Boy, I wish I realized these principles and cautions in order to help promote healthy conversations when I was in my 20s. I wish I could say I came up with these because I saw the need for improvement in my own relationships (and there certainly was a need!). Rather, these 3 principles for good communication formed through a series of events: first, through one of my CCEF counseling courses called “Marriage Counseling1,” second, from a dozen or more resources on marriage counseling2, and finally, from half a decade of counseling married couples.
Need to improve your interactions? Want to de-intensify sensitive subjects? Think of what follows as a foundation to a house. Memorize and keep them in mind as you enter conversations. Doing this will help set a healthy tone for each of your interactions, especially with the ones closest to you.
1. Promote Genuine Honesty and Oneness.
Remember, as sinners, our tendencies are to hide from God and others, including our spouses.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:6b-8 ESV)
Notice the first thing Adam and Eve did after they sinned. They covered up and hid. Because we are sinners that sin, and also are sinned against- openness, honesty, and safety are often replaced with shame, fear, and the desire to hide.
Sin Separates and Divides. Considering What the Fall Has Done to Our Communications: A Loss of Connection.
Loss of connection is part of being human because in Genesis 3, besides separation from God, Adam and Eve experienced division between themselves. This division also extended within Adam and Eve because they are living in a delusion – that they can hide from God. This division, that exists within “the self,” means that we push away thoughts and feeling that we don’t want to address, which equates to avoidance.
Check Your Heart if You’re Withholding in the Conversation.
If you are guarding your speech, question your desires and motivations in doing so. This can be a double-edged sword. When we withhold information, it’s like we’re crafting an artificial projection of ourselves and the situation. Also, understand that in our unwillingness to speak openly, it is difficult for us to experience true two-way communication.
If you don’t share with your spouse, for example, what’s important to you, how can you believe your partner knows you? And if someone doesn’t know you, how much does it mean when he or she says, “I love you?” To claim to love someone you don’t know is to love only the image that person projects. Your spouse is not loving the real you. At some level, you feel the pain and loneliness of that.
Remember the saying, “Sharing is caring?” Sharing is helpful and redemptive. When we openly communicate, we are being honest about our thoughts, feelings, and opinions on a particular matter. This helps communications in two ways: it brings a genuine integrity into the conversation, and it promotes authentic expression, so you are present with the other person and not some filtered version of yourself.
4 Falsehoods We Must Defend Against in Our Communications3.
- The blatant lie: Intentionally giving a false statement.
- An exaggeration: Misrepresenting something as better or worse than it is.
- A half or partial truth: Giving only part of the information to manipulate, mislead, or coverup.
- Being evasive: Changing the topic, sidestepping the question, diverting attention to another issue, or causing another issue.
Learning from Ephesian 4. One Body Language.
- Being honest with information is so important. It promotes openness and integrity.
- Reaching mutually shared goals and fulfilling a shared purpose of loving well – both God and others.
- Working together requires constant communication and feedback.
- Disfunction occurs or gets worse when honesty in communication stops.
- A relationship depends on communication to function. At times, we even need painful communication so that a relationship can function.
- Honesty is also instrumental in sanctification regarding ourselves and others, as we all take part in the body of Christ.
The Gospel Restores and Reconnects!
When Christ comes, He will take the things that are separated and divided and will bring them back together. This process of redemption is as pervasive as the original division caused by sin.
Because of Christ’s redemption, the believer doesn’t need to be afraid of who he is on the inside. Christ has already forgiven him for those things in his heart that would make him deﬁled. Therefore, a person can bring those things out into the light without fear of rejection. If, as a believer, we can walk in this reality, then it can be extended to our relationships. Redemption and its outworking’s change our communication. A person can bring internal things out (self-disclose) and invite others to do the same.
Communication is not just a skill or method for developing understanding but for transformation and sanctification as we embody the life of Christ. Another way of saying it: Honesty and good communication are not “skills” to offer people for a better relationship, but honesty is central to the way we experience life in Christ.
2. Don’t Rush Problem Solving.
“Don’t rush problem solving” can be defined this way: focused listening, understanding, and entering each other’s experience – having empathy. Note: by entering the other’s experience, that does not mean you agree with them or ignore the issue. Experience and agreement are not the same thing.
This brings us to an important distinction: some of us reading this may think of the word sympathy. People often use sympathy and empathy interchangeably, but there is a difference.
What do these words mean? Sympathy is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. There is usually more emotional “distance” with empathy.
Well then, what is the difference? Sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them4.
So, when understanding and caring about the experience of the other is actively pursued by both in the relationship, then solving problems becomes easier because the pursuit of understanding (caring) is at work in the situation.
Don’t Be a Mr. or Ms. “Fix It,” Person.
Warning! Communicating incompetence is when our friend or spouse seeks to solve our problem when what is actually being asked of them is for empathy and understanding.
This incompetence has the effect of invalidating our friends/spouse’s experience, which can be traumatic, especially when the problem is serious. Why? When the stakes are high, being misunderstood or not heard can become a source of resentment and hopelessness.
We must slow down the rate of our problem-solving tendencies. Instead, we should pursue understanding and listening. This can keep problems from becoming hurtful in all our relationships, especially our marriages.
Loving well means we have to be genuinely connected to and concerned for others, without insisting that they see things the same as way we do – without insisting that they become just like us.
A Personal Example
Here is one such example where I communicated the exact opposite of sincere love towards my wife: she was talking to me about a mutual friend that is stuck in a particular living situation and is unwilling to change. My wife was expressing how hard it is to speak into the situation and her feelings of frustration about why our friend is still not changing. I offered my thoughts on what our friend should be doing. Meanwhile, I ignored how my wife felt about her friend and the stressed “connectedness” between them. She called it when she told me, “You’re not even hearing me!” And, in that moment, I was not hearing her. My lack of empathy and understanding showed. I failed to see my wife hurting over a friend, failing to love my wife or our mutual friend well at that moment.
Does problem solving need to happen? Yes, but listening and understanding needs to happen before problem-solving can take place. Empathy, hearing, and understanding need to exist first; it allows the other person to enter someone’s experience. Being present during a messy situation says something – it communicates. Being quick to “fix it” (or immediate problem-solving) does not communicate empathy and understanding. It often communicates the lack of those very things. As a result, bitterness and hopelessness can develop in the other person (spouse, loved one, friend, co-worker, neighbor).
3. Don’t be Stoic in Your Conversations – Sharing Who You Are and Your Emotions.
Emotions are the currency of personal involvement 5. If one or both individuals are unwilling to share their emotions, that makes it difficult to love them for who they really are; when we’re not being honest with others, we are not presenting an authentic version of ourselves. (remember “projections” from the 1st point.)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
When Paul asks us “to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn,” we are being asked to respond at the level of emotions. This means that emotions and feelings must be important in the outworking of love.
Looking to Jesus as an Example.
Jesus entered our world and our experiences. Jesus knows and shares in our emotions – He is empathic and loving, which shows us we can trust and can come close to Him6.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16.
Emotions Are the Currency of Personal Involvement.
Emotions communicate the value that someone has placed on something. The stronger the emotion expressed, the more important something is to the person.
“Well, to avoid a conflict, I won’t show emotions or be emotional!” Sorry, this does the exact opposite. The absence of emotion doesn’t communicate neutrality, logic, or intelligence. It communicates indifference and distance. Experiencing someone’s indifference can be just as painful as rage, rejection, or betrayal.
For example, if a spouse is unwilling to share in their partner’s emotions, then their bond will feel insecure and fragile.
A husband’s unwillingness or inability to share emotions also makes it difficult for them to experience the sincere love that is expressed toward them by their wife.
Understand that your unwillingness or inability to share your emotions makes it difficult for you to experience sincere love for those closest to you. Your emotions communicate what’s important to you. So, if you haven’t shared with others what is important to you, how can you believe they know you? And if someone doesn’t really know you, when they say, “I love you,” are they loving the real you? To claim to love someone you don’t really know is to love only the image the person projects. If you’ve revealed nothing but a carefully constructed image of yourself, the surrounding people couldn’t possibly love the real you. At some level, you feel the pain and loneliness of that.
4. Some Other Cautions
- Don’t dump your emotions without considering how it will affect the other person. Speak the truth, in love. Don’t club them with the truth.
- Don’t wall people off emotionally. Attempt to help your loved ones understand your feelings through further communication.
- Remember, people are unique, and they may not experience or express their feelings in the same way as you.
- In your conversations, help others identify and share emotions as well.
A Word or Two About Difficult Emotions.
Shame, hurt, fear, and anger are powerful emotions that can make honesty difficult. They reinforce our temptation to hide rather than revealing ourselves to the loved ones around us.
Using “I” Statements NOT “You” Statements.
In tense conversations, don’t point and blame or tell what the other is thinking or feeling. Instead, describe only how you feel at that moment when the other person did something or said something.
Many conversations are derailed when a loved one talks about the other’s behaviors, thoughts, and motives instead of their own.
Our goal when conversing should be to strive to be honest about our own emotions and motives.
Use “The Speaker Listener Technique” when Needing Help to Promote Understanding.
When things are tense, and conversations need to have guard rails. Use the “Speaker Listener Technique 7 8.” This technique provides structure that will foster understanding, creates conversational safety while speaking your mind, helps to consider the issues at play, ensures both sides feel heard, and enables a sense of teamwork while tackling that hot button issue you have with a spouse, relative, or dear friend. Here is a summary; both people in the conversation will alternate being the “speaker” and being the “listener”:
- Rules for the speaker.
- Speak for yourself. Don’t mindread.
- Talk in small chunks.
- Be brief. Try to keep to 1 or 2 points max per turn/statement. Resist the urge to bring up too many points at once.
- Stop and let the listener paraphrase.
- The listener will only summarize what was just said. This is an important part of the process to ensure understanding.
- Rules for the listener:
- Only Paraphrase/Summarize what you hear.
- Don’t rebut.
- Focus only on the speaker’s message and not your rebuttal in order to focus on what the speaker is saying. The listener does not need to agree with what the speaker is saying, just that the speaker’s message was understood.
- Rules for both participants in the conversation:
- Use any nearby small object to signify the person holding it is the “designated” speaker.
- Share the floor.
- Take turns being the speaker and listener. Limit the time for the speaker to 1min and to 1 or 2 points per time.
- The speaker has the floor for 1min.
- It is the speaker’s message that is the focal point. The speaker holds the floor even while the listener paraphrases the speaker’s message.
- No problem solving. Instead, pursue understanding. Work on solutions later.
If you need more personalized help with communications or marriage counseling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for counseling from a biblical perspective at https://www.providencebiblicalcounseling.org.
- CCEF Marriage Counseling Course ↩︎
- Including books, journal articles, and online resources. Here are my 2 favorites thou: A book called, “Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments,” by Winston T. Smith and “The Journal of Biblical Counseling,” put out by CCEF, which has a wealth of quality articles spanning over 40 years from experienced Biblical Counselors and Pastors. ↩︎
- These 4 points are inspired from a list called, “There are many forms of deceit we must guard against,” from p234 of a book called, “The Exemplary Husband: A Biblical Perspective,” by Stuart Scott. It is a great resource for Christian husbands wanting to pursue a godly marriage. ↩︎
- What’s the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’? ↩︎
- This idea of “Emotions are the currency of personal involvement,” is unpacked further in Chapter 8 of, “Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments,” by Winston T. Smith. ↩︎
- For more information on this please see these two articles about being incarnational in how we communicate the 2nd Great Commandment (loving others) to those around us. What is Communications? More than Words: 2 Points to Ponder to Improve Your Communication Skills and Loving Well Is the Core of Good Communications. ↩︎
- Based on a communications technique from, “A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage.” Written by Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, and B. Milt Bryan. ↩︎
- Here is a link to a YouTube video that illustrates and explains the process in much more depth. The video is 18mins long, the first 11 mins is an illustrated explanation of the steps and the last 8 mins is an example showed by a couple from start to finish: https://youtu.be/3JmGR8XHbJY. ↩︎