I always thought I had communication nailed. By all accounts, I could read well before I hit school, was teaching Sunday School at the age of 14, preaching at 15 and rapping The Beastie Boys' Intergalactic flawlessly by 17.
I notched up a degree in Communications, and then moved into Youth Pastoring, where I loved teaching and mentoring teens in various creative ways. I was the communication master.
So as I sat in a 'Basic Counselling' workshop with my youth team, I wasn't expecting to learn anything new. My arrogance was quickly scuttled as the facilitator stressed the power of silence. The absence of words—the space of silence—was where the deepest communication happened. As she continued to teach on allowing silence to become part of our practices, I was disbelieving—but decided to put this to the test.
That very day, I was catching up with a member of our Youth Community. After school, we went and grabbed a Coke, then went for a stroll. As we walked, I asked him how things were going. The usual reply: 'Good'. But then, instead of filling the space with my communication wizardry, I kept my mouth shut. We walked a few more paces, and then he said, 'Well, actually...'
The next 15 minutes was a blur, as this young man began to pour out his hopes and struggles with life, school, family, girls, faith and more. I was trying to listen, but was busy picking my jaw up off the floor.
All this time, I had neglected opportunities for genuine, heart-felt communication—because I was too busy trying to speak. I realised quickly that I hadn't been good at communication at all—I was only good at yelling.
Silence Isn't Sexy
Over the past week, I've read Donald Miller's book Scary Close. In one particularly honest section, he reflected on the identity that he had been creating as an author. Ultimately, he concludes that, 'all writing is a subtle form of manipulation, not always malicious, but usually designed to do two things: (1) communicate an idea, and (2) make the writer sound intelligent'.
In my quest for communication mastery, I'd become more and more fixated on the seductive allure of appearing wise. I had a tool-box of relevant examples, poignant quotes and informed opinions that I could whip out at a moment's notice. I was confident that I could speak into any situation, in a way that was memorable and unique.
But really, underneath it all, I was more interested in the outcome of an interaction—would the person think I was a good communicator? Instead of being interested in their life and story, I was focused on their reaction and approval.
And silence? No-one got famous for being a good listener. Silence had no place in an insecure communicator's arsenal.
Getting High on Facebook
Social commentators often label this era as the Age of Communication. The rapid advent of digital technologies and social media means that anyone can post their thoughts for the world to see.
Yet more and more it appears that joining the conversation is little more than spitting in the rain. There is a deluge of people speaking, but very few listening. In fact, when someone's message becomes read by more than a few people—we are surprised! It goes viral—it spreads—and a quick array of copy-cats will begin yelling in the same tongue.
The desire for approval and fame is a glorious drug. When something I say gets a few likes on Facebook, my brain rewards me with a good slug of dopamine. When I finish a sermon and people line up to thank me—it feels good.
I used to play in a little band—we never achieved any level of fame. But when I was recognised walking around Parachute one year, I felt like Nigel Tufnell had just turned me up to 11.
Wisdom from Hillcrest
In the midst of this time, I was mentored by an older youth pastor from a church in Hillcrest. I remember him repeating, time and time again: 'If you want to make a difference with your youth, don't try get famous'. At first, I didn't really know what he meant, so just nodded wisely and changed the subject.
But as I encountered small scale glory, it was tempting to continue pursuing the praise and admiration of others. I'd want to talk more, and listen less. I'd want to spend time with the youth who appreciated my jokes, or with groups that would applaud my messages. This desire, however, was shaping me into a low-alcohol beer—plenty of fizz, but no flavour or depth.
The Bible Shut Me Up
The Proverbs are full of wisdom about how the wise communicate. Perhaps some of the most hard-hitting read 'A man of knowledge uses words with restraint ... a fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions'.
Paradoxically, to become better communicators we need to learn the art of silence. I am slowly learning that communication is about what you don't say, just as much as it is what you say. It is the listening, the learning, and the thinking that true communication can happen.
So I am painstakingly learning that change happens in the silence. I am practising the mundane and boring art of shutting my mouth, and discovering that in saying less, I am communicating more.
Jeremy is an Innovation Consultant (www.creativate.co.nz) who will post this to his Facebook page, and hope for some dopamine shots.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html