When working with couple, parents, families, or leaders there is one concern that is voiced far above any other. That is communication. What you hear is the well known line from the classic movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman, “what we have hear is a failure to communicate”. Communication failure indeed. There is a simple rubric to learn how to communicate everything better.
Married couples report a communication failure in their inability to understand each other’s spiritual, emotional, and/or physical needs. Teens and parents are at odds as their communication failure leaves them each feeling like they cannot relate to each other’s worlds. In workplace and ministry settings, managers and employees struggle to achieve their individual and corporate goals because of a communication failure that creates a distrusting and self-protective culture. Communication is the engine that makes all relationships work. When that engine falters, the relationships inevitably break down as well.
While struggling relationships most readily identify communication failure as their problem, the reality is that communication problems are never the root problem. It is better to think of communication failures as a symptom. A recent highway problem in my local area of Philadelphia might provide a good analogy here.
One of the main thoroughfares between Philadelphia Pennsylvania and Wilmington Delaware is Interstate 495. In recent month this highly used stretch of highway has been shut down with traffic diverted to the Interstate 95 corridor. The result is often increased traffic logjams on I-95—especially during those high-volume rush hours. The reason that 495 is closed is because of a problem with two sections of a bridge that have become misaligned—creating a hazardous road condition. Structural engineers meticulously examined the bridge only to ultimate conclude that there was nothing wrong with the bridge itself. The problem, they eventually concluded, was deep underground where the bridge footings were secured. Small shifts deep underground moved the bridge’s supporting pillars just enough to create a major hazard for travelers.
Such is the case with communication failures. Communication lapses are the above ground misalignments that create hazardous relational conditions for us. For some, these hazards looks like toxic verbal volleys that wound. For others it is withdrawing behavior that feels like rejection. For others, it is a resignation that there can be any meaningful shared process or goal. In other words, communication failures have relational consequence.
But, like the problem on Interstate 495, it is not the communication failure itself that is the problem. It is only a symptom of a deeper problem. The core problem is what I call “relational devaluing”. In other words, it is not placing high value on the relationship with the other party. That may sound odd if the idea of “relational value” is unclear.
Think of it this way. Every relationship that you are in has a value. If you thought of it on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is “Not at all valuable” and 10 is “Extremely valuable”, you could literally rate every single relationship that you are in, if you were so inclined. What makes a relationship valuable? In this rating you might factor in the following:
- Is this a family member?
- How does this person make me feel?
- How much do I need them to achieve my goals?, or even
- How much can I help them?
The more valuable a person is to you the more important it is that you effectively communicate with him or her. The problem is that we often fail to communicate to the person in a way that reflects their value to us, their value to God, or sometimes more basically their value as a human being. Nearly all communication failures can be improved if each party embraces one fundamental idea, “All Communication is two-dimensional—entailing both Content and Relationship”. In doing so our communication behaviors can better reflect how much you value them.
Dimension #1: Communicating Content
Think of the content of communication as the topic being discussed. That topic may be finances, children, or maybe some household or work-related task. It could be anything. It is the details around the topic. That sharing could be done in verbal or written fashion. Examples of communicating content may be phrases such as “Who is going to pick up the kids today?”, “I’m going to the gym after work”, or “How is my performance on the job?” The point is that you have some content that you need share with another person. And, a dialogue may or may not ensure around that topic.
We tend to think of this content dimension as all of our communication. The problem, however, is that it isn’t even the most important dimension.
Dimension #2: Communicating Relationship
The most important dimension of communication is the value of the relationship to you. Every time that you communicate with anyone, your verbal and non-verbal actions tell the person how valuable he or she is to you. For instance, you may speak to your young child in a warm and nurturing tone telling her that is her bedtime. Or, you may scream at her that it is her bedtime while waving your finger in her face. The content of the relationship is arguably the same—it is time for you to go to bed. However, what was communicated about the relationship is drastically different.
The first example is respectful and communicates care and love. The second example is disrespectful and communicates authority and possibly frustration or even anger. In both of these instances, the young child may proceed to the bed. But, the psychological and relational impact is quite different.
This is a simple example that is intends to make a big idea—all communication tells the person how valuable he/she is to you. When communication fails, one or both parties have failed to effectively share content in a way that values the relationship. You may feel like you’re having a communication problem. But, it is typically a relational deficit at the core of the problem.
So, how do you correct these communication failures? Well, like the structural engineers that have to dig beneath the earth to stabilize the foundation, you too have to stabilize the foundation of your relationship by honestly evaluating the following three questions of your communication style
- Do you value this person the way that you should?
- How well do really listen to the heart of the other party rather than just the words being spoken?
- How consistently do your verbals and non-verbals tell the other party that they are important to you?
As you incrementally improve in each of these areas, your communication lapses will become fewer and farther between. This is how you’ll know that you’re repairing the foundation of the relationship.
Leave me a comment below and let me know ways that you communicate value in your relationships and what makes it hard sometimes.