Lecture 6 – The Wise Communicator: The Man with a Microphone

This model addresses the two-sided problem of mis-communication (speaking) and misunderstanding (hearing).
In this lecture we will look at the three dimensions of communication: the message, the communicator, and the receiver. I am not using the words “speaker” and “hearer” in this triad because communication involves much more than speaking and hearing.

I. The Message

Question: How do I become a better communicator?
The Christian leader is in the communication business. Whatever else he is, he is a communicator. Everything he does is about communication. Communication is his “product” or “service.” Whether he is preaching, counseling, chairing a board of elders, emailing, blogging, facebooking, writing newsletters, evangelizing, meeting someone on the street, or even just standing in a public place – he is communicating; he is communicating a message. His words, his expressions, his tone of voice, his body language, even his clothes are communicating a message.
An awareness of this continuous communication mode is the first step we take in becoming good communicators. There is no point in being a skilful preacher or teacher, if our person-to-person communication skills are poor; the one will undermine the other. We can be as eloquent as Cicero, but if we spell like an infant in our emails then our credibility and reliability will be undermined.

1. What is my message?

Whether we are preaching, leading a Bible study, visiting a sick person, making a proposal, or writing a report, we need a clear statement of purpose. What do I want to get across here? And can I sum it up in a simple sentence?

2. Is my message accurate?

Is this true? Am I telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? One would surely hope that spiritual leaders would never intentionally tell a lie. However, it can be very tempting to tell the truth but not the whole truth, especially when we are facing problems in a congregation or in a personal relationship. We may hold back something that does not present ourselves in the best possible light.

3. Is my message appropriate?

We can be clear and truthful about our message and yet fail to communicate because our message may use words that are too big, or sentences that are too long. Alternatively, if we are addressing educated and mature Christians, we must not come across as condescending and demeaning.
And what about the tone of the message? If dealing with hurt and wounded people, am I communicating like a sympathetic friend, or like a math teacher dealing with statistics? If communicating with critics, am I addressing them as an angry opponent out to win an argument, or as a gentle peacemaker out to win them over. If dealing with serious sin, am I communicating the gravity of the situation, or am I trying to sweeten the bitter pill with lashings of comedy?

4. Is this the right medium?

We have many potential vehicles for our words today: sermons, bible studies, fellowship meetings, counseling sessions, family visitation, private conversation, email, private letters, congregational newsletters, pulpit announcements, telephone, letters to newspapers, blogs, podcasts, etc. The medium is part of the message and has to be chosen wisely if we do not want to damage the message itself.

II. The Communicator

1. Clarify your message

I’ve already referred to this, but I cannot underline it enough. Dennis Prutow recently wrote a book on preaching called “So what’s your point pastor?” His point was that we can preach for 40 minutes plus and leave people none the wiser. “What was all that about?” they ask each other as they leave. There may have been lots of good ideas but no real point to what was being said. And that’s not only true of preaching, it’s true of emails, announcements, comments at elders’ meetings, etc.
We can confuse our message by saying too little, by not explaining enough. Sometimes we assume too much; we think that everyone knows the background as we do. Sometimes we don’t trust people enough; we think they will misunderstand or that they shouldn’t really know this anyway. Whether over-assuming or under-trusting, the end result is that people are left scratching their heads…or shaking them!
However, by far the most common problem for most Christian leaders is at the other end of the scale. They confuse and bamboozle by verbosity. It is one of the hardest yet most essential skills to acquire – to summarize and simplify. Can I shorten this sentence? Can I use smaller words? Can I be less abstract and more concrete? Can I illustrate? Do I need to say the same thing three times? Do I need to say this at all?

2. Consider the purpose

What are you trying to achieve with this message? When you ask such questions you start thinking about how you should dress, body-language, and environment. If you are wanting to show care to a lonely young widow, you don’t do that by dressing like a teenager and visiting her late at night alone. If you want to persuade a young woman not to marry a non-Christian guy, then you don’t address that at the Youth fellowship with her present. If you want to comfort a man on the loss of his wife, then you don’t do that in a restaurant with the possibility of him breaking down in public.

3. Create the hearing scenario in your mind

The Indian proverb says, “Try to walk a mile in another person’s moccasins.” The most skillful communicators are able to sympathize and empathize with those they are communicating with. They are able to imagine what it is like to live their life and be in their situation. He looks at the background, the history, the pressures, the stresses, the health issues, the job situation, etc., and tries to live in that world by imagination. And then he tries to hear/read his message as if living their life. We have to ask not just “How am I going to say this?” but also, “How is this going to be heard?”

4. Consult with others

Some preachers run their sermons past their elders, and some even do the same with their wives! I’ve never done that and I do not recommend it. It can become a bondage and unduly influence what God has given us to say. The only exception I would make is if you are dealing with a particularly sensitive issue. Then it might be worth passing it by someone.
And that’s where I believe consultation comes in most – when dealing with sensitive issues. If you have to address a potentially controversial or divisive issue, then make sure you consult, take advice, and get support from others about the course you plan to take. If you are writing out a policy or a plan, send it out to the group you are leading, give enough time for feedback and incorporate as much of it as you can before sending it out to them again for final approval.
If you are dealing with criticism, then ask a trusted person or two to review your response if written, or to consult with you beforehand and then come with you if you are going to be face-to-face with the person.
If you blog, tweet, Facebook or publish congregational newsletters, again it is worth having one or two people to whom you are accountable and who will give you feedback about the impression you are giving.

5. Check motivation

If our motivation is wrong, then our communication is also bound to go wrong in tone or content. Why am I writing this or saying this? Is it to make myself look good? Is it to attack someone and prove them wrong? Is it to keep a person or family in the church at all costs?

6. Confirm receipt

We will be dealing with the receiving side of communication in the next section, but just a word here on the importance of confirming whether the communication has been received, and whether the right people have received it. Let me give you a concrete example. What happens in the congregation when a person dies? Do you have a system in place for the rapid dissemination of that information? And do you have a way of making sure that the district elder and deacons have definitely received the news?
Or take a response to important questions or criticisms or communicating important decisions of the elders to individuals and groups affected. If you do this by letter or email, do you have a way of ensuring that the message got through?

III. The Receiver

Question: How can I become a better listener?

“I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone listening to me.”

“I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that many of the troubles have resulted from someone not hearing something, or getting it in a distorted way.”

“It’s interesting to me that we have considered so many facets of communication [here], but have inadvertently overlooked listening.”

The comments of pastors? No, the results of a 1957 survey about the role of workplace-listening at a major manufacturing plant in the Chicago area.[footnote]Ralph Nichols, “Listening To People,” hbr.org website, accessed 5.21.14, http://hbr.org/1957/09/listening-to-people/ar/1[/footnote] If it was true in factories, how much more in churches? And if it was true then, how much more now!
Listening is a vitally important skill and as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well. We spend 45% of our time doing it. Yet 75% of the time we are meant to be listening, we are distracted or preoccupied, and we only comprehend about 25% of what we hear.
At the Gospel Coalition website Jason Helopoulos wrote:

It seems to me that there is a glaring fault in many, if not most pastors: they are horrible listeners. I find that pastors are some of the worst listeners I have ever been around. I know that this could only be my experience, but I truly doubt it. Now don’t misunderstand me, this is not true of all pastors, but I find that it is true of many. And it grieves me.

It seems to me that pastors tend to be poor listeners for a few reasons: they are usually assertive people and have trouble slowing down, have honestly heard many of the same things multiple times (counseling situations, theological questions, etc.) thus they feel like they “know” where the conversation is headed, they are multi-taskers who tend to think they can listen and think about other things at the same time, and they are used to talking/preaching with others listening to them!

If there are men who should be good at listening, it should be pastors. How can we truly minister to the sheep of Christ unless we know them? And how do we know them unless we listen to them?

He concludes:

Most pastors I know love the Lord and love the people under their care. However, often our people doubt it because they don’t sense it. And they often don’t sense it, because we don’t listen.

I have found listening to God’s people to be one of the most enjoyable exercises in life. It is a true blessing to hear how God is working and has worked in the lives of individuals. What stories God has given each person! What passions each individual has! And what sorrows, discouragements, and fears are in every being I have ever met! Each of these cries out for a listening ear. And what benefit there is in the Kingdom when pastors not only teach and preach and talk, but listen to their people. This will only provide greater knowledge and wisdom for your current and future ministry to this person. And who knows…maybe you will even be ministered to by listening to them.[footnote]Jason Helopoulos, “Listening Pastors,” TGC Website, accessed 5.21.15, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/07/21/listening-pastors/[/footnote]

I think we could easily substitute “Christian leaders” for “pastors” in the above quotes.
Bernie Ferrari (author of Power Listening) lists 6 archetypes of bad listening:[footnote]Bernie Ferrari, “Learning To Be A Power Listener,” Fastcompany.com, accessed 5.28.14, http://www.fastcompany.com/1810661/learning-be-power-listener[/footnote]

  1. The Opinionater: Three sentences into your address he says, “Look, let me tell how I see it…”
  2. The Grouch: He may not have the right answer but he knows yours is definitely wrong.
  3. The Preambler: More or less gets the answer he wants by the way he introduces his questions.
  4. The Answer Man: Eager to please, has the answer before anyone even knows what the question is.
  5. The Pretender: Nods and laughs at all the right points but you have an eeire sense that he’s not listening to a word of what you say.

As we probably all fall into all of these archetypes at times given the right (wrong?) circumstances, let me give you a checklist of listening skills that you should seek to develop

1. Careful listening

When was the last time you had a phone conversation without checking your email, or filing, or driving, etc., at the same time?  When was the last time you had a face-to-face conversation that you stayed with mentally and emotionally from start to finish?
Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project stormed it’s way to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List, but Linda Stone’s Attention Project might actually be the best way to start any Happiness Project. Stone argues that most of us operate with “continual partial attention,” She distinguishes CPA from the simple and useful multi-tasking of the past, and warns that it leads to over-stimulation, a cascade of stress hormones, and a lack of fulfillment. The remedy, she says, is to re-train ourselves to pay attention.
Make sure you are paying continuous careful attention to what the person is saying. Listen for change of tone, volume, pace, intensity, and for pauses. Unless you have pre-arranged it with the listener(s), do not interrupt conversations and meetings by checking your email or taking a phone call. And don’t be looking everywhere else when talking or listening to someone.

2. Patient listening

We can think at 1000-3000 wpm, listen at 400-500 wpm, but the average speaker speaks at 125-175 wpm. We have to deliberately slow down our minds to listen well. Don’t interrupt and don’t jump in immediately as it can look as if you were not listening but really just waiting to speak

3. Loving listening

What makes a man a great preacher? Not sure if “being a great listener” would be among the top answers. Yet, that’s what Burk Parsons persuasively argues in “The Wisdom of Listening“:

In fact, the greatest speakers, the greatest teachers, and the greatest preachers are the greatest listeners. Often, it is assumed that in order to be a great preacher one must merely be a great speaker. However, it must be understood (especially by men who are training for future pastoral ministry) that the greatest preachers, the most consistent, steadfast, staunchly biblical preachers are the greatest listeners.[footnote]Burk Parsons, “The Wisdom of Listening,” Ligonier.org, accessed 5.21.14, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/wisdom-listening/[/footnote]

Burk says that great listening produces great preachers because “they have earned the right to be heard.” Years of listening and learning have produced wisdom that’s worth hearing. Burk’s focus here is on the head: great listeners are great learners.
I’m going to “piggy-back” on Burk’s insight and also add a focus on the heart: great listeners are great lovers. Let me quickly explain what I mean. Passionate love produces passionate listening. One of the best ways to communicate “I love you,” is to communicate, “I’m listening to you,” even when what the person is saying is so boring or so wrong.
When people feel listened to, they feel loved, and respond with loving listening. When people sense that their pastor or elder is carefully and prayerfully listening to them in their homes on a Thursday evening, it’s so much easier to listen to him on a Sunday morning or at a congregational meeting. His great listening in their homes produces great listening in the church. In fact, his great listening transforms him (in their hearts and minds) into a great leader.

4. Gracious listening

Most people have not had teaching or training in communication skills. Trying to listen to them may be painful and irritating and make us want to get away. Try to listen to the content rather than judge how they are saying it (stop counting the coughs, eh’s, ah’s, etc.) or how they appear.
There are others who are passionate about something (like their arthritis!) that completely bores you, and again you are tempted to excuse yourself. Or you see the multi-millionaire pass while you are talking to an unemployed man, and the money-man seems to be so much more interesting.

If you already believe you know better than the person you’re listening to, you’re not listening. If you already have advice to give, you’re not listening. If you already know how this story turns out, you’re not listening. If you’re already listening only to the parts of the story that confirm your beliefs, you’re not listening. And if you already have your counterattack planned, you’re not listening.[footnote]Deborah Riegel, “The Crucial Body Part All Great Leaders Must Enhance,” Fastcompany.com, accessed 5.28.14, http://www.fastcompany.com/3015511/leadership-now/the-crucial-body-part-all-great-leaders-must-enhance[/footnote]

Listening gives us an opportunity to exercise grace to the poor speakers, the boring speakers, the unimportant speakers. Think about how God listens to your poor, boring and unimportant prayers!

5. Interactive listening

Listening is not just one person talking and the other person standing there doing nothing. Good listeners interact with what they hear, which in turn encourages the speaker to keep going.

  • Remind that you are listening with short affirmations and nods.
  • Repeat what is said from time to time: “Did I hear you say……?”
  • Rephrase what you heard to show you are not just listening but understanding: “You mean that he actually..?”
  • Reflect the feeling that accompanies what is said: “You seem to be (upset, lonely, etc).”

David Mathis says good listening requires perceptive questions:

Good listening asks perceptive, open-ended questions, that don’t tee up yes-no answers, but gently peel the onion and probe beneath the surface. It watches carefully for non-verbal communication, but doesn’t interrogate and pry into details the speaker doesn’t want to share, but meekly draws them out and helps point the speaker to fresh perspectives through careful, but genuine, questions.[footnote]David Mathis, “Six Lessons In Good Listening,” DesiringGod.org, accessed 5.21.14, http://www.desiringgod.org//blog/posts/six-lessons-in-good-listening[/footnote]

6. Body listening

In a sense everybody is bilingual – we all have verbal language and body language. Statistics show good communicators make eye-contact 50% of the time when speaking and 90% of the time when listening. We also listen with our eyebrows, our facial expressions, our arms, our body angle (facing = warm, turned away = cold) our posture (erect = defensive, bowed shoulders = teachable), our legs (open = friendly, crossed = resistant), hands (fist = aggressive, open = friendly), angle (leaning away = disbelieving, leaning in = interested).[footnote]Negotiating for dummies (Intro)[/footnote]

7. Trusting listening

Trust God’s sovereignty. God put this particular person in your way for a reason; find out the reason. Also, trust God with the people passing by; if God means you to talk with them, then He will make it happen. Better one or two worthwhile conversations than lots of small-talk.

8. Total Listening

Deborah Riegel speaks of “Three Levels of Listening.” [footnote]Deborah Riegel, “The Crucial Body Part All Great Leaders Must Enhance,” Fastcompany.com, accessed 5.28.14, http://www.fastcompany.com/3015511/leadership-now/the-crucial-body-part-all-great-leaders-must-enhance[/footnote]

In Level 1 Listening, you are focused on yourself, not the person you are supposed to be listening to. You are paying attention to predators like your own thoughts and feelings, thinking about how what the other person is saying impacts you, or waiting for your chance to respond.

Level 2 Listening is when you hear what the other person is saying–the words themselves–but neglect to hear what is underneath the words. You miss the underlying meaning, which can often be the opposite of what is being said. And you also miss what isn’t being said–which, of course, often tells us the most.

Level 3 Listening requires your total focus on the other person. You are listening to fully understand, which means you must attend to their verbal, vocal, and non-verbal cues. You are with them and their thoughts, not with your own. You’re curious and open rather than planning your response (or attack). Listening at this level is so rare but it builds trust better and faster than any other level.

9. Christ-like listening

Listening, when done well is a tiring activity. It is an active rather than a passive ability and it should leave you feeling exhausted. Hearing is easy, listening is hard work. But listening is also a rewarding activity. It is personally rewarding and people will reward you too. As we have seen people are more likely to listen to you if you listen to them. But listening should be a natural activity. Sometimes a discussion like this can make a person analyze everyone else as a scientist. Try to absorb some of these lessons, but let them become second nature to you rather than a conscious effort. Finally, listening is a Christ-like activity. He is not only the greatest Message, and the greatest Communicator, but also the greatest Listener.
And what happens when we make a mess of it all? We say something or write something then regret everything. What now? Run? Deny? Stand and fight? Attack?
John Baldoni gives advice to businesses that mishandle reorganizations and downsizing in “Good Recoveries from Bad Communications.” [footnote]John Baldoni, “Good Recoveries From Bad Communications,” blogs.hbr.org , accessed 5.28.14, http://blogs.hbr.org/2009/12/good-recoveries-from-bad-communications/ [/footnote]

Acknowledge the problem. People are upset and confused. You need to note their disgruntlement. To ignore it is to be as rude as the communications directive.

Apologize. Take the high road. Even if the mistake was not yours, as part of management, you should accept blame and apologize. You may express sympathy but do not throw senior management under the bus. Doing so will only make you seem like a finger-pointer.

Refocus on the reason for the communication. Explain the reason for the communication and why the initiative is necessary. This gets you past the poor delivery and focused on the business.

Allow people to express their points of view. Let them vent. Sometimes reorganizations will bring personal hardship, such as more responsibilities, lack of additional compensation, or worse — loss of a job. You are allowed to acknowledge the pain.

Refocus on the initiative. Put an end to the formal venting and refocus on the business case. Even though the communication was mishandled, the reasons for it may be sound. Stand up for the company.

Much here that could help leaders in the midst of church troubles that have at least partly resulted from miscommunications. And above all, through all, ending all, of course, is prayer to our perfect Communicator and powerful Peacemaker.

IV. Conclusion

Renowned historian Paul Johnson said:

Any leader aspiring to greatness must do two things, and he must do them not just at supreme moments or occasionally but all the time. Of course, there are many other things a leader must do, but these are the two that matter most: to listen and to tell the truth (Paul Johnson, Forbes Magazine).[footnote]Paul Johnson, “Listening And Telling The Truth,” Forbes.com, accessed 5.21.14, http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2010/0426/opinions-paul-johnson-obama-health-care-current-events.html[/footnote]

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it! Yet, as Johnson highlights in his Forbes Magazine column, these are rare individual traits, and even rarer in combination. He does go on to tell some entertaining (and challenging) stories about past Presidents, that Christian leaders could do well to learn from. Here are my three favorites:

George Washington listened all his life because he loved to learn and because he had no overwhelming desire to speak, unlike most of those in public life. One passion a leader should forgo, if possible, is a love affair with his own voice…Washington, happily, liked the sound of his own silence…When I was writing my book George Washington, I failed to come across any occasion when he had deliberately concealed the truth from anyone who had a right to know it.

Calvin Coolidge…was aptly called “Silent Cal.” He listened courteously to all his visitors but would not be drawn out. He said: “Nine-tenths of a President’s callers at the White House want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still they will run down in three or four minutes.” So Coolidge would remain mute. Slight twitches of his facial muscles spoke for him. He was described as “an eloquent listener.” When he did speak, however, it was the truth.

Considering all he had to do and say, Abraham Lincoln spoke amazingly little. As he put it, “I am very little inclined on any occasion to say anything unless I hope to produce some good by it.” His Gettysburg Address is a classic instance–there is none better in history–of using as few words as possible (261, to be precise) while conveying a powerful message….Lincoln always endeavored to tell the truth and to ensure that all heard it by clothing it in arresting language.