A Failure to Communicate


'We have stopped communicating,' a wife says to me after every attempt to talk about a difficult situation with her husband has failed. 'We need better communication,' a church group concludes after a well-planned event is very poorly attended, despite the fact that it was announced on Sundays, included in the bulletin, and prominently displayed on the website and social media. I pay special attention now whenever I am witnessing a troubled relationship and the blame is placed on communication, and plans are made to try harder to get the message across. I am starting to wonder if this is really what's necessary. Or even if poor communication is really the issue at hand.

When we use the word 'communication', in business or in relationship, we tend to focus on our own message - are we properly sharing the information we intend? Are we being heard? When we don't get the results we hoped for, I think it is natural to question where we might have gone wrong with what we were trying to say. Did they not hear us? Not understand?

I wonder sometimes if we are not better served by turning this question around. What is coming back to us? Are we paying attention? Because sometimes the issue is not how or when or by whom the message is being carried, it is that we don't really want to see or hear the response. It's not an issue of communication - it's an issue of reception. Of being honest about what is really happening.

The wife whose husband won't address an issue is getting a very clear communication. On some level it doesn't even matter why, the truth is, he does not want to engage this subject with her. And her choice then shifts from, 'How do I get him to hear me?' to 'How will I respond to the fact that he will not address this?' It's a whole different way to embrace the situation.

Similarly, the church leaders with the program attendance (or worship attendance or giving level) drop may not be in need of upping the number of times they mention these things or a better explanation of why they are so important. They may instead need to ponder what is being communicated to them, not by them. What does the lack of response mean? Are people disinterested? Disengaged? So stressed they don't have any more time or resources? Are we willing to listen to what is being communicated back to us?

This, to me, is a faith issue because it reflects our baptismal vow to 'respect the dignity of every human being.' If what is underneath our attempt at communication is: 'I would like you to do X' and the response is tepid, or non-existent, then we may need to accept that as a 'No.' And then we may need to respect ourselves enough to wonder what our response will be to this. Relationships are a risk, every time, and if we don't get the results we wished for, it may not be that we failed to frame them properly. It may be that we just didn't get them.

And we may need to be brave enough to receive that memo.