By Suzi Steele
Imagine if communication was like a painting, with words and behaviors casting brush strokes across the canvas as they’re being transmitted. What becomes the main focal point? What recedes to the background? Do hues melt one into another like watercolors, or do they stand in jarring contrast? Did each participant paint a similar picture or something vastly different?
Sometimes we, as leaders, approach communication like a paint-by-numbers project, with predetermined colors and patterns that leave no room for creativity. Other times, we communicate more like an abstract piece, wild and unrefined, leaving little space for constraint and discipline. And because each person interprets messages differently, miscommunication often occurs, which then defines future communication “portraits” between those same individuals.
So, how do we break the cycle of miscommunication and foster a healthy communication paradigm?
To answer that question, let’s start with what communication is and how miscommunication unfolds.
Communication happens when information, ideas, feelings, or thoughts are exchanged between a sender and receiver, with both co-constructing the message and its interpretation. It’s constant, dynamic, and complex. It happens through intentional and unintentional messages that establish the communication climate between the receiver and sender. Once the message is received, it cannot be erased.
It happens through intentional and unintentional messages that establish the communication climate between the receiver and sender. Once the message is received, it cannot be erased.
So why does miscommunication occur? Each individual brings multiple contexts to the communication picture. A context is a situational construct in which our cultural norms, circumstances, expectations, and social environments guide our interpretations and actions. We constantly balance these social realities as they help shape our identity.
People are connected to others through a network of shared meanings that provide identity, action, and purpose to words. The success or failure of this network creates a communication climate that represents the sum of our previous interactions. Our interpretations then become embedded within our perceived identity and role expectations, coloring what we think we hear. We rarely begin with a blank canvas when participating as senders and receivers.
Understanding the ABCs of communication helps us know why miscommunication happens and what we can do to avoid it.
A – Audience
Each of us has an identity fashioned by our personality, cultural background, social influences, and acquired preferences. Our organizational identity also includes our skill sets, experiences, needs, and interpretations of our roles. Furthermore, we each possess a distinctive way of sharing and receiving information, called our communication style, that best fulfills our needs. For example, many Westerners like to give and receive information in a direct, assertive way. A non-Western audience may see them as rude or uncaring if they prefer a supportive, passive transmission style.
Each of us has an identity fashioned by our personality, cultural background, social influences, and acquired preferences.
Miscommunication occurs when preconceived thoughts, like prejudices or stereotypes, create psychological barriers to sending and receiving messages. It can also happen if our personal preferences are ignored, cultural norms are violated, or needs are unfulfilled. These problems may arise if we lack basic knowledge about our receiving audience.
What the bible says: 1 Thessalonians 5:13 gives us a proper framework when considering others: “Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work. And live peacefully with each other.” 1 Peter 2:17 reiterates this thought: “Respect everyone and love the family of believers.”
Quick Tip #1: As leaders, we can foster a healthy curiosity about our audience that implores us to respectfully ask questions that encourage appropriate sharing before we attempt to align goals and implement plans. When we show respect for our audience’s background, diversity, and preferences, we set the tone for future collaborative dialogue.
B – Behavior
“Leadership is about who you are, how you act, what you do, and how you work with others,” explain authors of A Communication Perspective, Craig Johnson and Michael Hackman. People watch leaders for clues about their priorities, values, and future directions. They seek answers to such questions as, “Can I trust them? What kind of behavior gets rewarded around here? Are they interested in my welfare?”
Miscommunication occurs when our words and actions seem incongruent to our audience. The communication climate becomes infected with confusion, negative attitudes, or reactionary behaviors, which distort communication and cloud overall values, goals, and actions.
They seek answers to such questions as, “Can I trust them? What kind of behavior gets rewarded around here? Are they interested in my welfare?”
What the bible says: 1 John 3:18 implores, “Let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” Our behavior conveys nonverbal messages to others and creates a visual backdrop for our verbal communication. James 2:22 describes the alignment we must seek, just as Abraham did when following God’s command regarding Isaac: “You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete.”
Quick Tip #2: As leaders, we must think intentionally about what our behavior communicates to our audience. People juxtapose a leader’s words against their behavior, making judgments about alignment, trustworthiness, and believability. We can remedy miscommunication by seeking honest, regular feedback from others. Our job is to receive it humbly and make adjustments to any confusing behaviors.
C – Context
As I stated earlier, each person maintains multiple circumstances or situated contexts, such as caregiver, mother, daughter, ministry leader, and leader-follower. These contexts inform our outlook on life, our self-held expectations, and our sense of identity within these social constructs. We use these situated contexts to guide our interpretation in communication.
Miscommunication occurs when our situated contexts influence our sense of identity. We feel misunderstood when the other person does not perceive our needs and they go unfulfilled. We feel constrained to balance our contexts. When one contradicts or lacks harmony with another, we approach communication with wariness, leading to misinterpretation of another’s intent.
These contexts inform our outlook on life, our self-held expectations, and our sense of identity within these social constructs. We use these situated contexts to guide our interpretation in communication.
What the bible says: Proverbs 23:23 implores us to seek a broader perspective: “Get the truth and never sell it; also get wisdom, discipline, and good judgment.” Paul recalls how his Galatian friends treated him: “Surely you remember that I was sick when I first brought you the Good News. But even though my condition tempted you to reject me, you did not despise me or turn me away. No, you took me in and cared for me as though I were an angel from God or even Christ Jesus himself” (Galatians 4:13-14).
Quick Tip #3: Effective communication occurs when we are mindful of the other’s situated contexts. If they are unknown to us, we can gently inquire about their perspective, circumstances, or self-expectations, helping us holistically see their identity. This knowledge helps us recognize and address their needs. Authentic connection occurs when we seek to coordinate our shared contexts, communication, and actions, creating a collaborative pathway to fulfilling mutual goals.
To conclude, Kim Chandler McDonald, author of Flatworld Navigation, reminds us to be thoughtful in our interactions: “Treat every connection, communication, and collaboration as a part of a continuous relationship.” The bible encourages us to view each other as we ought – as partners who co-labor together.
“The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their hard work. For we are both God’s workers.” 1 Corinthians 3:8-9
Quality communication paves the way for ongoing, effective dialogue that balances both context and creativity – as we paint that picture together.
You can contact Suzi at: Suzi@95Network.org
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