It seems to me that a lot of our interpersonal communication isn’t even personal. It had the potential to be a tense meeting. He entered the pastor’s office and they exchanged pleasantries. They each took a seat and began to talk… healthy communication starts with listening.
If you do a google search for articles on interpersonal communication, you can find a wealth of words written on the topic. Lists and lists and more lists. But most of these articles are written from a business perspective, a perspective fraught with a transactional mode of thinking. I need to get something from this conversation. How can I get it? Maybe it’s better performance from someone who reports to me. Maybe it’s support for a particular initiative I’m leading. Maybe it’s a donation to a particular project? The list and go on and on. Many of our conversations revolved around how we can get someone to do something we need them to do. We end up focusing on desired outcomes instead of God-created persons.
It seems to me that a lot of our interpersonal communication isn’t even personal.
Let’s think about how interpersonal communication should work for a minister who claims the gospel of Jesus.
There are obvious ways that Scripture can inform these conversations. Shall we “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?” (Micah 6:8) How about “loving our neighbor as ourselves?” Or “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you?” Healthy communication starts with listening.
The short summary here is simply the word “empathy.” To empathize is to focus on the humanity of the person with whom we’re interacting, to look and listen deeply and see above all else the Imago Dei that has been placed within that person. To recognize that each person has the need to be seen, heard, and respected – just like we do. It’s so easy for a person in responsibility to forget that simple and foundational truth.
So, what does that look like in practice? Here are a few of my thoughts based on my own experience.
First of all, it means that we have to fight against our own desire to frame conversations as transactions. We have to rise above focusing simply on what we want or need to gain from the conversation.
In the example above, the pastor must work to focus on the needs of his congregant in spite of whatever criticism might come from the other side of the conversation. What does his conversation partner bring into the room that seems to have nothing to do with their specific criticism? What’s working below the surface that may be “driving the bus?”
About thirty years ago I was a part-time music minister. One day I was in the church office when a church trustee began berating me about my music choices. It was a most uncomfortable conversation and seemed to have come “out of the blue.” I did the best I could to de-fuse the conversation, but eventually, I had to simply leave the scene. I was angry, ashamed, frustrated, and puzzled all at the same time. I learned later that day that this trustee had a serious family situation about which we had all been unaware. His frustration with me wasn’t really about me at all.
This is to say, often the negative energy driving interpersonal communication has nothing to do with either the issue being discussed or even the relationship of those in the conversation. It often can be something totally external to the conversation. Our calling as ministers is to remain focused on people and their humanity even during a storm of conflict. I’m not saying that that is easy. Working to see beyond the surface issue can help us to avoid reflecting negativity back toward those with whom we’re talking.
Transactional framing, it seems to me, is driven by another cultural influence on us as ministers: our responsibility for institutions. It’s just so very easy in our industrialized, technological culture to inadvertently see the people with whom we work as cogs in the “machine.” Sometimes our churches place that expectation on us. Sometimes we place it on ourselves. It’s a dangerous expectation, maybe even a bit blasphemous. Isn’t it God’s church, after all? Is our God big enough to take responsibility for God’s church?
That being said, when we have institutional responsibilities, it’s so very easy to see every conversation in terms of what it will mean for us, our ministry careers, and even the life and health of our churches. We dare not reduce our congregants or our fellow staff members to cogs in an institutional wheel. We are called to see our people as whole people, human beings created in the image of God who has needs and desires beyond the life of the church, needs and desires that we’re called both to hear and to heed.
Have you ever been in conversation with someone at a party who was constantly looking around the room even while talking with you? Are their eyes constantly roaming past you looking for someone else? How often do we do that as ministers? Either literally or figuratively? God calls us to be fully engaged with each of God’s people. God calls us to act as if any single person with whom we’re engaged is the most important person in the room. Because in that moment, in God’s eyes, they are. How can we do less as ministers?
Making the people with whom we’re communicating truly important involves the most important ministerial skill. There are many important ministerial skills. Preaching is important. Skill with exegesis is important. Leadership is important. There are a plethora of important ministerial skills, but none are more important than the ability to listen, to listen deeply and empathetically. Healthy communication starts with listening.
You can find list after list on the internet of actions to inform the development of listening skills. But underneath them, all need to be this foundation: a genuine love for and curiosity about the other person. It should come easily to a minister, but it often doesn’t. We get busy with all our other duties and neglect the person sitting right in front of us. I contend that while we certainly have to manage our time and be responsible for our duties, to neglect the people sitting right in front of us is to neglect the gospel. If a minister doesn’t have time for people, maybe that minister needs to rearrange their priorities and/or reexamine their calling.
People are our calling and we’re called to learn all we can about them: their lives, their needs, their relationships, their relational styles, and indeed the wholeness of their person. To do less is to reduce our calling as simply a set of transactions that may contribute to the development of numerical growth, but might not have much gospel in them at all.
And one of the many ways we can make our interpersonal communication more personal is to examine the form of our communication. We have a wealth of modes of communication: email, text, phone, social media, and even face-to-face.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a consulting or advising conversation that started with “They sent me an email (or text) that said….” When going deeper in the conversation I’m often able to see what the people in the middle of the conversation can’t: That a simple phone call, coffee visit, or just a face-to-face visit would likely have prevented the entire conflict. Healthy communication starts with listening.
Email (and text) is wonderful for many things. It’s often great to have a record of a conversation. The older I get, the more I depend on reviewing emails to see exactly what’s been said. I have a copy of every email I’ve ever sent. But email also has serious and often relationally dangerous shortcomings.
Email communication has some serious communication deficiencies. It lacks the immediacy of a conversation either in person or over the phone. If words or phrases are used that need to be “fleshed out,” then that can be done immediately. Misunderstandings don’t have to wait an extended time for elaboration. Think of how human nature will usually fill in gaps of understanding with negative, rather than positive assumptions. With a verbal conversation, those gaps can be filled immediately.
Email lacks the nuance of verbal inflection. Let’s face it. Words aren’t just words. They can have a multitude of meanings based on how they’re said. Think of all the different ways you can say the word, “Oh.” (You’re doing it in your mind right now, aren’t you?) It can be an exciting exclamation, a puzzling question, a sigh of disappointment, or a ton of other meanings. And that’s just one two-letter word. Think of how many different ways an entire email message can be misconstrued.
Email also lacks the context of the visual cues we experience in face-to-face conversation. Think of all the different emotions we experience in a conversation and how many of those can be communicated without a single word. Email is totally devoid of the nuance we often need for difficult conversations.
When I need to have a difficult conversation, I always do it face-to-face. I’m intentional about how I present myself, my posture, whether I stand or sit, how I greet the person with whom I need to have that conversation, the lighting, and the arrangement of the space in which this dialog will take place. Will the environment in which we talk create comfort and a safe space for the conversation? Both for my conversation partner as well as for me? With an email, I have absolutely no control over any of that.
Think, in contrast, about a lunch meeting. Maybe in private, maybe in public. In Scripture, we see the sharing of a meal as a sign of intimacy, a sign of importance, of community. Not every conversation requires a lunch meeting or even a phone call. But never forget what’s missing when you fire off a quick email.
To make sure your interpersonal communication is truly personal, think of both the “who” and the “how” of your communication. Healthy communication starts with listening. Being intentional about both will, in my experience, enhance your ministry and help to build God’s Kin-dom in ways that are authentic, empowering, and reflective of the same love of God that we proclaim from our pulpits each Sunday.
The Center for Healthy Churches can help you or your church improve communication. Coaching can be a valuable tool for identifying the ‘who and how’ of the message, you want to convey. If you would like to have a conversation with CHC email us at email@example.com.
Welcome to our new blog series The Deep End, information to inspire faithful creativity and spark a new way of looking at your church. We are conditioned to consume information in short articles, and as a general rule, we stick to that format. However, some topics need to be unpacked in a deeper and more meaningful approach. The Deep End is an attempt to go in-depth into topics we feel are relevant to inspiring you and your church to dream new dreams and listen to the Spirit in a new creative way.