The Fine Art of
Communication

by
Jack Churchill and Jack Lane
 

“I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but
I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”


The amusing little ditty printed above has been making the rounds longer than anyone knows.  But it’s humor with a point:  If we don’t learn how to communicate clearly, we may not be communicating at all!

I’m sure you’re aware that this is not a very friendly world in which we live.  In spite of our technological advances, we are still unable to live peaceably with all men.  We’ve sent rockets and cameras out to other planets.  We’ve almost unraveled the genome code of DNA.  Technologically, we can do almost anything.  But sociologically, we have just not developed the ability to get along with one another.

People are living under so much stress in their lives that a new term has appeared in our vocabulary:  “road rage.”  Husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors, and various nations are not getting along with each other as they should.  Even the Church of God groups can’t seem to get along, with each other or among themselves!

Messiah said we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44).  Yet we see people all around us not even able to get along with their friends or family members.

Why so much hate and anger?  Why do people have so much trouble getting along?  Actually, there are many reasons.  We’ve heard many times that Satan and human nature are the biggest culprits in most of our world problems.  But in this article, we’re going to look at another important cause of many of the misunderstandings and problems that separate people.  This is a problem we can actually address in our own lives and correct!  It’s something you might not suspect:  poor communication.  If two people are not able to get through to each other, mind to mind, there is no foundation of common understanding.  When that happens, miscommunications can lead to misunderstandings, anger, and other problems.

What is the most important thing in how we live our lives?  Messiah gave us two important things to keep in mind:  “One of the scribes ... asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’  Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear O Israel:  the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  The second is this, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  There is no other commandment greater than these’” (Mark 12:28-31, NRSV).

The Apostle John commented on this in one of his epistles:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20-21).  This scripture is pretty blunt.  It tells us that love for our brothers and sisters is essential.  If we don’t have this kind of love, then we can’t possibly love God.  We have to be doing the second great commandment in order to do the first!

The well-known “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, is the epitomé of how we can fulfill the second great commandment.  Look closely at verse 2 of this chapter:  “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

So, even if we truly know “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10), even if we comprehend God’s calendar, and understand what time of day the Passover lamb was killed, if we don’t have genuine love for our neighbor, we are worthless.  If we don’t love our neighbor, we can’t love God.  Is there anything more important?  To better love and serve our neighbor (and perhaps even God!), some of us need to back off from anger and try to understand the other person, our listener, better.

Let’s look at this issue of communication, and what prevents true interaction from happening.  The most common causes of communication break-down include:  The differences in thought processes between the sexes, a defect or interruption in message transfer from one person to another, dishonesty, misrepresentation, a legitimate disagreement between the two parties, pride, bias, anger, emotional fixation, exhibiting offensive or aggressive behavior, having a judgmental attitude, having an overly sensitive personality, or simply being unwilling to admit that you have made a mistake.

The  Man-Woman  Differences

This “men versus women” debate has been going on about as long as there have been men and women.  But God loves women and men just as much.  The Bible says we are all created in God’s image, then subdivided into male and female (Genesis 1:27; 2:23).  We have been given different brain structures, in order to approach life from different angles.  This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  God has made us differently, and has given us different responsibilities.  For instance, God doesn’t ask men to have babies, and He doesn’t ask women to drive to a destination without asking for help along the way.

God made the two genders different from each other, and told us to communicate with each other.  It’s interesting to note that God also made the two sides of each human brain so they could communicate with each other.  Studies have indicated that the average woman can use that intrabrain communication skill better than the average man.  The husband and the wife each brings his or her strengths to the marriage.  The ideal that God has given us is to make one flesh:  to take one female brain and one male brain and make one unit out of them.  That’s our goal.  It takes both the husband and the wife, working together, to make an effective team.

Knowing the differences between how men think and how women think is essential to understanding how to build a good relationship.  The thinking style is different, and so is the communication style.  Until men and women understand that, couples will continue to experience challenges with communication.  There is no way to know how often throughout human history this has led to quarreling, or more significant problems in the relationship.

The scriptures say, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife” (Proverbs 25:24).  You can bet the women also have their version of this.

When men stress their rulership role in the family (“I’m the king around here”), they forget that the way for a man to be the leader is to sacrifice himself for his wife as Christ did for the church.  Otherwise, they’ll never be a team.  The scripture says, first, to submit one to another.  Then it tells wives to submit to their husbands.  Then it tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:21-33).

What  Do  You  Mean?

Perhaps the biggest problem in meaningful interaction among people is the need to use language to try to convey our thoughts to one another.  We rely on spoken and written language to transport the picture we have in our own mind into someone else’s mind, and it doesn’t always work.

When a person talks, he or she knows what is meant by the words.  But I hear these words, and I don’t know what they mean, because I come from another background.  I have to interpret the words I hear into some meaningful picture in my mind.  The speaker thinks I know what is meant, but I don’t get exactly the same picture from the words that the speaker has.  I can’t!  I can only filter the words I hear through my own experiences and definitions.

What a word or phrase might mean to the speaker and what they might mean to the listener often are not the same thing!  Sometimes simply filling in the background first can make a huge difference in how well you are understood.  If the listener doesn’t know the context from which you are speaking, it’s easy to misunderstand you!

All too often, misunderstandings of what someone has said can escalate into full blown arguments.  No insult was intended, but insult is taken.  Then the voices get angrier, and it becomes a big fight -- all because the listener and speaker failed to communicate!

We all have a need to develop active listening techniques.  If someone says something and you don’t quite understand what was meant, ask for a clarification.  If you say something and the other person looks confused, say, “Maybe you didn’t understand what I meant.  Let me clarify that.”  If you have a desire to make it clear, you’ll be more careful about how you word things.  Teachers and public speakers try to look for blank or confused expressions on their listeners’ faces, so they know when to stop and explain what they mean.  We could all benefit from trying to develop this skill.

A listener may have a preconceived idea about whatever topic is being addressed.  In fact, they may not even be tuned in to what is being said at the moment if they are tuning out to review their own thoughts on the subject.  Listeners may, in fact, filter what they are hearing through their own interpretation of what they’ve been thinking about.  As a result, misunderstandings occur.

If you can imagine such a thing, people have been known to take something as an insult that wasn’t intended as an insult!  Many times people will interpret an innocent statement as being corrective in some way, or a “put-down.”  Some people seem anxious to believe that everything people say to them is corrective or negative, perhaps as a result of how they were brought up by their parents, or bossed around by an aggressive employer.  Be on guard that you aren’t making that kind of impression when you speak to someone.  And be on guard that you aren’t assuming you are being corrected when you are not.

Imperfect hearing is also an impediment to communication.  A person with a hearing problem may not catch every word that is spoken.  Even people with normal hearing may have trouble trying to listen in a noisy room.  Make sure you are being heard correctly.

One method of stopping a misunderstanding before it gets out of control is simply to repeat or restate what you think the other person said (i.e., “Did you really mean to say I’m ugly?”).  Stop the problem before it gets started.

Be  Honest

We aren’t really honest when we talk to each other.  All too often, we try to make ourselves look good in conversation.  Conversely, when someone else is talking, we tend not to believe them when they tell us how good they are.

We need to learn, when we talk about something, to be sure we give the right story, without elaboration or exaggeration.  Often, when we talk to people, we tend to add in things that aren’t really true, because we want people who are standing by to get a false impression of how wonderful we are.  So we may exaggerate a little here and there, for the benefit of the bystander, so they’ll get the impression that something is really true.  Or we may act as if something is common knowledge (i.e., “as we all know, ...”).

The cure for this tangled web is to be honest when we present a story.  The truth may come out at some inconvenient or embarrassing time.  “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines” (Proverbs 18:17).  Should anyone who claims to be a member of the family of God be misrepresenting, exaggerating, or distorting the facts?

How something is said can enhance the effect of the words we are using, in a negative way.  Speaking in a whining voice, for example, conveys added meaning beyond the information content.  At the restaurant, the steak may arrive burned, but it’s totally inappropriate to say in a loud voice, “Oh, look at this mess!  I couldn’t possibly eat this terrible steak!”  (Actually, people who work in restaurants are seldom impressed when their customers act like little children.)

With a nod to Aesop and his fables, if we have a tendency to cry wolf, over and over again, we generate a credibility problem, and people will not believe us, or anything we say.

Many of these problems can be summarized by a simple thought:  If there is a problem in communicating, often it is either because the speaker hasn’t made himself or herself clear, or the other person hasn’t understood the concept of what is being said.

Other  Aspects  of the  Problem

What do we do if we have a decision that needs to be made, but there is a disagreement?  As an example, in our groups and congregations, there may be discussions, even disagreements, on calendar issues, whether women should speak during services, issues regarding the nature of God and man, and so forth.  Many people have studied these issues, and many papers have been written.

One common aspect with all of these people and issues is this:  Each person is sincere in his or her beliefs, and in the conclusions he or she has reached.  With so many issues today, if we can’t agree, all we can do is discuss the issue, and love the other person no matter what conclusions are reached.

Don’t make someone grovel.  That tends to be more of a male tendency than a female tendency.  Two people could find themselves in an argument about something.  If one person is found to be right (or just thinks they were right), they might insist that the other person say, “Yes, I was wrong.”  Most of the time, though, these arguments are about totally unimportant things.  So, if you’re right, and you can prove you are right, is it worth it to make the other person feel bad and to create hard feelings?  This may be vanity in its highest form.  It may be important to someone’s fragile ego to humble the opponent, but it isn’t a Christ-like attribute.

So often, things we say are biased.  We’ve all seen little children collide accidentally, then one will accuse the other of doing it deliberately.  It’s not so cute when adults exhibit the same behavior.

A similar technique is to say that someone has done something to us or to a third party because of some secret malice.  So often we impute motives to people.  “Since you’re a slob, that’s why you did this.”  Or, “He did or said this because of that.”  We offend people because we assume they did something for a motive.  It’s usually not a good assumption.

The fact is, nobody knows why people do what they do, so we must try not to bias people we talk to against other people.  We have probably seen in our own lives that, no matter how firmly convinced we are that we are right, it’s possible we’re not right.  And even if we are, we’ll never be able to force anyone to agree with us, anyway!

Self-Deceit

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)  Let’s look at our own human heart for a moment.

When we form our sentences, we tend to have a built-in self-deceit that causes us to construct our sentences in such a way that we lie to ourselves.  Many of us are so self-deluded that we don’t even know what’s really going on in our own minds!  When we converse with somebody else, that self-deceit is built into every pore of what we are trying to say.  Many times, this shows up as blaming others.

People get mad and say, “Herbert Armstrong did this to me, and WCG did these things to me.”  Well, if you believed the things Herbert Armstrong taught you, whose fault is that?  Why is it his fault?  Isn’t it your fault for believing it?  You had a choice to accept the teachings or reject them.

It seems odd, but many of these same people will then put forth their own doctrinal ideas, and become angry when people don’t accept their ideas!

Don’t  Offend  One  Another

Oh, how often we say things that are offensive!  We don’t even mean it to be offensive.  We’re not feeling well, or we’ve had a hard day, and we just lash out.  Sometimes we repent of it later, but not always.  Sometimes we are sorry for what we said or did but are too vain to go to the offended party and tell them we realize we were wrong.

Jesus said, “But if any of you put a stumbling block before any of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).  At times it’s difficult to remember that “A soft word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).  A little tact and diplomacy never hurts, either.  “A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11).

Perhaps, instead of offending someone, we should develop the habit of saying, “Let’s talk about this.  I don’t agree with it.”

Anger

So many times we destroy other people, and ourselves, by getting angry.  “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice” (Proverbs 13:10, NIV).  Anger comes from being puffed up.  We think we’re so great, and the other person is wrong.

There is an old Chinese proverb that an angry argument hides a weak defense.  Many westerners seem to know this principle by instinct.  Sometimes people can be so excited and focused on what they are talking about that their volume increases, and they sound angry.  It may look like they are arguing, but they’re not.  A heated discussion may not be an angry argument.  There are even times when an angry look on the face, like an angry tone in the voice, can creep in simply because of the intensity of what we are saying.  If someone looks or sounds angry, it might be wise to stop them and ask if they are angry.  Often, the person has no idea that they are coming across that way!

But real anger, especially where it is inappropriate, needs to be curtailed.  It’s a bad habit to get into, and not always an easy habit to break.

“But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matthew 5:22, KJV).  It’s amazing how often we get angry at someone for an imagined offense.  Getting angry with someone without a legitimate reason is clearly a very serious  sin.

The devil is causing the whole world to be full of anger, viciousness, and bitterness.  We must be on guard against it.

“One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and the schemer is hated. ... Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:17, 29).  “Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).  “It is honorable to refrain from strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3).

This problem of anger needs to be addressed.  One reason people get angry is because of a simple misunderstanding.  With improved communication skills, many causes of anger would simply not be there!

Don’t  Judge  Others

Another area where inappropriate communication may be taking place is among church members who left the Worldwide Church of God at various times, for various reasons, and those who chose to stay with Worldwide.  If we remained in Worldwide and watched other people leave, we tended to judge them.  Then, if we left and others stayed, we tended to judge those who stayed behind!

There are those who have found something in the Bible, and insist that others believe it, and threaten people with the lake of fire if they don’t believe it!  All of these instances of being judgmental, or condemning others, are wrong, and stem from a lack of understanding other people’s point of view, and giving those people and their views the respect they deserve.

“Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. ... Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:1, 4).  Quiet, patient, loving conversation can go a long way toward increasing understanding and acceptance.

Admit  When  You  Are  Wrong

We can be swift to catch others in a sin.  And there is a grievance process in place.  The first step involves going to the offender personally.  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (Matthew 18:15, paraphrased).

But if we have done something to our brother, and we are the one at fault, we should be even faster in getting out there and admitting our mistake.  “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:15).  The directive is to go confess to the brother or sister involved, or the one against whom you have sinned.  We are not told to go confess to a priest.  We are also not being told to confess all our sins to each other, but rather what we have done wrong to each other.  Just doing this would increase communication and understanding immeasurably!

What  Can  We  Do?

Most of us who find that we have problems communicating with each other are not in need of special help by outside professionals.  Most of us can solve a great many of these problems simply by paying more attention to what we say and do, and by being more thoughtful in how we address others.

Simply having respect for others will help greatly.  Married people treat each other poorly, and children yell at their parents, simply because there is not enough respect in the family for each other’s feelings and needs.  Years of repetitive behavior in arguing and fighting make it seem to be impossible to change our behavior.  Yet change is the thing that is needed to solve these problems!

There are a great many courses and books available to help with these various matters of learning how to communicate, learning how to manage anger, etc.  Simply obtaining and studying Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People will take a person miles down the road to better understanding and communication.  We strongly encourage all our readers to make this book, available in paperback, an important part of their libraries.

Messiah said, “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay:  for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5:37, KJV).   Paul wrote, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29, KJV).  Paul also taught us to “put off ... anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8).

We are certain that God is listening when we pray.  Does God have the same confidence in us to be listening when He speaks to us?  There must be a reason the Old Testament is filled with admonitions to “Hear, O Israel,” and the New Testament has plenty of references to “Whoever has an ear, let him hear.”

Vocal communication requires two things:  speaking and listening.  We can each pay more attention to how we speak, and also to how we listen.  Are we being offensive, and are we being offended?  Are we speaking poorly, and are we listening poorly?  The art of communication requires refinement on both sides of the equation.

We can’t change the world, or make nations get along.  We can’t stop crime in the streets.  But we can take a closer look at how we live our own lives, on a person-to-person level, every day of our lives.

 
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Dr. Churchill is professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of California, Davis.