Four tips for healthy communication

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

The Church’s greatest witness to the world is the depth of love and togetherness found among believers of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. And there is no shortage of Christian content stressing the importance of unity in the Body of Christ. But there is a lack of practical tools to help us live our beautiful witness. Unity is a gift of the Spirit, but it must also be nurtured and cultivated, especially when differences collide. Here are four effective communication strategies to help us in the work of unity.

Define conversation goals and set ground rules

The unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) goal of many conversations is to win.We see the other person as our opponent and argue to prove ourselves right. But winning a conversation often comes at the cost of relational health. As the family of God this is a price we cannot afford to pay. The ultimate intention of all of our interactions should be to pursue peace and mutual edification (Romans 14:19). This does not require us to forsake truth but to wield it carefully for the good of others.

Before engaging in a difficult conversation ask yourself and your conversation partner: What are we hoping to accomplish or experience in this conversation? How can we lay aside the desire to win and instead seek the best for each other?

Ground rules guard against behaviours that might distract or impede us from our goals. For example, you might set a rule previous arguments should not be brought up when discussing a present issue or that one person should speak at a time. Each participant should contribute to identifying ground rules.

Seek understanding by asking open-ended questions

“I just can’t understand them!” This phrase often tumbles out of my mouth when I’m annoyed or frustrated with someone. If I’m honest, I don’t often make much of an effort to understand people who upset me. But choosing the difficult path of trying to understand where others are coming from helps us manage our emotions more effectively and respond graciously.

The best way to seek understanding is to ask open-ended questions such as, “How did you come to develop your opinion on that?” or “This is how I interpreted this situation. How did you see things?”

Be honest and vulnerable

Conflict is difficult. From personal experiences to examples in the media, there are far more reasons for us to fear conflict than to engage in it. Our fears may lead us to withhold our true opinions, suppress emotions, and ignore hurts. These avoidance behaviours may help us “keep the peace” but only at a superficial level.

As author and clinical psychologist Henry Cloud wrote in his book Boundaries, “True intimacy is only built around the freedom to disagree.” To be fully known we have to open ourselves up to others, even when what we have to share is contrary to what others may think, feel, or agree with. On the other side of vulnerability is the reconciliation and connection we were made for.

If you struggle to open up with others, try using I-statements: “I feel [fill in the blank] when you [fill in the blank].”

Speak slowly and carefully

Words are powerful. So powerful they were God’s chosen tool in the creation narrative. In his book, The Common Rule, lawyer and writer Justin Whitmel Earley writes, “Words bring order to chaos and form to the formless.” As image bearers of God, we possess the same ability to use words for the creation of order. But in our sinfulness, we are prone to creating disorder with our speech instead.

The fast-paced nature of our culture contributes greatly to the destructive nature of our speech. The less time we take to think, reflect, listen, and process, the more likely we are to ignore nuance, speak rashly, and offend others. That’s why Scripture exhorts us to be slow to speak. Slowing down allows us to listen well and to be more thoughtful with the words we choose to speak.

To get yourself in the habit of speaking slowly and carefully, try using phrases like, “I would like to take some time to reflect on what you’ve just shared. Can I get back to you on that?” or “I’d like to learn more about that before I form an opinion.”

I still get uneasy when conflict looms on the horizon of my relationships, and sometimes I rush to speak when I should be listening. But I have experienced the fruitfulness of conversations guarded by healthy boundaries and developed a deeper sense of empathy for those it would be easier to judge. Committing to these communication strategies has been an imperfect journey filled with hard conversations—but my relationships are stronger and deeper because of it.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto, Ont. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”