There are many languages and many dialects of those languages on earth. In each country, there are some who use the language very well and some who just get by. Some have a huge vocabulary and understand the meaning of them all—and some have a very limited vocabulary and therefore have difficulty in expressing themselves. Some communicate using arms, legs, and facial expressions. A limited vocabulary not only makes it hard for us to express ourselves fully and with clear understanding, but it also makes it hard for us to fully understand what others are saying to us. Effective communication does not always come easily. Poor communication has caused a great deal of grief in this world. Wars have been fought as a result of misunderstandings. Family and friends have suffered hurts, and people have lived lives that are far less fulfilling because their communication skills are limited.
We can all do better and when we do the benefits are enormous. We all have spent time explaining what we meant after saying something that was obviously misunderstood.
What are some of the elements of good communication? Certainly a good command of the language is very high on the list, but that is not all—not by a long shot. Although it is vital having a lot of words at our command, it is not the greatest part of communication. A multitude of words does not necessarily make good communication. There are some other vitally important factors to consider.
One of the most important factors in good communication is knowing what to say, when to say it, what tone of voice to use, how to say it, and to whom we say it. The Bible explains that a word “fitly spoken” is precious (Proverbs 25:11). A word that is fitly spoken is the right word at the right time and in the right tone of voice. It is expressed at a precise moment—the right moment. Here are a few factors that affect how we can communicate for the greatest benefit and clarity.
Secondly, timing has a lot to do with how words are accepted. When a person is grieving, it is not the time to make a lighthearted joke. We need to learn when to laugh with others and to mourn with those that mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:4). When we are paying attention to the words of another and consider what may be going on in their lives, we are far more likely to select the right words to say in reply. There is a time to comfort, encourage and edify—and there is a time to teach and to correct. Knowing the difference is important. Another area of timing has to do with interrupting people. There are some people who hardly pause to take a breath as they take over the whole conversation—that is a problem which interferes with good communication. We can hardly get a word in edgewise and at some point we just have to interrupt. Though we must certainly learn to be good listeners (James 1:19), when only one is always speaking we do not have a conversation, we have a lecture. Part of good communication is to allow others to speak as well, and not try to dominate the conversation.
A third consideration is to make every word count. That is, to make every word add to our conversation and not to detract from it. In many daily conversations I hear, it seems people have a very limited vocabulary. They use the same words over and over again. It is either the same four-letter curse words or taking the Lord’s name in vain. We use filler words because we think we are making an impact or impression (and we are, but not a good one). We can learn to use words with a little salt, humor, and grace (Colossians 4:6). Salt preserves and protects, so words with that effect are not belittling and do not introduce anything that would hurt a relationship. Many conversations are very shallow. Good conversation has meaning and requires thought and knowledge. The shallow conversations we hear today often reflect the shallow lives people lead.
A fourth point to consider is how first impressions can affect conversation (2 Corinthians 10:7). We often categorize a person before we know very much about them and that impacts how we speak to them. But first impressions usually end up being wrong, because they are often based on our own experiences and information and they can deceive us.
An important fifth item is to remember the normal phrases of greeting when we first begin speaking to someone. On phone calls to our spouse or someone near to us, we sometimes forget the niceties of language. It is only polite to start off by asking how a person is—and not get right into the core of the purpose of our call. The Proverbs 31 woman is complimented because she opens her mouth with wisdom and on her tongue is the law of kindness (Proverbs 31:26). It is a matter of expressing yourself with constant respect towards others. Respect, or the lack of it, shows up in the sharpness of our tone, or allowing ourselves to become distracted. How often have we asked someone to repeat a question or comment simply because we were not listening? That’s rude, and do we try to cover by saying something such as “I did not hear you?” even though that might be a bit of an untruth? Looking a person in the eye is a sign of respect and attentiveness. Giving someone your full attention and asking questions for clarification are all indicators of interest in that person. All people respond to someone who really is interested in what they have to say.
In the most important communication of all—prayer—we need to learn how to talk with our Creator. The exceptional, specially chosen disciples of Jesus Christ realized that they needed to learn to pray and asked Jesus to teach them (Luke 11:1). We need not be embarrassed to admit we need further training and experience in that area of conversation.
We are not born with the knowledge of how to communicate other than to cry and wail when hungry or uncomfortable. How to communicate is something we learn as we grow into adulthood. How to communicate with God and man is an invaluable ability. The next time you enjoy talking with someone, take some mental note of what they do well and practice that yourself. You will be glad you did.
For more information on building good communication skills, see our study guide Making Life Work.