Effective communication, we can all agree, is an important part of healthy relationships. Employers often include effective communication skills as a fundamental requirement in job descriptions. Paul instructed the brethren in Colosse to, "let your conversation always be gracious and interesting, so that you will know how to respond to any particular individual" (Colossians 4:6; all scriptural references in this article are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translated by David H. Stern).
But what does this really mean? Communication is a two-way process. We say (or write) something, and the recipient of our message responds. We digest this response and further the dialogue. The communication continues back and forth as it ebbs and flows between the parties.
Using clear language, sound logic, and correct grammar are part of this communication process. But understanding when and how to share information requires a very complex understanding of not only the situation at hand, but also of the people involved. And it also involves more than just talking or writing—it requires listening.
Since mankind has been communicating from creation, does God's Word offer us any insights and help in this basic human activity? The answer, not surprisingly, is a resounding, "Yes!" with helpful admonitions for both our listening and our speaking. Let's explore these two facets of effective communication.
Listening to Understand
Have you ever known people who wouldn't listen? No doubt, they felt they already knew what you were going to say, so they jumped in and pronounced their edict without hearing your input.
Have you ever been the one who didn't listen? Have you ever regretted your impulsiveness? An ancient proverb states, "To answer someone before hearing him out is both stupid and embarrassing" (Proverbs 18:13). James also reminds us, "Therefore, my dear brothers, let every person be quick to listen but slow to speak" (James 1:19).
(This is not to say that there isn't a time for efficient, get-to-the-bottom-line communication. It takes wisdom to discern when continuing to listen would only be a waste of time.)
There are numerous reasons why people don't listen effectively. Perhaps the most common one is a lack of practice. Many people are habitually inattentive to what others say to them. While someone is talking, these people are mentally disconnected from the conversation at hand. In their minds, they may be going over the events of the day or perhaps be thinking of things they would rather be doing. If they are listening, they may be formulating a response while the speaker is stating his case. "A fool takes no pleasure in trying to understand; he only wants to express his own opinion" (Proverbs 18:2). Many important details—including critical nonverbal cues-are lost by not giving our undivided attention to a speaker. The listener has only understood part of the intended message.
Environment is frequently overlooked as a factor that can contribute to poor listening. It is difficult to remain attentive when a speaker is droning on for long periods of time in a poorly ventilated room with inadequate lighting. Or perhaps a family member tries to tell you something important while you're consoling a fussy baby and attempting to prepare dinner.
Environment can also include the appropriateness of the message for the setting involved. "A word at the right time, how good it is!" (Proverbs 15:23). Whispering to someone next to you about your Feast plans while the minister is reading announcements during church services would hinder the recipient's ability to listen effectively. And if your employer tells you that you're being transferred to Siberia as he walks by you at the water cooler, the informal, public nature of the setting could adversely affect your ability to fully absorb his message.
Another factor that can affect listening is status. "The poor man speaks beseechingly, the rich man's answer is blunt" (Proverbs 18:23). One's perception of position can often distort communication. When speaking with a person in a position of authority—such as a parent or employer—many people will craft their message to impress and not offend. Sometimes, when speaking with a person of equal or lower status-such as a coworker or child-individuals may be unnecessarily cold or insensitive to the listener's needs. Both the delivery and receipt of communication can be distorted by perceptions of status.
A fourth factor that contributes to poor listening is defensiveness. We all have some insecurities that prevent us from receiving messages we fear. There are certain things we simply don't want to hear. This can be especially true when these issues affect our values, assumptions or self-image. Rather than listening attentively when such topics arise, we find ourselves becoming emotionally defensive. Perhaps we try to divert the conversation, or tune out what is being said. "He who heeds life-giving correction will be at home in the company of the wise. He who spurns discipline detests himself, but he who listens to correction grows in understanding" (Proverbs 15:31-32).
Hidden agendas or purposeful deceptions are related factors that can also hinder effective listening. Sometimes people have motives they prefer not to reveal. When communicating with others, they may seek a competitive advantage by being intentionally ambiguous. Or perhaps they only present a portion of the relevant information for your consideration. If this continues over time, low trust and a lack of cooperation will often result. This technique has been around for thousands of years. "The first to state his case seems right, till the other one comes and cross-examines" (Proverbs 18:17).
This can lead to hostility, which can also negatively affect one's ability to listen. If goodwill is missing in a relationship, messages tend to be reframed in a negative way. When trust is low and people are angry, no matter what the speaker communicates, it is likely to be distorted. Motives will be ascribed and assumptions will be formulated as to what the person really meant. Another proverb wisely observes, "It is harder to win an offended brother than a strong city" (Proverbs 18:19).
Speaking With Wisdom
Given these barriers to effectively communicating with others, what can we do to improve our skills in this vital area? There are numerous books available that provide useful suggestions. One of them, Becoming a Master Manager: A Competency Framework (Quinn, Faerman, Thompson & McGrath, 1996, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) lists the following "Rules for Effective Communication":
Be clear on who the receiver is. What is the receiver's state of mind? What assumptions might he or she have concerning the issue?
Know what your objective is. What do you want to accomplish by sending the message?
Analyze the climate. Is there something you can do to help the receiver relax and be more open to your communication?
Review the message in your head before you say it. Listen to the practice message from the point of view of the receiver.
Communicate in the language of the other person. Use examples and illustrations that come from the world of the receiver.
If the receiver seems not to understand, clarify the message. Ask questions. If repetition is necessary, try different words and illustrations.
If the response is seemingly critical, do not react defensively. Try to understand what is happening in the receiver. Why is he or she reacting negatively? The receiver may be misunderstanding. Ask clarifying questions.
It can also be helpful to ask others-coworkers, friends or family members-to provide constructive feedback on your strengths and weaknesses as an effective communicator. "Someone who is already wise will hear and learn still more" (Proverbs 1:5).
Don't be overwhelmed by these points. You might find it helpful to work on one at a time as a personal communication-building program. The benefits are great! Applying these basic principles will help us improve our communication skills and increase our effectiveness in both the workplace and in our personal lives.