The ability to communicate, to share the very meaning of life with each other, is the supreme expression of God’s image reflected in us. This is a beautiful observation from religious scholars. Communication, as observed in Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel story, has also been a challenge for us from almost the very beginning. In Chapter 9, God had told Noah and Noah’s sons — twice — that they were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God says this in verse 1 and repeats it in verse 7. Two chapters later, humanity decides to ignore this communication from God, to ignore the one job God gave them, and instead settle everyone in Shinar, build an impressive city, and create a tower to heaven to not only ignore God’s clear communication, but to violate God’s boundaries as well. Seeing nothing but trouble coming, God scatters humanity across the globe and creates many languages among us so we could not repeat this feat of human cooperation set to entirely human goals. And so, communication has been a challenge for us ever since.
Today, every organization struggles with clear communication, including churches. Clear communication is essential to our work in ministry, especially if we hope to follow Jesus’ clear instructions in Matthew 28:19-20 to make disciples and teach all around the world. Part of the problem is that we are often incapable of practicing the best form of communication today, two-way direct communication where the individuals involved are both present in the same space where they can easily not only hear what is being said, but also see what is being related through body language and react quickly to it. Our online meetings, emails, and messages (electronic or paper) eliminate so many vital clues about what is truly meant by the sender. The lack of immediate response also makes communication hard, since communication well done involves quick give and take between the people involved. Further, our mood impacts how we receive a written message (like this article or any email), coloring our interpretation of what is actually said. Other significant distractions also get in the way, including actual noises in the world around us, offensive language, or confusion between a sender’s words and body language (for example, telling someone they are welcome while having arms crossed and a frown on one’s face) when people are present with each other. The list goes on. Alan Alda, in his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? told how he sabotaged his own early interviews by making three critical communications mistakes: Alda paid more attention to the assumptions he brought to the conversation than to what his guest actually told him; he also ignored the person’s body language; and he did not follow up what he was told with questions related to what he had just heard. Alda concluded, he was disconnected, he was alone, he had shut himself up in his own head rather than listen to the person he was attempting to interview.
There is plenty of hope to be had though. Mindful of what interferes with clear communication and denies us the joy of sharing the meaning of life with each other, we can communicate more clearly. Face to face communication is always best, allowing both parties to switch back and forth between sending and receiving information, speaking and listening, giving information and receiving it. This allows us to judge whether or not we are saying what we mean to say and correcting any mistakes made right on the spot. Excellent communication involves active listening, carefully concentrating on what the person speaking is saying and making sure we understand the message. We also need to be clear on what we are saying and keep professional jargon to a minimum. Really excellent communication involves swapping roles as sender and receiver during the conversation, using feedback from the receiver to increase the accuracy of what we are saying, and working hard to reduce distractions. Finally, we need to ask questions if we feel we have not understood what has been said. We also need to tell each other when what we have perceived has hurt us in some way. Often the pain we receive comes through poor communication and can easily be cleared up if we speak up.
Communication is tricky, but can be deeply rewarding if we work hard at it. We humans have a lot to overcome since that whole Tower of Babel episode.