Historically, churches have always struggled with communication. Whether it’s trying to let people know about new programs, or recruiting coordinating volunteers, to communicating the vision–we face a long list of communication challenges.
Pastors I coach say, “We need a communications committee that works,” or, “We’ve got to get someone on staff to handle communications.” As useful as those fixes can be, they don’t address the more fundamental challenge: addressing the emotional side of communication.
Communication is rooted in relationships. How and whether people hear you depends on what kind of relationship they have with you. This is true even in large churches where people may not know you personally. It’s true when a parent speaks to a child, when a president addresses the nation, and when I write you an email.
Edwin Friedman talked about this emotional side of communication in A Failure of Nerve, the book I mentioned in my last article. (p. 128.) His ideas have helped me more than any other communication training I’ve had.
Friedman talked about what he called “three interrelated variables.”
When you are trying to communicate with others, pay attention to what direction they are moving emotionally. Are they coming toward you or moving away from you? Do their eyes light up? Or do they glaze over? Typically, what we do when someone’s eyes glaze over is this: we keep talking. We think if we marshal better arguments they will come around.
What to do instead? I recommend you STOP pursuing those who aren’t getting the message. Instead, connect. Stay in touch, without trying to persuade. Be patient—it may take months or even years for some folks.
When you set out to deliver a message, assess how close or far the person is, emotionally. You may have trouble communicating if the person is either too close to you or too far from you.
Too close: if there’s no emotional space, there’s no room to communicate. A parent can try like crazy to communicate the value of education with no response. Then the kid comes home quoting a friend’s parent, with the same message. Why? There’s more emotional space in the relationship, and so more ability to hear the message.
Too far: if you aren’t well enough connected with people, they won’t be able to hear you. There’s not enough of a relationship. They are too far from you emotionally. At church, this might show up in the finance committee when the chair can’t hear what the relatively new pastor is saying, but can hear it from a long-time member on the committee.
When people go to the doctor, they can find it hard to remember what the doctor says. It’s not just the medical jargon: their anxiety is higher, and they find it harder to process the information.
When anxiety in a congregation goes up, communication will be more difficult. Anxiety is like static. People simply can’t hear as easily. In a time of major transition, or when there’s a big conflict, pay even more attention to communication. Don’t be surprised if people act like they’ve never heard a message. They haven’t. Be patient.
If you pay attention to these three variables, you will almost automatically communicate better AND be less frustrated.
So, how can you use just one of these ideas to improve your communication?