Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Communicating in order to Understand

1Cor 2.11 says, “What man knows the thing of a man except the spirit of man that is in him”. Our self –knowledge is buried deep within our hearts. Here lie our secret hopes, desires and wishes. Sometimes we are clear what these are, but at other times they lie buried until they come to the surface. The fall has impacted humanity so severely we can actually function without truly knowing our own hearts. Jeremiah declared this when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Jer 17.9. Yet while this remains true he goes on to declare that God will, ‘search the heart’. God knows our hearts but He wants us to know them too!

Prov 20.5 tells us, “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.’ Here we have a picture of two people. One has counsel – hopes, dreams and desires that lie deeply hidden. Even in clear water we can only see to a certain depth. Light will only penetrate so far and then things become obscured – hidden. But we also have a picture of a man of understanding. This person knows the right questions to ask that draw out these deep hidden things. Like God who searches the heart, a man of understanding is able help others see their own heart. Like Jesus he fishes for truth!

Understanding others relies heavily on the way we communicate with each other. Real communication begins when I listen to your response to what you think I have said. Communication is never just one way. Even marketing strategies that appear to be one way in their communication are built on the basis of research as to how people react to this communication. There is always some form of feedback needed. It’s not simply that marketers want to communicate a message, it is that they want to make an impact. They want to be understood.

But communication can be tricky. This is why I believe that understanding another person is like making a jigsaw puzzle. There are many pieces that need to fit together. And often we don’t have the benefit of a picture of what the final image looks like. At times the temptation is to force the pieces to fit rather than to take the time to see which piece fit where. In time a picture emerges and it becomes easier. The hardest part is always at the beginning; finding the first pieces to fit together. Like making a jigsaw puzzle, understanding another person requires time and patience. It’s a long term process. It’s a long term investment.

Part of the problem has to do with the assumptions we make in communication itself. I have discovered that meanings are in people, not in words. We use words to communicate meaning but our understanding of a word or phrase is not always the same as the other persons. When it comes to inter-personal communication we need a working definition to help us. Here is one I wrote a number of years ago when teaching communication theory. Communication is the interactive process between two or more people that leads to mutual understanding, but not necessarily agreement.

Notice it’s an interactive process. There must be speaking and listening from both sides. Feedback is essential. We must also see that it requires letting go of any agenda to make the other person agree with us. The goal is first to understand the other person, not gain agreement. Agreement is more likely to come once we understand each other; but it should not be a precondition. If it is, then this often leads to strategies in the communication process to bring people to agreement – which can be premature. If the goal of coming together is to understand each other, then it means that in our communication we avoid the use of words or phrases that manipulate, intimidate or try to control. Techniques designed to make people, ‘come into line’, invariably produce only short term benefits. Agreements reached through these strategies are often short lived solutions.

So what kind of attitude helps to build and gain a true understanding of another person? The key is to try and let go of all presuppositions we have about the other person and what we think their goals are. This is hard to do. We all bring our own agenda’s to the table of dialogue. But we can make a decision to hold lightly to those presuppositions we have. Here is a list of things I have found helpful over the years. It is not an exhaustive list. Neither do I claim it to be a definitive list. It is simply what has often helped me get closer to understanding others.

Avoid prejudging the person. In John 12.37 Jesus makes it clear He has not come to judge and condemn people – rather He has come to save them. Any prejudgment acts like a prejudice. It filters all we hear. Our hearing is no longer impartial but tainted by our prejudice of the person. Jesus, the one person who had a right to judge people, refused to do so. We see this demonstrated in John 8.3-12, when a woman caught in the act of adultery is brought to Jesus. The test from the Pharisees was to see if He would uphold the judgement of the law. Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the men bringing this test buy challenging those who are without sin to cast the first stone. All walk away convicted. ‘Woman where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?’ He asks. ‘There are none Lord’, she responds. ‘Neither do I condemn you – go and sin no more’ is His response. He simply refuses to judge her. She knows she is guilty. Instead, Jesus forgives and empowers her.

To judge another person is often to set ourselves up in the place of God. Job’s three friends did this. They began so well. They travelled great distances to be with Job. On seeing him they wept and sat with him for a week, saying nothing because of the intensity of his grief, Job 2.11-13. But when Job began to speak they felt an overwhelming need to defend God. Unfortunately it exposed many of the assumptions and the faulty theology they carried; issues God would directly confront them with at the end of the book, Job 42.7-10. Try and catch some of the misconceptions they hold. I will paraphrase their words.

Eliphaz in Job 4.7, 18-19 argues that only guilty people suffer and God doesn’t trust angels never mind men. In fact God trust both, giving angels the ministry of serving the elect, Heb 1.14 and believers the ministry of preaching the gospel, Matt 28.19. Bildad in Job 8.4 implies Job’s children died because of their sin, when in fact Job had made intercession for them regularly, Job 1.5 and Jesus cleared the man born blind and his parents of any wrongdoing in John 9.1-5. Zophar in Job 11.6 declares that Job is being punished less than he deserves, when God Himself has said Job is upright and blameless on at least two occasions, Job 1.8, 2.3.

No wonder Job calls them all ‘miserable comforters’, Job 16.1-2. They did not understand the cosmic nature of the battle raging around Job. A limited perspective and a faulty theology gave them poor judgment and hindered them from being any real comfort to Job. It would have been better if they had said nothing!

The second thing is to be accepting of others. Jesus had a wonderful way of welcoming people. His favourite word was ‘come’. Matt 11.28, “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden....” The Bible ends with an invitation to ‘come’ and drink from the water of life, Rev 22.17. When God has an issue with His people He invites them to ‘come’ and reason together, Is 1.18. And when they are penniless He invites them to ‘come’ and buy wine and milk without money and without price, Is 55.1. When people feel accepted they open up. As long as they feel they are being evaluated they remain defensive – and real communication at any meaningful level is almost impossible.

Have you ever noticed how many times significant things happen in the Bible around the table – where there is food! In Gen 18 God showed up with two angels and had a meal with Abraham. It was in this context that He disclosed two life changing things. The first was the birth of Isaac – it was now their time. But the second was His judgment of Sodom. God felt He could not hold back from Abraham what He was about to do with this City. His covenant relationship with him demanded that He share this information. God had accepted Abraham and had eaten with him – now He needed to tell him what He was about to do.

Eating with others is one of the best ways of communicating acceptance. Have you ever tried sitting and enjoying a meal with someone for an hour two when you don’t get on? It’s torture. Think about the Lord’s Supper. It grew out of the Passover meal. This was a celebration of our redemption and as a meal in Jewish families it usually took a couple of hours to complete. Today we have made it a token event with very little corporate interaction. It was at the Passover that Jesus shared some of His most intimate thoughts and teachings with His disciples.

Anything that communicates acceptance will aid communication and therefore build understanding. One of the ways they did this in the early church was to fight for the equal standing of gentiles alongside Jews in the church. For Paul it was a life mission, Eph 2.14-19. For James it was battling to see the poor receive equal standing with the rich as they were seated at church, James 2.1-9. For the apostles it was making sure there was a fair distribution of the food between the Greek speaking and Jewish speaking widows, Acts 6.1-7. Only when people feel accepted do they feel secure enough to open up their hearts and lives. Only then can we begin to understand them.

The third thing that has helped me is not to be afraid to ask questions. Mk 9.32 has Jesus sharing about His impending betrayal and death in Jerusalem. But His disciples were afraid to ask or clarify what He meant. Maybe they felt stupid asking. Maybe they felt embarrassed. Maybe they thought He would rebuke them if they asked. Often fear holds us back from simply asking. Asking questions is a great way of getting to know others. But there is a way of asking that can make people defensive. Sometimes people asked Jesus questions in order to catch Him out, Matt 22.15-22 paying taxes to Caesar; or Matt 21.23-27 the question about where Jesus got His authority.

The best kinds of questions are those that come with no secret agenda. They hold a genuine enquiry. These questions are best phrased in an open ended way. They leave room for dialogue. There is a big difference between asking, “Did you have a happy childhood?” to asking, “Tell me about your childhood”. One requires a yes or no answer, the other invites talking and listening. Jesus never refused to answer an honest enquiry, though He did often respond with a challenge, John 1.37-39, 48; Luke 5.30-32; 6.1-5; 9.57-62; 10.25-37. Remember, in communication, real dialogue begins when I listen to your response to what you think I have said!

The fourth thing is to learn to listen at two levels. In 2Kings 4.8-37 we have the story of Elisha and the woman who provided a resting place for him when he travelled. The key to the story for our purpose is when her son dies and she hides her grief even from her husband, making a b-line instead to Elisha. At every turn she declares, ‘it is well’, vs23, vs26. But when she comes into the presence of Elisha she grabs his feet. Now she releases her sorrow. Elisha’s servant Gehazi tries to push her away and Elisha makes a telling comment, “Let her alone; for her soul is in deep distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me, and has not told me”, vs28.

Up until now everyone has listened to her at only one level, including her husband! But Elisha discerned another level; the level of the heart. At this level God often spoke to him, but on this occasion even he had to wait to hear her declare her sorrow. When Elisha finally understands what is happening he moves into action. But notice how patient he is to wait to understand her first without any prejudgment. He is accepting of her and allows her to ask questions even challenging his actions in giving her a son. Elisha does not become defensive of his actions or ministry. His goal is to understand and help her.

We see this exemplified in the life of Jesus when He spoke to the woman at the well in John 4. There is the surface level of the dialogue and then the heart level. When Jesus offered her living water He was starting to interact with her at this heart level. When He asked her to get her husband He was doing the same. Her answer, though truthful was not the whole story and his response exposed this – and it unnerved her. But notice that He is not trying to embarrass, judge, or condemn her, He is trying to win her – and He succeeds!

This deeper level of listening is more intuitive, more prophetic. It is being open to the Spirit to give revelation that will help the other person. Like Elisha experienced, it doesn’t always come and so we must posture ourselves to accept others without judgment and listen carefully without being defensive. We have to learn to truly listen.

Finally understanding others requires that we always work towards reconciliation at every opportunity. 2Cor 5.18-20 gives us two great insights. The first is that God was working in Christ to reconcile the world to Himself. We must allow God to work in us too, to bring reconciliation to others. Many times a mediator is needed. We become the peacemakers Jesus spoke of in Matt 5 when we take on this role. This is Pauls’ other insight. We have all been given a ministry of reconciliation. It lies at the heart of the gospel. God reconciles people not problems. And problems are not as insurmountable as they seem when people collaborate to find solutions rather than taking up positions that blame or fault find.

Try and see how these five simple keys impact your relationships this week. My guess is that the puzzle will become a little easier to put together and the picture will become a little clearer to see. Your relationships will become more valuable to you through this process and like the man in Proverbs 20.5 - you too may become a person of understanding.