The video recording of the CCEF Live online workshop – Five Ways to Improve Communication in Daily Ministry by Alasdair Groves.
The video recording of the CCEF Live online workshop – Five Ways to Improve Communication in Daily Ministry by Alasdair Groves.
Think of emotions as a language. They say something—something very important—and part of our job is to figure out what they are saying.
Sometimes the interpretation is easy. A friend says, “I feel so afraid.” She is saying that a threat looms to something that is important to her.
Got it. We hear her correctly. Now there is much we can do. We want to know more about the real or perceived threat, and we want to know how to bring God’s words to her heart. But the message is fairly clear.
Sometimes the meaning is harder to decipher. When my eight-month-old granddaughter cries, what is she trying to tell us? Since she does not have a large range of sounds, there could be a dozen different messages.
Leave me alone, I want Mom.
My leg is caught in the crib again.
I am hungry.
My brothers are trying to smother me with love.
I like hearing my noises.
Carrots are not among my favorite foods.
This is way too much stimulation for me.
My grandfather is the best.
And so on.
In a similar way, our emotional language is often not very precise. There are only eight or so families of emotions, and a lot gets packed into them. Sometimes we don’t even know what is going inside ourselves. The psalmist asks: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Psalm 42:5). If we don’t even know the emotional language of our own soul, how can we discern the intent of those around us? Is it shame that inhabits their fears? Is fear the core of their despondency? And though the meaning of their anger might seem obvious—“I AM NOT GETTING WHAT I WANT” (James 4:1-2)—anger can also be fear, self-protection, shame, despair, aloneness, and more. To complicate things a little more, a disrupted body and brain can send emotional signals that simply say, “I am sick.”
With all this in mind, here are a few clear guidelines.
Figuring out the message in someone’s emotions may take time and commitment, but it is a great work of love and leads us in that process of knowing and being known, which is a key feature of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Men don’t talk honestly with each other.”
“Women don’t talk constructively with each other.”
Do those comments ring bells for you? Of course, neither generalization is always true. Moral issues apply across gender lines. But both comments are true enough often enough to make you think.
Men don’t talk honestly? It’s the easiest thing in the world for a conversation to remain superficial and self-concealing, never getting to anything that actually matters. Empty words. And, of course, many women do the same, and just keep it light. Are your conversations pointless?
Women don’t talk constructively? It’s the easiest thing in the world for a conversation to be revealingly honest, but never get anywhere helpful. Unfruitful words. And, of course, many men do this too, saying what they really think and feel, but not going anywhere good. Do your conversations rehearse what’s wrong but never pursue making it right?
How do we begin to change how we talk with each other? Here are five truths to orient you.
First, Jesus says that God is actively listening to every word, even the most casual, unthinking things we say (Matt 12:36). He takes note of what we are saying and weighs our words. Are your conversations empty, misleading, inappropriate, or judgmental? Or is the way you talk nourishing, constructive, timely, and grace-giving? (Eph 4:29) The Lord gives the rating “Empty” to any conversation that skims over the surface of life and never gets real. The Lord gives the rating “Harmful” to any conversation that digs up dirt and tosses it around. But he sizes up a life-giving conversations with a hearty “Yes and amen! Keep it up!”
Second, Jesus never said a pointless word to other people. He was never just marking time or keeping things that matter at arm’s length. He always engages the important matters. He never just describes, analyzes, and complains about what’s wrong. His conversations always go somewhere helpful. Jesus speaks life-giving words: candid, constructive, relevant, and redemptive. And one of the constructive things Jesus talks about is helping us to assess the quality of what we talk about. “The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart”—either good or evil (Matt 12:34).
Third, our God teaches us to have meaningful conversations with him. The Psalms and the other prayers in Scripture are candid, constructive, relevant and grace-filled. They teach us to remember who he is. As we listen, we learn to talk honestly about what is good or bad about us. We learn to speak of hard things as well as happy things in our circumstances. We learn to cry out where we need help, and sing about how we are grateful. Our prayers can express care and concern for others—“I thank God every time I remember you, and I pray that your love will abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:3, 9). Prayer gets to what most matters and to what’s true.
Fourth, our God then teaches us to have meaningful conversations with each other. The way we talk with him directly relates to how we talk with each other. Ephesians 4:15 says that we grow up in Christ by lovingly speaking truth with each other. For a few people that includes preaching and teaching. For everybody that means our daily conversations. How do we encourage each other daily in the face of sin’s deadly deceitfulness? How do we comfort each other in whatever afflictions and difficulties each one of us faces today? How do we talk about what matters in a way that makes a difference?
Fifth, the Holy Spirit generates wise conversations. So you don’t skim over the surface. So you don’t stay stuck in the mud. Scripture demonstrates how every conversation can go somewhere good. It even captures how, in some important moments, what must next be said is to be silent. Sometimes there are no more words to say. Perhaps you are grieving. Perhaps you are thinking. Perhaps you are praying. Perhaps your quietness communicates how much you care. Perhaps silence is saying that there is no point to saying anything more right now. When Jesus was silent before his accusers, his silence was the most eloquent thing that could be said. A meaningful silence expresses what is true, constructive, most appropriate, and grace-giving. And then you will find the right words at the right time. In Gethsemane, Jesus had things to say to his Father, to his friends, and to his betrayer. On the cross, Jesus had things to say to his Father, to his tormentors, to the repentant thief, to his mother… to all of us.
Of course, nothing we’ll ever say is that momentous. But everything we say does matter. So what do you talk about, and how do you talk? Where can you listen in and get a feel for what wise words sound like? Let me suggest an unusual starting point:
Our Father teaches us to traffic in reality—addressing the best and the hardest things in life. You can’t live in reality without seeing both, and remembering your Lord in the midst of it. Facing the hard things, you can be honest about your need. Receiving the good things, you can express joy and thanks. As you learn to pray about what matters, you are also learning to talk with other people about what matters. It’s a curious thing, but entirely reasonable once you grasp the principle. Jesus’ conversations and prayers are about the same things.
He’s committed to you and working in you. You, and I, and all of us together can become much more honest and much more constructive!
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The book of Proverbs reminds us that we are to disciple our children (Prov. 1:8). But to do that—to be good disciplers—we need relationships with our kids that are honest and open. We need to know what is really going on with them so we can help encourage godly thinking. But kids don’t always cooperate. Sometimes they don’t want to talk with us and, at a surprisingly young age, children learn they can avoid engaging in thoughtful discussion by giving the notorious “I don’t know” response to our questions.
We see this at school. When a student is not paying attention, or doesn’t have an immediate answer and says “I don’t know,” the focus quickly moves to the next student and they’ve been let off the hook.
We see this at home. “Why did you cheat on that test? Why didn’t you clean your room when I asked? Why did you lie about that?” When given the “I don’t know” response, the parent often lapses into lecture mode during which the child checks out emotionally and does not have to call heart motivations to task.
We see this in counseling. Kids say “I don’t know” instinctively, almost without thought. It also comes with an expectation that I, as the counselor, will move on to another topic, or do as many other adults and answer the question myself. Possibly I will begin lecturing as well, which simply requires the child’s ability to endure my rant.
The problem with all these situations is that children learn that such a response keeps them from having to do the hard work of critical thinking or personal self-reflection. They don’t have to stop and put any deliberation into a subject. They may even be avoiding accountability or trying to prevent being vulnerable by admitting to particular thoughts, feelings or beliefs.
But letting children get away with such shallow responses is not good discipleship. We need to find ways to get past such responses and give them insight into their own hearts. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” The question is how can we draw them out?
Years ago I attended a training session where I heard the results of some research done with youth on the “I don’t know” response. When asked the follow-up question, “Well, if you did know, what would your answer be?” kids will give a more responsive answer 50% of the time. Brilliant, isn’t it? It confirmed what I already suspected. By demonstrating genuine care, slowing the moment down, and giving kids an opportunity to really consider the question, they will often respond more thoughtfully.
Here are some specific methods I use to handle the “I don’t know” response.
Brainstorm with the child
Keep in mind that sometimes a child may not know how to answer your question. At these times, it is helpful to brainstorm with the child about what might be going on. By offering them possibilities, I’m encouraging thoughtful interaction. I’m also not letting the child off the hook. Loving well sometimes means coming alongside someone to aide in greater self-awareness. After hearing several options, a child will often say, “Yeah, I think that is it.” When this happens, it is often because I was able to put into words what they were thinking or feeling but were unable to articulate. At other times, they won’t initially voice what they think for fear of admitting what they know to be true or shameful. By offering a possibility and modeling it as an option that does not shock me, it frees them up to acknowledge it openly.
Wait them out
For those who are simply unwilling, defiant or lazy in their response, I have multiple goals. I want the youth to know that I care too much to accept “I don’t know.” What a child thinks matters to me and I genuinely want to understand, so “I don’t know” can’t be accepted as a final answer. I respond with, “Take a minute and think about it. I am willing to wait.” Then I wait silently. The pressure is on. They stare at me; I stare at them. I am open and encouraging but allow for the potential of uncomfortable silence. Silence can be a powerful motivator for those who are uncomfortable with it. I use it to my advantage—a type of positive pressure for kids to engage. More than that, I hope it truly demonstrates that they are worth waiting on. I will often encourage them by saying, “What you think and feel is important and I care. I’m in no hurry.”
By showing them that they can’t get out of the conversation until they engage, I hope they see me as a person who genuinely cares to know them more deeply. I don’t need to move on to the next topic, nor will I be put off. It may be one of the few times someone in their world slows down enough to really wait and listen. It will not be lost on them.
Gently encourage self-awareness
Then, like in my first example, I work to teach the skill of self-reflection. Once they start to talk, I urge them to consider their motives for what they said or did, and I gently challenge their responses to stimulate critical thinking and greater self-awareness. If we want to raise godly children, these skills are essential.
As adults, parents, teachers, leaders and counselors, we can become much more winsome and patient when asking kids questions, especially in response to “I don’t know.” Do the hard work of drawing kids out. There may be times when you allow them to walk away from the conversation to consider things, but give a time frame to show the discussion is not over and then follow up with them. They may challenge you, reject you, or be angered by your attempts, but you will model care by your persistence. We do not always get the privilege of seeing the ways in which it speaks of our love for them but Galatians 6:9 encourages us. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Recently, I have been pondering Ephesians 4:29 with my children and what it means for our conversations. It states, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” In this verse, two ways of speaking are contrasted: negative and destructive versus positive and beneficial. In personal interactions with others, we are called to imitate Christ and to use our words to strengthen and edify, giving grace to one another, speaking truth for the purpose of building up, not tearing down.
It’s obvious then (even to children) that insults and curses and other derogatory words are ungodly, but are they the only words that can be unwholesome? If the intent of Ephesians 4:29 is to call us to speak in a way that is constructive and edible versus that which is indigestible or rotten, are other conversations also in view? If the goal is for our words to give grace and life to our listeners, how else might this verse instruct us?
Have you ever seen the movie Super Size Me? If you have, you’ll know it is enough to keep you away from fast food for quite a while. It is great imagery for youth because it shows the cumulative effect of a pattern of behavior. In this documentary, one man takes a look at the effects of fast food on the human body, using himself as the test subject. For one month, he eats nothing but McDonald’s, ordering everything on the menu and “super-sizing” his order whenever asked. The result is a sobering examination of how people feed themselves and the role the food industry plays in it.
In less than 30 days, he goes from being a healthy, energetic New Yorker with normal blood counts and good cholesterol, to an unhealthy man who finds himself regularly nauseous, weak and lethargic. He is being physically weakened by the food he is consuming and the doctors involved in monitoring him urge him to stop the experiment. What he finds is that sustenance does not equate to nourishment. Simply putting food into your body does not mean it is good for you or holds any redeeming nutritional value.
This imagery is also true of our conversations with each other. How many families coexist for long periods of time living on “fast food” interactions? These conversations are quick, easy, and immediate. We talk about what is necessary to keep the family going. We say enough to make decisions, get through the day’s busy routine, or to provide correction to a child’s behavior. But we rarely stop and offer something constructive or something that edifies or gives grace. And though our speech may not be antagonistic or derisive, a steady diet of fast food interaction offers no nutritional value to your family, and over time, can become the very thing that erodes its relationships.
Instead, our conversations should reflect how Christ relates to us. We imitate him by cultivating deep, rich, nourishing conversations with our children that build relational bridges. We walk alongside them, mentoring them, helping them make sense of their day, school experiences and relationships. True nourishment comes from caring for their spiritual state. It helps develop a holy richness and vitality in our children’s lives by pointing them to Christ as the one whose wisdom and love will sustain and guide them.
This study of Ephesians reminds me that our words are not neutral. They provide value and nourishment or, like fast food, they lead to decay. We all need to find our conversations transformed by a desire to build up and give nourishment to each other for the purpose of drawing one another to Christ.
An eight-year-old boy was angry with his father. As his father was leaving the house, the boy said to him “I hope you don’t come back.”
And he didn’t—a car accident, he died on impact. The boy, now seventy-five, remains haunted by his words.
A child would not fully understand, but an adult does: with life’s uncertainty in mind, we are especially careful with our words and relationships.
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Ps. 90:12)
But we don’t often act on this knowledge because we assume there will be plenty of opportunities to say more in the future. So why rush, especially if our pride is at stake.
My wife was leaving the next day for a two-week mission trip to Africa. Two weeks might not seem that long, but, at least with her, I tend to think of time apart in three categories. One, we don’t see each other during the day but we do in the evening. This is common and tolerable. Two, one of us is gone for one to six overnights. These are hard, but to be expected in a fallen world. Three, one of us is gone for seven overnights or longer. This is equivalent to eternity. So this was a long trip.
As we sat down together on the eve of her leaving, we hit a minor glitch. I did something “in jest” that I had done before. She didn’t think—and had never thought—it was funny, and life suddenly got tense. In the past, I fumbled through these times with explanations of my intentions and other unhelpful attempts to bring peace. This time, on the precipice of her leaving “for eternity,” the road ahead was clear, compelling and surprisingly easy.
“I am so sorry for doing that. Please forgive me,” I said. “I am such an idiot who doesn’t listen to you. I know that what I did bothers you. I am so sorry.” I was willing to do whatever it took to bring real reconciliation.
She smiled at my newly found humility and quickly forgave me.
Scripture has varied means of persuading us to follow Jesus. I know its plea to reconcile quickly (e.g., Eph. 4:26-27), though I can procrastinate when my pride is especially active. This time, that plea was coupled with my acute sense of our numbered, brief and unpredictable days. It was just what I needed. And this way of wisdom would bless so many who will live with regrets if they go a different path.
What relational wisdom have you learned that is important in your marriage or other close relationships? There are things we all know to do, though implement irregularly: praying together, asking forgiveness, seeing the work of the Spirit in the other, and not giving advice when the other person simply wants to be known. These bless all Christian relationships. But I am thinking about micro-applications of how faith expresses itself in love (Gal. 5:6). These might not be obvious at first. They accumulate over time.
Here are three that have become important to me.
1. If something bothers you, give it to the relationship. If either my wife or myself have any struggle in our own hearts that lasts longer than thirty seconds, and the other person is involved in any way, we give it to the relationship. That is, we talk about it. The person who is struggling might have a problem, or it might belong to the other person (who is blissfully ignorant of that struggle) or the blame might be laid on neither.
“I am struggling with something and I think it would be best for us if we tried to talk about it.” With that entrance into the discussion, it rarely turns sour. The struggler wants to talk together and not simply make pronouncements. The outcome might be that someone asks forgiveness, or it may simply be that we have a more accurate understanding of each other.
2. When one person is working, the other person should be working too. My marriage can have exceptions to this rule, but the exceptions came only after thirty years or so. I once thought that if Sheri was doing the dishes, then I could do something else, such as read the sport’s section of the newspaper. After all, the dishes can easily be a one-person job. That strategy, however, was less than helpful and it probably led to the rule that we should give our frustrations to the relationship. After five years or so I finally learned that working together, side-by-side if possible, works well.
3. If the other person asks you to do something and you can do it right away, then do it right away. I can remember my wife asking me to clean up some items of mine—clothes and things—that were accumulating in the bedroom. My response was a chipper, “Sure, absolutely.” Soon, Sheri was, once again, giving her frustrations to the relationship. I was genuine in my response. I really was going to clean up in the bedroom. I was simply taking the long view of the job, as if it were best done in stages, over a few months. Right away is always better.
Ah, the pleasure of being able to learn and grow, albeit slowly.
I took a public speaking course in high school because I figured that, one day, I actually might have to speak in public and I dreaded the thought.
My section of the class had about 18 students which, to me, certainly constituted in public. But when it came time to give my first speech, I was well prepared—it was a 3-5 minute “demonstration speech.” I volunteered to go first because that gave me extra credit, and I knew that the pain of waiting, no matter how short, would go beyond what I could bear.
This was my speech: “Today we will hear a demonstration of trumpet playing. Ray, could you come up here and demonstrate?” And my dear friend Ray pulled out his trumpet and played for the next two minutes and fifty-five seconds. That was it. Really.
In other words, when I give suggestions about public speaking, I am writing as someone who is not at all gifted—but I have grown.
Here are some things I’ve learned.
1. I do not naturally enjoy being in front of people, but I do enjoy talking about things that have helped me and could be helpful to others. The key: I must be edified by what I am saying. If I don’t enjoy and profit from it, I might as well apologize right up front, go home, do some repenting, and ask for prayer that Scripture would be fresh and powerful in my life.
2. Scripture is just plain beautiful. God has determined to use words to communicate to us, and the writers of Scripture were word designers. I too want to offer, as much as I am able, attractive and memorable words and images.
3. A student once said, “You brought energy to class today.” In other words, “You are usually drop dead boring but you seemed more lively for a change.” He reminded me that, when working with the living Word, there is no room for monotony or lack of enthusiasm.
4. Since I get marked down by students for clarity, I am always working to be more clear, more simple, more coherent.
5. I try to cover less material. What is the one point?…the one point?
6. I avoid long introductions. A congregant graciously suggested that I cut back on my introduction after a sermon which I was going to preach again in a half hour. The second sermon was probably ten minutes shorter and ten times easier to follow.
7. I have forgotten my notes more than once, and those times seemed to go better, so I use fewer notes or no notes at all. My colleagues and I have discussed this and fewer notes is not for everyone, but I will probably stick with it. If I can’t remember what I am saying, then no one else will either.
The advantages to no notes?
The disadvantages? I always forget something I planned to say.
8. As with the written word, I edit. I try to cut out everything that doesn’t directly support the main point. Edit, edit, edit. No one minds if the speaker finishes early.
Growth is a fine thing, whether that growth is spiritual, learning new skills, or in this case, a composite of the two. No longer do I wish that Ray was in the wings ready to bail me out, but there have been a few times when I wanted to ask a colleague to come up and clarify the mess that I just created.
Giving advice goes poorly so often, it is worth more careful thought about how we give it. We all need advice. We seek it every day. That is a wise and natural part of being a creature rather than the Creator. But we also know that advice can run from helpful to horrible, and it can bless a relationship or hurt it.
What is advice?
Advice is our opinion or our version of how Scripture should be applied in a given situation. It includes most anything that begins with an implied, “I think…” or “If I were you…” It is not offered with Scripture’s authority, so it is best followed with “and what do you think?”
The Apostle Paul makes a distinction in 1 Corinthians between what God says and Paul’s specific application of godly wisdom. We could say that one is truth and the other opinion or advice. “To the married I give this command [from the Lord]” (v.10) in contrast with “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v. 25). Of course, when Paul gives his opinion, we listen. But he knows he is speaking in a different way—he is giving advice. Some followed it, some did not, as he would expect.
Giving advice well
Good advice, at its best, comes only after someone has asked for it. It shows respect by listening carefully to the person’s question and asking what other advice the person has already received. It aims for give-and-take as it blends Scripture, the person’s strengths and weaknesses, the various circumstances of the moment, and humility. It prefers a consensus rather than a speech. And it follows up to see what path the person chose—love takes an interest.
Let’s say that a woman has been hurt by someone in the church and she asks what you think she should do. The relevant biblical category is love; that is clear. What she is hoping for is specific application of love in this situation. So we enter the category of advice. Does she go to the person? What might she say? Does she overlook the offense? The task is to exchange ideas on these and other questions—that is advice.
Giving advice poorly
Bad advice is a Christian art form. Here are a few examples. Notice that bad advice is dispensed quickly and casually.
My point is not that it is wrong to give advice. It is that in our haste and casual handling of Scripture, we confuse our advice with “God has said…” This can be disrespectful because we’ve offered a blanket statement without much thought to the particulars involved. Or maybe the person was not even seeking advice but only someone to listen. We need to be sure we know what the person is asking for before we start talking.
Advice and biblical counseling
I have seen, at times, that biblical counselors can become a Christian version of Dear Abby and aim for advice without being aware that there is that implicit “I think” to what is being offered. Instead, we can do better. We aim to engage a person in such a way that the person actually feels known, and then, in a joint enterprise, we consider (1) what God says (truth), recognizing that there is an interplay of many truths in Scripture, and (2) creative and suitable applications of what God says (opinion). Without love and humility, it can quickly veer off into advice given poorly.
In Part 2 of “Words of Counsel,” Hibbs provides practical helps and guidelines for how counselors can “let words work” when writing to those who are hurting and struggling. Even if you don’t see yourself as a writer, you still offer written words to those you help—even if only in an email—and Hibbs will help you do that in increasingly thoughtful ways.