Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The messenger is the message

Psalm 7:17 (NIV)

I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness;
   I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.
It’s not what you say so much as how you say it. This is a truth I try to remember when it comes to how I speak to my wife and children, but there’s nothing like being at (or near) the other end to drive home the point.

When I’m around mostly other adults, maybe at church or in small group, or a mix of adults and children, like when helping out at soccer practice, I can’t help but be tuned in to the way people communicate with one another. There’s a line between being observant and judgmental, and I try to come down on the side of the former as much as possible. Listening to others is a learning experience, especially if it makes me consider how I behave.

Nearly all of my communication with my newspaper colleagues is electronic — emails, instant messages, Facebook chatter and so on. We’ve worked together for six and a half years now, and I consider many of these colleagues good friends. I trust they can sense when I’m trying to be droll or sarcastic, even just from the typed word, but I must take into account I am working with some people I’ve never met in person. And even when relating to those I know well, it behooves me to keep aware of the fact they’re in the full-time grind and I’m just dropping in from out of the ether, often unannounced.

At the end of one of Max’s soccer practices, a group of kids more or less clumped up and engaged in a little roughhousing. The parents of one of the boys said, very calmly (to the point of being nearly inaudible) “I don’t want you involved in that.” It was a good message and I appreciated the intent and the soft-selling delivery. But it also accomplished absolutely nothing because the parent didn’t sound at all like they believed what they were saying.

That’s not to say yelling would have been any better, but there has to be a more efficient way to communicate in such a situation. Not to denigrate kindergarten boys, but they’re a lot like dogs. Sometimes the words take a back seat to the tone used to speak them. What’s important in my book is consistency in message and delivery. Not only that, but that the words and done correlate with the actual scenario at hand.

I’ve written before about the danger of numbing a child to a parent’s angry or alarmed voice. I’m intimately familiar with this topic because it’s one of the weaknesses I’m trying diligently to eradicate. I don’t see myself as a generally angry person — quite the opposite, actually, as I prefer to think I’m fairly optimistic about life — but I can see how on my bad days my kids might get that impression. I don’t want to be the kind of dad who snaps over minor transgressions or honest mistake. I do want to be able to get their attention at a moment’s notice, but only in extreme situations when safety is at stake.

Adults, as I have observed, do not always think about how their words, or even their tone, will be perceived. Likely there are some who are simply incapable (via brain chemistry) to understand how they come across. Some people communicate benign sentiments with malignant disposition. And then there are folks who shroud wicked thoughts with flowery words.

I’m not trying to lay blame here — I’ve been guilty of all this and more. The larger point is for me to take the opportunity to observe how people communicate and weigh my track record against their examples. Maybe I’ll identify one of my bad habits and realize how awful I must be only after seeing another employ the same method. Perhaps I can come away with a successful strategy I hadn’t considered on my own. Even if I don’t learn a specific lesson, I might just make a better me simply by thinking more honestly about how I walk through life.

Am I sincerely trying to reach my potential as a husband and father? Or am I just going day by day, reacting to whatever blows across my path and hoping not to screw up too badly? Having these moments to sit and reflect at the end of the day is a nice opportunity, but if I’m not carrying anything into tomorrow, then what’s the point?

Think, probably more than once, then go and act. Over and again. One of these days I might just get it right.

A prayer for September 3:

Lord, tonight I am thankful for the many chances you give me to make mistakes, seek forgiveness and try again. I am trying to make less mistakes, of course, but you know my many weaknesses and love me anyway. Help me to think about the way I communicate with other people. Not just verbally but in my body language, my actions and the respect I afford them. Help me be to the world an example of the love you command us to show one another. Amen.


  1. Just seeking some clarification on one point: Did the boy stop roughhousing after the parent expressed not wanting him to participate? Or did he completely ignore the parent? I'm curious how the child reacted to the statement.

    1. Good question. Kid totally blew it off. Didn't even hear the parent until the parent actually moved closer to the action and used a different phrase.