Why do we communicate, and are we bad at it?
According to DeVito (2004) we communicate for a variety of reasons as outlined in the diagram below. Very few people waste time or energy on communicating arbitrarily, even if it seems that way sometimes. If you think that someone of simply filling the silence with words, you might not be paying close enough attention to the content of their message or the motivation behind delivering it. Sometimes when you tune into the endless of stream of chit-chat you begin to notice clues to the purpose behind what they’re saying, often unconscious and unintentionally revealed.
Intense introverts tend to be very purposeful communicators, rarely choosing to say something unless they need to. Extroverts at the opposite end of the spectrum may simply allow their stream of consciousness to fall out of their mouths. Most people are somewhere in-between and might even be described as “ambiverts” who enjoy flowing social communication and stimulation but also need alone time, and who are selective about their audience when it comes to divulging information.
In the above diagram we can see five main motivations for communication and the desired outcomes of that communication:
The Need to Learn
Information is valuable for survival and navigating the world around us. It can take the form of feedback about ourselves provided by others who reflect back aspects of how we come across to them. It can be in the form of knowledge about the environment or new skills we would like to acquire. It is also a means of learning more about the culture and social landscape we occupy so that we understand norms and customs when engaging with others and learn when someone represents danger for us.
The Need to Relate
Because humans are a social species, we are interdependent on having relationships with others, so this drive is both enjoyable and primal. In the same way that learning is imperative to surviving the environment, having supportive relationships is also essential to our survival, so most people seek positive connections and then work at maintaining them. Some people feel no need to relate to anyone, but expect others to relate to them at all times regardless of their behaviour. Others can use this relational need as a form of manipulation by faking common ground, or zeroing in on individuals who are open and friendly. Knowing who is safe to relate to openly, and who you should remain reserved with, can be a learning process.
The Need to Help
Some people are quite driven by the need to maintain social cohesion, especially women, because it forms the fabric of their safe environment. It also forms the basis of reciprocal relationships where a person can reasonably expect social support if they are known to provide it. Sometimes the imbalance of this communication drive will be toxic where certain members of society provide no support to others, but expect it from others at all times, and some people with a strong drive to help become exploited by the community and receive nothing in times of their own trouble.
The Need to Play
Play is a form of decompression which usually serves a purpose for our complex brains to get enough downtime to process information. It is also a means of social cohesion when leisure activities are communal or help to establish common ground of cultural references. Play can be purposeful if it incorporates an element of learning or strengthening relational bonds. However, it can become maladaptive when used as a form of escapism to avoid reality or when it ends up consuming large amounts of time to the point where other aspects of life are neglected such as diet, exercise, hygiene, domestic chores, and earning a living.
The Need to Influence
Being able to advocate for yourself and your point of view is important and sometimes necessary for survival. The need to influence is healthy when each person understands all other’s points of view and takes them into consideration. A healthy person is also capable of stating their needs in different situations as the occasion arises. Influence becomes controlling when it is lopsided, and one person’s desires are the only valid point of view, while everyone else’s are dismissed or minimised. Toxic people take this communication need to the extreme and it will often be the underlying motivation behind all their social interactions. All of the other communication needs serve the purpose of controlling others: learning, relating, helping, and playing become tools of manipulation rather than objectives for their own sake.
“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
James 1:19-20 (NKJV)
In business and corporate settings, a lot of training is invested into a desirable behaviour known as active listening. Employers want to ensure their teams are skilled in active listening because it has an enormous impact on both client and team relationships.
Human beings have a basic need to be heard and understood, whether they’re a customer or a family member, because it is an essential component of survival. Think about it: if you’re in extreme danger and you scream for help, but everyone just stands around staring blankly at you… you’re gonna die. Not being listened to by your co-worker might not seem comparable to this situation, but your survival instincts don’t know that.
Being around someone who doesn’t listen to you, or cannot seem to hear anything you say, will produce a subtle form of anxiety because your survival mechanisms will flag this relationship as unsafe and a threat to your wellbeing. Which it is.
My own personal example of this culminated in never being heard for years regardless of how many times I said; “no,” “I don’t like it,” “please stop”. My ex-husband ignored every verbal refusal as well as every physical fending off and continued to sexually assault me. Not until I was screaming “sexual assault” and threatening the police did he finally acknowledge that I had said no every time. In his own mind up until that point he justified his actions as “spontaneous romance” which was so spontaneous that it required zero consent and refusal was not considered a valid response.
That’s where not being heard can lead to.
You can see that an inability to listen to others or hear what they’re saying and take in on board is not just vital in business, but also has huge implications in relationships.
If you have a friend, or colleague, or family member, or spouse who never listens to you, it’s not a minor irritation that you should just tolerate and stop complaining about. This is seriously disrespectful. It can lead to all sorts of issues and in some situations threaten your safety.
The signs don’t start out at the level of assault but begin in more minor ways like talking over the top of you, cutting you off during conversation, changing the subject away from what you’re talking about, or misinterpreting what you said and responding as though you said something completely different. If you have to shout in order to slow their roll because they’ve excitedly taken a mile when you only gave them an inch, or if you have to be rude in order to force them to listen, that’s not someone who is healthy to be around.
There’s an underlying assumption they’re operating under which is this: they always know best, and it is a good thing for them to impose that on other people, plus they don’t credit you with equal intelligence or an ability to know your own needs and make choices. Rather than listening to anything you say and then responding appropriately, they will tell you what’s best for you and you’re going to like it, even if you say you don’t like it. After all, how could you possibly know your own thoughts and feelings regarding your own life?
These people are so wrapped up in their own version of reality that they cannot perceive anything which contradicts it.
Jesus explained this mindset to His disciples when they wanted to know why He spoke in parables.
He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;
For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Matthew 13:11-17 (NKJV)
This is the greatest tragedy of all: this sort of person is so determined to have their own way at the expense of other people, that they cannot hear the voice of God and so be saved. They would have to go through a radical humbling before the word of God could take root in their lives, similar to Paul on the road to Damascus. That’s why before and after this passage in Matthew 13 is the parable of the sower and the seed, where the seed represents the word of God and the different types of ground it falls on are various states of the human heart and mind.
To truly receive the word of God, we must be receptive to the difficult parts we would much rather avoid or explain away.
Communicating to Hear
A relationship of any kind, including our relationship with God, necessitates the pursuit of intimacy.
The diagram below is known as a Johari window, which is a model of how interpersonal communication works. Each person has their own respective window through which they view the other person and the other person sees them through that mutual window of the relationship. Depending on who we’re talking to, our windows will change in response to that relationship and where it’s currently at. Some relationships are more intimate than others, so the panes of glass change ratio depending on who we’re talking to and how long we’ve known them.
Through the process of self-disclosure where we reveal things about ourselves to the other person, the Arena pane of intimacy expands. This pane refers to things which both people know about you: you’re aware of those things about yourself and so is the other person. Disclosing things about yourself to someone else reduces the amount of façade which you present to that person and pushes out the arena pane instead.
Likewise there is a pane in the window which is called your blind spots and refers to things about you which the other person has noticed, but you’re oblivious to them. If you are someone who notices feedback from the other person during communication, or if you are receptive to them telling you things about yourself, you can become increasingly self-aware through intimate relationships. Taking the other person’s feedback on board also expands the arena pane in the window so that over time intimacy grows between you.
If someone refuses to accept feedback from anyone, their capacity for self-awareness and personal growth is compromised, but it also limits the intimacy of their close relationships. In the same fashion, some people don’t want to hear the difficult parts of what God has to say about us, which limits their relationship with God.
Some people make a career out of explaining away the challenging parts of the bible, but it won’t do themselves, or other people, any favours in the long term. Jesus wasn’t telling this parable to a crowd of sceptical atheists. He was addressing devout Jews who lived by the scriptures daily.
It’s a relevant lesson for the church today as well. In the same way that people who don’t listen fully to others probably believe that they have reciprocal relationships with other people, and everyone thinks they’re awesome, Christians can also fool themselves into believing that they have a relationship with God… on their terms rather than God’s terms.
This problem is documented throughout the bible where the Israelites followed their own inclinations instead of actively listening to God.
“Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you! O Israel, if you will listen to Me!
There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god. I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt;
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. But My people would not heed My voice, And Israel would have none of Me. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, To walk in their own counsels.
Oh, that My people would listen to Me, That Israel would walk in My ways!”
Psalm 81:8-13 (NKJV)
Who is the wise man who may understand this? And who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that he may declare it? Why does the land perish and burn up like a wilderness, so that no one can pass through?
And the Lord said, “Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked according to it, but they have walked according to the dictates of their own hearts and after the Baals, which their fathers taught them,” therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.”
Jeremiah 9:12-15 (NKJV)
God often referred to Israel as a “stiff-necked” people, which provides and interesting visual to describe the unwillingness to heed His voice. Throughout the book of Isaiah God pleaded with them to listen to reason and converse with Him about their behaviour, but they refused at their own peril.
God is patient and gracious, but His holiness cannot be compromised, and He cannot overlook evil indefinitely. Unfortunately, many western Christians like to play the grace card rather than really listening to what God is saying and then reflecting on how it applies to their lives and circumstances. The willingness to self-assess and receive correction, despite how uncomfortable it might be, is a necessary part of the straight and narrow path.
How does someone humble themselves enough to actively listen to God’s voice?
The key is maintaining gratitude for the relationship and remembering that love is a gift, not an entitlement. God doesn’t owe us anything. He bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, rejoices in truth and is kind towards us because that’s His character, whether we deserve it or not. However, He won’t force us to be in relationship with Him and reciprocate that love, He will allow us to turn away and walk according to the dictates of our own hearts.
How do we know that we love God? Because we listen to His voice and heed His commands:
“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
John 10:14-16 (NKJV)
Likewise, God listens when we ask for His help. A reciprocal relationship means that we listen to God and He listens to us. He doesn’t just boss us around from heaven like a bunch of minions, but genuinely cares about how we feel and what matters to us. God wants to hear all about our problems and be there for us in times of need, as the Psalms consistently portray.
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, And His ears are open to their cry.
The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, To cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, And delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the Lord delivers him out of them all.
Psalm 34:15-19 (NKJV)
In the same way that God has a genuine desire to listen to all our troubles when we come to Him correctly, human relationships should be based on the same level of mutual respect and care. If someone doesn’t see the need to ever listen to you when you voice your needs and feelings, that person has no love for you. If we go to God expecting that He will grant all our wishes, but never take the time to listen when He wants to talk about the things we do which damage the relationship, then we do not love God the way He loves us.
“Now therefore, listen to me, my children, For blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, And do not disdain it.
Blessed is the man who listens to me, Watching daily at my gates, Waiting at the posts of my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life, And obtains favour from the Lord; But he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; All those who hate me love death.”
Proverbs 8:32-36 (NKJV)
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
1 John 2:3-6 (NKJV)
We learn the love of God through active listening.
If we appreciate and value a relationship, then we seek to understand the other person and their needs. Having a relationship with God is no different. If we don’t value the gift of someone else’s love, or if they don’t value the gift of our love, there will be no effort made to hear the other person and respond to what they say. If all we’re asking for is basic respect and care, it shouldn’t be that difficult.
*Unless otherwise noted, scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
DeVito J.A. (2004), The Interpersonal Communication Book