What is Good Communication?
Imagine a “good communicator.” What comes to mind? Someone who is confident, poised and articulate, who speaks well in public settings? The gift of articulate and persuasive speech can make someone a champion debater but a lousy communicator. Effective communication that leads to healthy and satisfying relationships has much more to do with (a) listening, (b) remaining silent until the right time comes, (c) understanding what you truly think and feel, and (d) expressing yourself in a way that is clear and honest yet sensitive to the feelings of the listener.
Here are some oft-quoted Bible verses about communication.
Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).
He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame (Proverbs 18:13).
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires (James 1:19-20).
It is easy to wreak havoc by speaking carelessly and thoughtlessly. But the tendency to be forever silent – failing to express oneself in appropriate ways at appropriate times – can be just as dangerous.
Consider the history of Korean Air. Between 1970 and 1999, KAL lost 16 aircraft due to accidents, resulting in the deaths of 700 passengers and crew members. The last fatal accident occurred in 1997, when KAL flight 801 crashed into a hillside in Guam, killing 228 persons.
In the recent book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), journalist Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to the story of this airline’s safety record and the tragic demise of KAL801. The quality of the airline’s equipment and the training of its staff were among the best in the world. The accident was caused by poor communication in the cockpit. The captain was held in such high esteem that the other crew members were reluctant to say anything when they noticed him making errors. When they finally did speak up, the language that they used was so indirect that the captain had no idea what they actually meant.
As KAL801 approached Guam in the middle of the night, the first officer turned to the captain and said, “Don’t you think that it rains more in this area here?” What he meant was something like this: We are headed for a mountain range in pitch-black skies and pouring rain, and you are relying on a visual approach with no backup plan! But what he actually said sounded like small-talk about weather.
A few minutes later, the flight engineer said, “Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.” What he meant was: There’s trouble ahead! This isn’t a night when you can rely on your eyes to land the plane! But what came out of his mouth was a platitude about the generic benefits of technology.
After the tragic loss of KAL801, the airline came under intense pressure from international authorities and began an extensive review of its operating procedures. Flight crews were retrained to enable members to communicate more openly across boundaries of age, rank and gender. Within a decade, Korean Air’s safety record dramatically improved, and its standing among international carriers was restored.
For nearly three decades, I have interacted closely with members and leaders of UBF. In general, I have found that we are quite good at restraining our speech to avoid controversy and division. We are well aware of Paul’s injunction in Philippians 2:14: “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” And 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” But on balance, we often neglect to mention that Jesus was plain-spoken; he taught his disciples to say what they mean and to mean what they say: “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your “No’ be ‘No'” (Mt 5:37). Indeed, the style of speech that some have upheld as the epitome of the Christian character seems more like the KAL801 cockpit than the lively and frank conversations that Jesus shared with his apostles.
Before launching this website, I discussed the idea with many UBF friends. The vast majority were very supportive. Some expressed reservations, warning me that it could degenerate into a forum for complaining and arguing. (Although that is certainly possible, we have enacted policies to guard against that.) And a few people suggested that if people want to talk freely among themselves, it would be better to do it privately in person or by telephone. Internet blogging is a different mode of communication – not inherently better or worse than private conversation, but different. The great advantage of blogging is that an unlimited number of people can join in the conversation wherever they are, whenever they choose. But you cannot hear a person’s tone of voice or see their facial expressions or body language. You cannot tell if someone is keeping silent to indicate displeasure. To communicate effectively on a website, we must write clearly and weigh our words cautiously, to say what we mean and mean what we say. To avoid misunderstandings, we must read what others have written very carefully and take them at their word rather than ascribing hidden motives.
UBF is a multigenerational and multicultural. Whenever people of different ages, backgrounds and personality types get together to discuss things that truly matter, there are bound to be misunderstandings. But I believe that if our relationships are mediated by Jesus Christ in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can learn to understand one another and respect one another even if we do not always agree. We can achieve real Christian unity in the midst of diversity.
We dedicate this website with Psalm 19:4: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.