Ephesians 4.15-16: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
We live in an age of contempt and outrage; new channels and social media confirms this. I would explain this, however, to a deeper reality: we live in the age of monologue. Our communication technologies have made it such that the way that we express our opinions, thoughts, and understandings are done through a form of communication where we do not receive immediate feedback as we communicate. Email, facebook statuses, blogs, etc. have all helped to fashion a communicative culture that takes the monologue as the default form of communication. Any form of speaking that we do not do with the immediate presence and feedback on another person inculcates within us into the world of the monologue.
There is a psychosocial dynamic that takes place with this. We get used to thinking and expressing our own thoughts and we become less accustomed to receiving responses from others. The repeated act of monological communication provides us a cacoon that allows us to avoid immediate feedback from others, thereby not learning to work through communicative anxieties that almost all humans have. In this space, we become much more highly sensitive to negative messages from others when the opportunity is provided.
To be clear, the monologue isn’t about the form, though the form does form the style of communication, but about our intent and approach to communication. We come with implicit expectations that we are going to say our piece and we expect minimal to no negative feedback. A momological communicative culture does not simply lead us to express our direct thoughts in a way that receive minimal feedback, but it leads us to communicate in ways that disrupts any sort of sharing back and forth in interpersonal communication, especially when there are differences between people.
As a consequence, we live in a culture that values being listened to over listening and sharing. We value being heard rather than dialogue and debate. We want people to value us rather than valuing mutual life. This keeps our ability to relate to people down to a bare minimum of those who we think will echo our own thoughts, feelings, and values in the way we want it to be done. We have increasingly less tolerance for the back and forth of communication between people who have different thoughts.
In lieu of this, we develop communicative strategies that lead us to minimally and indirectly engage, rapidly disengage, and escalate defensiveness. Twitter is a perfect example where we rarely see substantive engagement with other persons, people readily ignore and block, and you see many forms of group harassment and attacks through the medium. However, this happens in non-electronic communication. For instance, people may be tempted to triangulate, stonewall, and get angry with others quickly. When you see these three patterns, you are dealing with communicative anxiety. When this communicative anxiety takes control, it can hamper our ability to communicate effectively ourselves.
The strategies we have been taught with communication have not addressed this adequately well. We have talked about listening skills and asserting oneself. However, communicative anxiety is a deeper issue that both influences how much we do or do not listen and in what ways we do or do not assert ourselves. The more highly anxious we are in communication, the more disruptive we will be in our communication, being poorer listeners and in either failing to clearly and healthily assert ourselves. In such a state, people may be inclined to accuse others of negative behaviors, such as perceiving attempts to communicate as attempts to control them, rather than receiving the communication as an invitation to be in relationship to one another.
What we need to relearn is extending our relational buffers. By buffers, I mean the ability to deal with the inconveniences that come with communication without letting communicative anxieties take control. Various forms of communication, both in content and manner can provoke some anxieties. For instance, I have a problem with trying to jump into the middle of a conversation when I hear something that sparks a thought, but I also try to reign this habit back and I am learning to address this problem. To have a relational buffer with me would entail that one does not immediately disengage or get defensiveness because I overstepped a minor boundary once here or there, while at the same time being willing to remind me I need to wait a moment. By having a good relational buffer, one can endure the minor breaking of a communicative boundary and, at the same time, assert oneself about that boundary. I have experienced people who are able to speak that truth in love. Relational buffers allow truth to be spoken in love and to be received in that manner.
In other words, while a monological culture needs to learn communication skills such as listening and asserting oneself in a clear way, what is of more critical importance is developing relational buffers that comes from emotional regulation, by being willing to endure frustration. This doesn’t mean we need to have endless patience, as people get into unhealthy relationships when they have excessively large relational buffers that makes them endure all sorts of unhealthy behaviors from others, but it means we do need to learn how to extend our own relational buffers and learn how to communicate so as to help other people know about those buffers. By building our relational buffers, we learn to give other people who are a bit different an actual chance to be in relationship by directly engaging them as we also allow them to directly engage us.
Here is the truth that relational buffers allow us to understand and realize: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27.5-6)