One of the primary things that cause conflict and pain in relationships is when communication breaks down. But when communication is strong and clear, it brings healing, connection, and alignment to our relationships. This means that one of the most loving things we can do for others is to be mindful and intentional about how we communicate.
We love others when we do the work to be aware of how communication works and to be proactive in each stage of the process. We love others when we take the initiative to make our communication as clear and helpful as possible. And we love others when we recognise the differences in our communication languages and work to accommodate one another.
In this episode of the EvoFaith podcast, we focus on the spiritual practice of intentional communication and how it can be a profound act of love for those around us.
Last week we spoke about how important listening is. This week we’re all about speaking. One of the greatest problems in any relationship is when communication breaks down. But it’s so easy to get so caught up in trying to make our point that we fail to take responsibility for how we communicate our message.
A few years ago I was part of a team working on a new visioning process for the church I belonged to at the time. We asked the congregation to share their thoughts and feelings and then we met to pull all the ideas together into a clear and simple statement. We also explored logo ideas and asked for various artists to bring their suggestions. Unexpectedly, the logos became an area of struggle for us and so at one point, hoping that it might resolve things, I asked if we could “revisit” the ideas our congregation had given us. What I meant was for us to go back to the beginning of the process, to go back to what our congregation had said, to check that we were still on track with our original thinking. But what some of the other team members heard when I used the word “revisit” was that I wanted to scrap all the work we’d done, including the input from the congregation, and start again. Needless to say, instead of resolving anything, I only made the situation worse!
I’m sure, like me, you’ve had many times in your life when you wished you’d been a little more careful and intentional about your choice of words and about how you communicated. And that’s why I’ve come to believe that we could all be a bit more proactive about taking responsibility for our communication. But what do I mean by that?
Well essentially, communication is about transferring meaning from the mind of a communicator or sender to the mind of a listener or receiver. But to make that happen is a much more complex process than we may realise. Here’s how I see that process:
Firstly, when we want to communicate something we begin by packaging or encoding it—in words, gestures, tone of voice, actions, body language, maybe in images, even drama, music. Misunderstanding often occurs when insufficient care is taken in the packaging, so what the communicator intends to express is obscured from the recipient. Pro-activity then is taking responsibility for our packaging in order to ensure we communicate in ways the other person can understand and receive. For example, I should have chosen a better word than “revisit” in the story I told about that team and the visioning process in my church.
Then secondly, once our communication is packaged we send it toward the other person. But first, it goes through all sorts of filters—filters within us—and it goes through noise—in the environment. Our filters are our perspectives, our world-views, our ways of being. And the noise in the environment is anything which may interfere with the message—it could be literal noise, distractions, rush, stress, tiredness, previous encounters with this person or with other people that somehow affect our relationship with this person, it could be emotions at work. Being proactive means seeking to identify whatever filters may come into play within us, and to accommodate them, and then working to remove or overcome whatever noise is at work in our environment.
Once we’ve done that and our communication finally reaches the other person, then they need to decipher, unwrap or decode it to get at the message and the meaning it contains. How they feel about the message and how they respond to the packaging can have a tremendous impact on how they decode the message. And so a key feature of communicating proactively is to try and work out what packaging will work best for the other person and then to use that in order to facilitate ease of decoding on their side.
And then once they decode the message, the receiver needs to interpret what it means. And a measure of how effective the interaction has been is to compare the communicator’s meaning and the receiver’s meaning and see how closely they match. If you’ve ever played the old ‘Broken Telephone’ game then you’ll know how easy it is for meanings to shift in any and every interaction!
Then finally, once the receiver has received and interpreted the meaning that’s come to them, they must now respond, and then they become the communicator, and that whole cycle begins again: packaging, dealing with filters and noise, sending the message through to the responder, the receiver, who then has to unpack and decode and decide what the meaning is and then respond again. And so the communication goes. If we want to communicate well then we need to commit to passing on meaning, not just words, not just packaging. And that’s why I believe that being proactive and intentional in our communication is a spiritual practice. It is a deeply loving thing we can do, and it is absolutely essential if we seek to be true lovers of others.
In a moment I want to share one powerful tool for learning to communicate more proactively, but before I do I’d like to take a quick moment to invite you to subscribe, like, activate notifications, and share this podcast as widely possible. It could make a real difference in someone’s life. Thank you so much.
One of the things I love about the Enneagram—the ancient personality profiling system—is that it acknowledges that we all function differently. Some us are body, gut, or instinctual types who lean toward action, decision, and will. Some of us are heart types who lean toward feeling, emotion, and expression. And some of us are head types who lean toward thinking, meaning, and understanding. We all know that we have these differences, but we don’t always realise how they impact our communication. The truth is that these different ‘types’ of people all speak different languages. And I’m not talking about English, Zulu, Dutch, and Spanish.
In his brilliant book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs speaks of three kinds of language that people speak. The first is the language of power, the language that body types would speak. It’s the language which focusses on action and on what must be done. Secondly, there is the language of feeling, the language of the heart types, which is all about emotions and relationships. And thirdly, there is the language of meaning, the language of the head types, which prioritises ideas, values, theory, philosophy and implications.
Let’s take a look at these three languages in a bit more detail:
The Language of Power/Action or of the Body focuses on looking for solutions and practical responses. The key words in this language are “doing”, “action”, “decision” and “responsibility”. Those who speak this language tend to get uncomfortable with ideas and planning, and they seek to move directly to answers, to implementation and to action. Their gift is that they ensure that things get done.
The Language of Feeling or the language of the Heart focuses on connection, on dreams and emotions. Key words in this language are “feeling”, “emotion”, “possibility”, “harmony” and “intuition”. And those who speak this language tend to get uncomfortable with action or planning in which feelings and relationships have not been adequately recognised. They’re usually quite comfortable with going against the “way things have always been done.” And their gift is that they ensure that people connect well, and that new possibilities are considered.
And finally, the Language of Meaning or of the Mind seeks understanding and insight. Key words are “meaning”, “process”, “implications”, “ideas” and “reasons”. The head types who speak this language tend to get uncomfortable with action when things have not been adequately thought through. And their gift is that they ensure that things are properly understood and analysed.
To illustrate how these languages work William Isaacs describes how different people reacted to the news of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. He notes how many people spoke primarily about their feelings of shock, anger and grief. The British prime minister of the time expressed concern for Diana’s children. This was all the language of the heart, of feeling. Others spoke about the need to take action by bringing an end to drunk driving and by ending the aggressive way that paparazzi photographers pursue celebrities. These comments were spoken in the language of power or action. And finally, there were those who asked what Diana’s death meant and what its implications would be for the relationship between the British monarchy, the press, and ordinary citizens. This was the language of meaning at work.
So take a moment now and reflect on the language that you speak most naturally. What are the pros and cons of this language? Which language that you don’t naturally speak do you most struggle with? What language do those in your primary relationships speak? And what are the possible areas of conflict between your language and theirs? How could you begin to act as an interpreter of these languages in your relationships? And how can you love those around you by learning to understand and speak their language?
Now clearly there’s so much more that can be said about being proactive and intentional in our communication. And there is so much more that can be said about loving others. But I hope that this podcast, and the last few episodes as we’ve focussed on loving others, has been helpful. And I hope it has all challenged you to make loving others an intentional spiritual practice—because one thing is for sure, it doesn’t happen by accident!
Over the last couple of months we’ve explored two of the main pillars of authentic spirituality: loving ourselves and loving others. In our next episode, we begin a new series where we explore what it means to love the world and I’ll be inviting you to take a deep dive into awe. I hope you’ll join me for that conversation!
But that’s all for now. Thank you for listening. Thank you for watching. And I’ll catch you next time!
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