“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?’”
Shannon L. Alder.
There are few things more powerful than feeling like you’ve been heard and understood. We feel valued when this happens and it allows us the emotional space to lower our guard, be open to what others have to say and mutually grow in our relationships. It also fosters courage to think outside the box as we follow the Spirit in ministry. When we value others enough to hear and understand them, we develop a safe environment where we can broach difficult issues without fear of being attacked, shamed or misunderstood.
Misunderstandings, however, are an all too common experience that can create confusion and even conflict in our relationships with others. A misunderstanding is often the result of misperception. For example, who hasn’t either sent or received a text message that was taken the wrong way? Sometimes we even add smiley faces or other emojis to our messages in an effort to communicate more clearly. Yet, texting has been accurately described as “a brilliant way to miscommunicate how you feel and misinterpret what other people mean” (Anonymous).
We are interpretative beings by nature. We try to understand all that our senses take in so that we can choose our responses accordingly. For example, when we smell smoke, our minds quickly sift through our past experiences with this smell and our interpretation gives us direction about what comes next. Whether we call the fire department or make a mental note that our neighbor is grilling outside is based on our interpretation. Similarly, when we hear or see what others communicate, we quickly run this information through our minds to make sense of it and decide upon a course of action.
So how can we become people who strive to have a clear understanding and respond with compassion? Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Assume good intentions. It is always best to assume good intentions. Too often, we come into a potential conflict assuming we know the motives for what the other person said or did. However, if we choose to believe they are trying their best it can help us reach our goal of hearing what is on their heart and mind. When both parties assume good intentions on behalf of one another, it reduces defensiveness and prioritizes understanding.
Become an active listener. There is good reason why James wrote, “Understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters. Let everyone be quick to hear [be a careful, thoughtful listener], slow to speak [a speaker of carefully chosen words and], slow to anger [patient, reflective, forgiving]” (James 1:19 AMP, italics added). Being “quick to hear” means that we are actively working to understand and reflect upon the message of the other. Active listeners ask good questions to clear away misperceptions and misinterpretations. Doing anything less can lead to responding without understanding which may precipitate frustration and anger. Active listeners show they are listening by making good eye contact, nodding their heads as they listen, and not interrupting while the other is speaking. In addition, active listeners occasionally summarize what they’ve heard to track well in the conversation.
Use an Effective Questioning Style. Good communication is about gaining an accurate understanding. To do so, it is imperative to ask the kind of questions that expand our understanding. But before thinking about what kind of questions to ask, we must first make sure that our motives behind the questions are right. Listening to fix or correct is very different from listening to understand. Even though your questions may seem similar, your motives make a difference in the outcome.
Closed versus Open Questions. Closed questions are those that can be answered with a simple yes or no (e.g., “Did you have a good day today?”), whereas Open questions need a fuller response (e.g., “What was the best part of your day today?”). Open questions often seem like investigative reporting where Who, What, Where, When and Why questions abound.
Clarifying Questions. Clarifying questions are often necessary to distill the true message. One way of doing this is by reflecting back to the person what you heard them say to see if that is what they meant. A good habit is to begin by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is…” followed by what you heard. If their answer is, “No, that’s not what I meant,” then allow them to share their point again and let go of the first version you heard. Keep in mind that even though the words you heard may have been what they said, they are not what they meant, and understanding is your goal. Verbal communication is similar to writing the first draft of a research paper; it is a work in progress that needs editing. This clarification process takes work, but as we practice checking in to make sure we’re gaining an accurate understanding, it becomes a pattern for future conversations.
Preference Questions. When we are frustrated, we often say everything we do not want but not what we would like instead. When dealing with conflict, try thinking like a customer service representative. These individuals are trained to both de-escalate tensions and arrive at solutions. When we give space for someone to express “I don’t like…” or “I don’t want…” it allows them to share their feelings of frustration and sense that someone cares. Once people have expressed themselves, it is easier to move onto what they would prefer instead and opens the door to building a shared resolution to the problem.
Love in Action
Using effective questioning techniques out of a heart of compassion and a desire to understand others exemplifies true love. John 13:35 (MSG) reminds us, “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” This kind of love in action reflects the life that Christ has called us to as His modern-day disciples.
Dr. David P. Mann is Professor of Counseling at Ashland Theological Seminary.
When Dr. Mann was a student at Ashland Theological Seminary, he experienced a time of deep personal growth through classes, chapels, and his cohort small group. Now, as a faculty member, he makes it his goal to invest in students in the same transformational way. Dr. Mann directs the CACREP-accredited Clinical Mental Health Program offered at the Ashland and Columbus centers.
Dr. Mann is admired both on and beyond campus for his wisdom and expertise. In addition to being elected president of the Ohio Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (OACES) and the Ohio Counseling Association (OCA), he has also been honored as the Outstanding Alumnus of Kent State University’s CHDS doctoral program and was chosen for the Academic Mentor Award here at Ashland Theological Seminary.
Before he came on faculty at ATS, Dr. Mann could help a limited number of people through various roles he held over the years: outpatient counselor, Hospice chaplain, and pastor. In his current faculty position, he has the opportunity to train future counselors, multiplying his scope of impact. Nothing gives him greater joy than seeing students take what they’ve learned and apply it as they counsel hurting individuals, couples, and families.
Dr. Mann’s hobbies center around the great outdoors, including motorcycle trips and riding in his Jeep through the countryside or along America’s northern coasts. He also enjoys visiting lighthouses along the Great Lakes and being on the beach of Lake Michigan. When taking walks through the woods, he makes sure to have his camera on hand to capture nature’s beauty.