, then our communication matters.  We need to get good at it.  We need to care as much about what people hear as what we say.  We need to seek to understand as much as we seek to be understood.  And we need to make certain that our communication reflects our most deeply held values, so that the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit might be felt by all.

8 replies

  1. Dan, you write in part: “I have yet to meet anyone who has “won” a communication, though I know many who pride themselves on “winning” a debate. Healthy relationships — the best reason I know for communication — are not about winning and losing, and our life in Christ is about relationships.”

    As is often the case, your words give voice to my thoughts! Just a “wonder” here: can communication be an end in itself? Is being able to understand another person (or trying to do so) an important part of that relationship whether or not one has persuaded the other to do something or think something? Having been a participant in a recent (failed) attempt at a social community, I would say that the change agent is more the person–more the relationship, than it is the exchange of words/ideas/hopes.

    While I’ve just taken the latest Percept quiz and discovered that my “overall change response style is TENTATIVE” (and I’m a bit embarrassed about that), I enthusiastically still affirm your blogging! Thank you!

    • I think communication is a means to an end, and the end is usually in service to our relationships. However, surgery is a means to healing; teaching is a means to learning; and building is a means to shelter and I would much rather the surgeon, the teacher, and the builder be skilled enough to do more good than harm. I am afraid we are generally amateur communicators in a day when we need skilled communication artisans…

  2. Challenging thoughts, Dan – and you highlight very effectively the problems with electronic communication.

    I have found another side to the story though. With email and blog comments, I am able to slow my communication processes down, read and re-read what I’m saying and check whether I’m actually saying what I want to say. If I’m willing to take the time to do this, I am actually able to do the first two phases of the communication far more effectively. In addition, I have the opportunity to read and re-read the reply from the other person, which, again if I’m willing to put in the effort, enables me to take more responsibility for the rest of the process as well, and ensure that I work to understand the other person better.

    Is part of the problem, perhaps, that we just don’t take the time to work more carefully with our words?

    And here is another problem with the electronic – I can hide behind the misunderstanding or behind anonymity, which means that sometime the usual social restraints that operate in face to face communication don’t operate online.

    I guess it’s a mixed bag…

    • Great insights! Would that I slowed down more often and took time to think more deeply before I hit the “send” button. The desire to communicate well is as important as the ability to communicate well.

    • Well said John.
      I have been working on this subject in my personal communications lately, because I observed that I was hitting send without reading what I had written. I am slow in my writing, but still I need to spend some more time in my editing and reviewing before I send communications. I really need to work at that! Also, you are very correct in your observation about hiding behind misunderstanding. I think we sometimes use that to misdirect reactions from our readers.
      Again, great points by Dan and by you!

      • Thanks Tom,

        I guess it all boils down to our own integrity in communication. If I am willing to be deceptive or coercive in my communication, then I can hide behind the anonymity, the misunderstandings and the “facelessness” of email etc. However, even with all of this, other people will get the sense of what I’m doing sooner or later, and then simply choose to ignore me.

        On the other hand, if I’m keen to be Christ-like in my communication and if I genuinely desire good communication, then I will choose to be more careful, to work through misunderstandings, and to let people see me as I am as much as possible. When we work hard at good communication – whether in person or online – people recognise the difference, and then they are more willing to continue to engage. But, in both scenarios, I’ve learned that slowing down is often one practice that makes a huge positive difference.

        I’m enjoying this reflection together immensely – thank you all.

  3. We don’t even really control the first two of the five parts of the classic communication model either – at least not without great attention, effort, and practice.

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