When thinking about clear communication, it’s tempting to put all the emphasis on the sender. But in reality, the onus for communication is on the receiver as much as the sender. It reminds me of the old saying about leadership. If a leader thinks he’s leading and no one is following, he’s just taking a walk. In the same way, if you think you’re communicating but nobody’s listening, you’re just talking to yourself. And there are some really special places people go who talk to themselves too much.
There are four keys to mastering clear communication. A few days ago, we looked at the first two keys to effective communication from the perspective of the sender. In this post, we will look at the final two keys from the perspective of the receiver.
Be the right kind of receiver
- Are you present?
It only makes sense that you need to be present to receive a message that is being communicated to you. But how often do people rely on second or third hand information rather than receiving the message directly from the communicator? In the context of the local church, it’s important to be present as much as possible. Sermons are not like inoculations—get your shot and you’re good to go. Instead, they are more like regular daily nutrition. Eating only one meal every few weeks or so will leave you malnourished—no matter how good the meal is. Growth requires regular, consistent, systematic nourishment that can only come from being present when the “food” is served.
- Are you listening actively?
There is a difference between hearing and listening. Just ask your spouse. It is possible to hear all the words your wife says about her day at work. But you will find yourself in a lot of trouble if you don’t actively listen to her. Active listening is different for different people and different contexts, but the bottom line is that it requires you to do something. Take notes. Give verbal feedback. Ask questions if appropriate. Listen with your whole body—nod your head (not nodding off to sleep), make eye contact, sit up or lean toward the speaker. Your attention span is like a muscle—you need to work it out to make it grow. Actively listening will do that.
- Are you eager to receive?
Your attitude as a listener will determine how much you get out of a message. If you don’t like the communicator, you won’t get much out of it. If you have a predetermined position on the subject or think you “know it all”, you are probably wasting everybody’s time. To be a good receiver, you need to be eager to see something you’ve never seen before. Before the message is communicated, pray about it. If you know the text or the subject ahead of time, learn about it. One of the reasons I am committed to systematic expositional preaching is that everybody knows where we’re going to be next week—and the week after that. That way everybody has the opportunity to eagerly anticipate the message by reading and studying ahead. Go into the message with questions in your mind. Expect to be changed by the message and you probably will.
Have the right kind of response
- Do you disagree?
You will not agree with every message that is communicated to you—and you shouldn’t. We are inundated with messages in this information age. Discernment is a necessity, but it requires effort. Examine the sender’s character. What is his track record? Does he have a reputation of being reliable? If the sender has proven himself to be reliable and his character matches his message, spend extra time trying to figure out exactly why you disagree with him. Be a Berean (Acts 17:11). Spend time examining the sender’s message in light of your own biblical study. If you are able, go to the speaker privately and seek clarification. Separate your personal prejudices and preferences from the content of the message. Work hard to give the sender’s message consideration before completely discounting it. If the message only has minor points you disagree with, latch on to the points you agree with and act on them. If it is unbiblical or heretical, or the message doesn’t line up with the sender’s character, remove yourself from his teaching.
- Do you agree? If you agree with the sender’s message, you
still have a responsibility to check the Bible to make sure what he is saying
is true. It is very easy for false teaching to tickle our ears by telling us
only the things we like to hear. Just because a speaker might pander to his
audience doesn’t make his teaching true or helpful. Be discerning about
messages you like as well as those you don’t like. Always take it to the Bible.
Discuss the message with other listeners. Discover why you agree. Are you
agreeing because the message is self-justifying? Or are you agreeing because it
challenges you and exalts Christ? Hopefully the latter is true. When you are
confident that your agreement is biblically grounded and genuine, then you need
to encourage the sender with positive feedback. Acknowledge your reception of
the message with both verbal and non-verbal feedback. Not only will that encourage
the speaker, it will help you to be an active listener and increase your
ability to retain what you hear.
- Act on it. Finally, a right response requires action by the receiver. Although all good speakers seek ways to apply their message to their listeners, the ultimate responsibility for application belongs to the receiver. How will this message change your life? What will you do as a result of it? Set personal goals based on the message. Make sure they are specific. Many messages you receive are beneficial, but broad. Narrow it down to a specific area of your life. Make sure your goals are measurable and time-specific. “This week I will do X at Y time each day.” Put them on your to-do list or your daily planner. Also make sure they are realistic and achievable. You won’t be able to save the world by Tuesday of next week. When a message is particularly motivating, you can leave feeling ready to charge Hell with a water pistol. That excitement is commendable—just not sustainable over the long haul unless you set realistic incremental goals along the way. You probably won’t be able to do everything at once—but you can do something every day along the way. The key is to do something—act on what you heard.
Sometimes poor communication is because of bad senders—we’ve all heard them. Sometimes it’s because of bad messages. As a speaker, I spend most of my time studying and crafting messages that are biblical, relevant and applicable. I work hard and pray hard to make sure my life matches my message. The same is true of most preachers I know. As receivers, we need to make the same kind of investment—because poor communication is just as likely caused by bad receivers. Take time to study the messages you hear. Be a Berean. Work hard and pray hard to make sure your life matches the messages you hear. Apply them to your life. Close the loop and communication will really happen.