At Work

Desperately Seeking Shared Meaning

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Do you remember playing the game “Whisper Down the Lane” (also called “telephone”) as a kid? I do. We all thought it was hilarious how a message communicated at one end of the circle could end up so garbled at the other.

As adults, we know this isn’t just a game. Communication can be one of the most difficult aspects of being in community with others, whether at home or the workplace.

I once had a boss who made flattery and half-truths into an art form. (He was a lobbyist.) As employees, we were constantly sifting his words for truth. Invariably, one of us would “fall” for the line and then end up joking as we smacked our foreheads in mock disbelief, “I can’t believe I believed him again!”

While most workplaces have not devolved into a hall of mirrors, problems still abound. Between sender and receiver, or, as one professor I know would say “between jug and mug,” there is plenty of social “noise” that can distort the faithful delivery of the message, no matter how well intended. Linguistic, cultural, generational, and power differences complicate the ability of both sender and receiver to code and decode messages. The experience of past pain can cause our communications to “trigger” negative emotions in our communication partner, and the need for individuals to “code switch” to cross-cultural divides can be debilitating. Adding to that, our insidious ability to use words to disguise our motives and shade meaning can lead to misunderstanding and defensive retaliation. Indiscriminate use of social media tends to compound these problems, enabling us to weaponize our words and wit to not just demolish arguments, but our communication partners as well. No wonder people are “ghosting” each other!

Supportive Communication

Given the present precarity of communications, the management literature has moved beyond pressing for accurate communication—although conveying facts and information clearly and succinctly is a perennial challenge—to more holistic supportive communication. The very term captures the sense that words, on their own, are leaky pots for conveying meaning; because words often fly out of our mouths before they are properly dressed, we must lend a supportive hand to shape, send and receive the message.

Supportive communication thus takes a step back from the simple sender-receiver model to consider the underlying nature of the relationship between sender and receiver. It deems people worth listening to, whether they are in person or online. And it works! Validating each other’s point of view, no matter how contrary, paradoxically allows areas of agreement to emerge. As people feel heard, they often become more willing to lay down arms and seek consensus. The richer the relationship, the more effective the communication will be because both parties will handle their communication with greater respect, care, and trust. Each has something to lose if the encounter goes sour.

No wonder organizations that foster supportive interpersonal relationships enjoy higher productivity, faster problem-solving, and fewer conflicts. Supportive communication has become a competitive advantage.

How to Practice Supportive Communication

Practicing supportive communication includes a number of person-oriented behaviors:

  • Use “I feel” phrases, rather than the accusatory, “you did.”
  • Be patient to actively listen without interrupting.
  • Confirm meaning by asking, “I’m hearing you say this, is that right?”
  • Focus the conversation on solving problems, rather than attacking the person.

More broadly, it means assuming positive motivation—that our conversation partner means well, even if her message sounds orthogonal or mildly offensive. Giving the speaker the benefit of the doubt inserts a needed breath, a pause that allows one to consider a range of interpretations before responding. A poor choice of words is unfortunate but amendable. An unwarranted attack on identity is harder to repair. Supportive relationships are needed to withstand—and recover from—these verbal fouls.

Years ago, in a graduate class on civil society, students had to sit in a circle and take turns giving their view of abortion—a freighted subject even back then! But the rule was that we had to speak from our guts, not our minds. Steeped in rational debate, we found this extremely hard to do. To speak from the gut meant spilling our guts! But as we slowly opened up about the pain of wanting a child or losing one; of abuse and fear; of deeply held values and beliefs—we journeyed far toward developing empathy and understanding across a wide gulf of views.

Jesus Models Supportive Communication

Even a cursory survey of the gospel accounts shows that Jesus consistently engaged in deeply supportive communication. In fact, he embodied it! Taking on our human nature, the second person of the Trinity crossed an infinite ontological and epistemological gulf to communicate with us face to face. In proclaiming that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the apostle John unequivocally states that the messenger is the message, and the message is the messenger (Jn 1:14).

Whether with the Samaritan woman at the well, the despised tax collector Zaccheus, or the Roman centurion, Jesus regularly broke through cultural, religious, and gender barriers to communicate the astounding news of new life in him. Even in the face of “canceling” unbelief and hostility, he demonstrated empathy for the human condition, treated outcasts with respect, and engaged his enemies as rational beings made in the image of God. His person-oriented approach did not come at the expense of truth, however. Jesus said some hard and astounding things, but his words were never cold. He loved his disciples “to the end” (Jn. 13:1) before asking them to take up their own crosses.

In a day when Jesus is apt to be admired more for taking up a whip than a towel, emulating his person-oriented approach is essential to any hope of repairing the social fabric, to say nothing of advancing his peaceable kingdom. “In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). Amid the present sound and fury, we would do well to listen to the master communicator and follow his winsome example.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from the author’s personal blog. Republished with permission.

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