5 Questions for Better Communication

communicateWe can too easily rob ourselves of the joy of life if we stay in the shadow of misunderstandings, misgivings or misrepresentations of fact. Of course, life does not always eventuate as we would like it to and any negative emotions may even be somewhat justified. But why would we continue to harbour them instead of letting them go? Often, it is because communication is hard work. In her recent book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown, a social work research professor, suggests that we attach stories that we write in our own heads to life’s circumstances. These explain the comments or actions of others in a way that makes sense to us and then overtakes the sometimes awkward need for candid confrontations. But what if these are wrong?

The problem for us is that emotions are involved in our reactions to life and these can legitimise our stories. Emotions can be both a help and a hindrance in our communication, especially in processing even routine relational issues. Some emotions underwrite responses and passions, but they can also undermine them.

Rational discussion ideally explores facts and discovers truth, not without emotion but without the baggage that emotion often brings into conversations. Baggage from past situations or relationships can impact the present and it is especially harmful when we don’t recognise its existence.

Brown demonstrates an inspiring vulnerability in retelling examples of negative and irrational emotions in her own marriage, despite her obvious professional education in this field. Blind spots may sometimes need others’ insights before we ourselves will recognise them. Nevertheless, our emotions can interfere so strongly in extinguishing or clouding the discussions we do have, that the discussions we need to have we eventually don’t have.

Also, those who think they are helping us to see what we should see within situations of conflict or tension also need to look beyond their own emotion and perceptions. Two-way communication often involves two-way emotional traffic that can cloud rational discussion. The stories attached to facts can also become presenting realities that stop us from letting go, forgiving or moving on. They can also prevent us from clarifying key interests, rather than just asserting a position, and can therefore impede relationships more than we care to admit.

Having previously blogged on the abuse of Ephesians 4:15‘s call to speak the truth in love, I am convinced that, even when speaking in love, we can think we are speaking truth when what passes our lips is not untruth, but partial fact or unsubstantiated assertions motivated by feelings. Feelings are, of course, valid signals that may tell us something is amiss. Emotions are a very important (and inevitable) part of human interaction. Responsible discussions navigate them, though, so as not to squeeze out the rational elements that can help bring positive outcomes for us and others.

Here’s a few questions that can help you to respond more effectively to situations in which tensions may exist or where internal anxieties may be suggestive of some degree of relational breakdown. These can be used to promote healthier interactions that move forward from potential ‘stuckness’.

  1. What is the best possible interpretation? Work out what is actually being said beyond what the emotions appear to convey. Purposely focus on facts and not on hearsay or on the stories in your head that may be related to your own life filters. When you do hear a comment, remind yourself to consider what is actually being said. It can be helpful to also remember that people sometimes think aloud and don’t always give fully-considered and final views. Reacting, speculating and (worse still) gossiping can draw us into our own unnecessary emotional reactionism.
  2. What is the best possible response? The most gracious interpretation of comments may actually be the correct one but choosing it more often will also help shape a positive outlook and attitude (and, after all, negativity hurts us before it hurts others). Choosing to avoid presumption also gives the best chance of valuing and keeping relationships and determining that you will not easily let them be threatened.
  3. What could I not say? Often much reaction and response is simply not needed. Ill-considered comments simply give people ammunition against us. In conflicts, our own emotions drive us to say what we might later regret or even to spend time fighting the wrong battles. When we fight fair and with measured responses, our aim surely needs to be clarification, resolution and the restoration of relationship, so the high road means forbearing in love, avoiding offence and even overlooking matters that are not important. Even more innocuous comments from others are best served with measured responses, especially by leaders, and ones that don’t expose unnecessary strong opinions which might undermine confidence and trust.
  4. Can I reframe my responses as questions? Questions invite trust and buy-in without conveying the finality of a position. Our own emotion is not always unhelpful, but it can sometimes be inadvertent and therefore alienate people and shut conversations down. Questions encourage further exploration of ideas and encourage humility when they genuinely seek clarification.
  5. Who can I unpack my stories with? The stories we attach to facts in order to interpret them may not necessarily be wrong. They may, however, give a very helpful clue to some blind spots in our processing of life that others won’t voluntarily expose. Trusted people of integrity and experience who know us well are our accurate mirrors who can offer valuable insights.

Finally, as a Christian, I want to remember to walk by faith and not by feelings (2 Corinthians 5:7). Faith is grounded in biblical truth, but it also sees the best in people and situations, maintains hope for better outcomes (Romans 4:17) and becomes the tangible substance of that hope (Hebrews 11:1). This is not a denial of reality, but the choice of a better reality than the one our internal filters can sometimes impose upon us.

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