Better Communication: Avoiding misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and wounded parents
Rolling Hills Church was growing like crazy, and Joanie, the Christian education director, had her hands full. After screening Mrs. Palmer’s application and running her through a background check and interview, she introduced her to the 5-year-olds’ class on Sunday morning.
Little Corbin was throwing blocks again and having a fit. “That’s one of our EGR children,” Joanie said with a sigh. “What does EGR stand for?” asked Mrs. Palmer. “Extra Grace Required,” Joanie chuckled. Mrs. Palmer wasn’t laughing, however. “EGR?” she asked indignantly. “That’s my son!”
Communication bloopers! The longer you serve, the more stories you have to tell. The goal, of course, is to have as few stories as possible. So how do you better communicate with parents?
“An unreliable messenger stumbles into trouble, but a reliable messenger brings healing” Proverbs 13:17 (NLT).
Reliable communication occurs when intent equals impact — when what we mean to say is what’s heard. Simple enough? In theory, maybe. In reality, though, people’s pasts, cultures, and personalities impact how they hear things.
Mike was a policeman from Brooklyn who, after attending Bible school, worked with our children and youth as an intern. He was born and raised in a culture that speaks fast and to the point. Mike had a heart of gold and the kids loved him, but some of the parents were put off by his blunt communication style. To gain parents’ confidence, he humbled himself and adjusted his communication style to fit their filters. It wasn’t long before Mike started asking instead of telling people to serve in our nurseries.
Are you willing and able to anticipate what a parent may hear before you speak and adjust your style accordingly? This is the essence of good communication. Take a look at the “Said and Heard” section below to learn what some parents may hear by things you say — and what’s at the root of the misunderstanding.
Listening provides us with the information we need to avoid being misunderstood. Opening our ears to parents’ hearts, we find out whether they’re capable of understanding us at the time or whether their stress, fatigue, culture, values, personal needs, and past hurts require us to turn up the volume or turn it down.
Listening demonstrates our desire to understand and respect another’s feelings and viewpoint. Listening means we refrain from giving advice or even expressing an opinion until we better understand the person. It also requires…an awareness of how you’re feeling so you’re able to decode a parent’s sentiments fairly; avoiding subtle verbal and nonverbal expressions that convey judgment; maintaining good eye contact while a person is speaking; allowing periods of silence to give parents enough time to get in touch with what they really feel; listening not only to what the parent says but also to what he or she is trying to say; and providing undivided attention.
Test: One, Two, Three
How can we make sure that what we say is heard correctly and retained? Close the circle of conversation. Politely and humbly ask your listener to summarize and reflect back to you what you’ve said. Here are a few techniques I use.
“I’m not sure if I’m making sense. Can you tell me what I’m trying to say?” “Can you help me know if I’m making sense?” “Am I coming across? Can you explain back to me what I’m saying?” “Do you hear my heart? What am I trying to say?”
In a conversation that involves any expectation or commitment on my part, I record dates, deadlines, financial figures, names, phone numbers, and promises I make on a note pad and then send the information via email to the parent. I ask the parent to check for errors and reply. I’ve kept myself out of hot water many times by closing the circle of communication in writing. When email isn’t available, a phone call or letter is helpful.
Paul says in Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” There’s nothing more grace-filled than words spoken from an understanding heart. In addition, here are general things to keep in mind when speaking to parents.
1. Slow down.
In the frenzy of Sunday morning, it’s easy to pass on instruction, demands, and potentially controversial information without taking time to know how people are doing.
2. Ask good questions.
Asking parents for their opinions, feedback, and advice builds trust and shared ownership. The more questions, the more interest in participation.
3. Avoid starting off questions with “why.”
Why questions are often perceived as accusatory and judgmental: “Why does your child pinch other children?” Better to use questions that start off with the word “what”: “What reasons can we identify for this behavior?”
4. Speak in the first person.
When you have to be direct, always speak in the first person: “I believe,” “I feel,” “I would like” indicates a willingness to take responsibility and earns parents’ trust and respect. “I feel we could better serve your son in another classroom.” “I would love for you to pray about stepping up to teach.”
5. Touch base.
Good communication depends on trust and the first step toward building trust is your assuring presence. Parents need a touch from you every Sunday morning. They need to know you care.
6. Avoid discussing delicate matters in the hallway.
Protect a parent’s dignity by calling at home or speaking after church, rather than discussing a child’s behavior in public. Postponing a delicate conversation provides you with the opportunity to gather your thoughts as well.
7. Get support.
Occasionally, when a matter is particularly controversial, you may want to invite your pastor. Having a third party present provides objectivity and, in some cases, a capable witness.
“The tongue has the power of life and death,” Solomon says, “and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). I’ve had to eat a fair portion of rotten fruit to realize that as a children’s minister, it’s better to listen and understand before I speak.
Parents need our help. Stress, anxiety, shame, and cultural and religious differences sometimes prevent them from hearing our hearts when we speak. As leaders, we must seek to understand before being understood. James warns, “My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” It’s time to stop living this verse in reverse.
By better understanding parents’ primary filters, you’ll avoid communication bloopers.
If a parent seems tired, depressed, distracted, preoccupied, and irritable, it’s likely that he or she is stressed out. Stress can drain a person of the emotional energy needed to properly listen and understand. Feeling overwhelmed with worries and the demands of life saps all of us of the emotional energy we need to accurately listen.
If a parent demonstrates a pattern of procrastination, avoidance, withdrawal, defensiveness, blame-shifting, victimization, and super-sensitivity to issues that pertain to her children, you’re probably dealing with someone who suffers from painful feelings of inadequacy — especially about her identity as a parent.
Shame is rooted in intensely negative feelings of self-judgment. It works hard to hide personal limitations and perceived failure to avoid exposure to further judgment — especially from others — which would confirm the assumption “I’m a bad parent.” Shame-based parents assume they’ll be judged. This is why our well-meaning guidance, counsel, instruction, and even a simple greeting can be misconstrued as criticism and condemnation.
This is shame’s evil twin. If the parent regularly interrupts you, tops your ideas with his, resists your suggestions, pushes an agenda, or projects blame and responsibility for his children on you and others, you’re again dealing with someone who suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame. In managing these painful feelings, this parent will resist help and counsel and avoid facing the painful reality of his need by blaming and criticizing others.
4. Cultural Values and Religious Traditions
Virtually undetectable in the early stages of a relationship, cultural heritage and religious traditions powerfully influence parents’ reactions to what you say. Beliefs about spiritual authority, religious ceremonies, sacred elements, and rituals are some of these land mines.
5. Past Church History
When a person has been wounded in a bad church experience, some sociologists suggest it takes as long as eight years to mend and re-engage in church-related service — depending on the degree of hurt, quality of the post-trauma support system, and the resiliency of the church member. If a parent seems to be spiritually mature and relatively free from emotional baggage, but still misreads you, you may discover that her inability to hear you finds its origin in her “church history.”
Wes Fleming helps church leaders and parents bring spiritual formation and healing home.
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