In my mediation work with congregations, I have often seen how people in the midst of long-term conflict use defensive styles of communication. In one particular case, I saw how both parties repeatedly used the same words and phrases to defend themselves. These words set up a protective wall between them that prevented new things from being said and heard; the old words and stories continued to dominate the discussion.
At one point, though, something new broke through the wall. Someone acknowledged another’s good intentions despite the negative consequences. Then another person made a sincere apology. The old started to give way to the new. Defensive speech gave way to a gentle, bridgebuilding type of speech. This shift created new life for everyone in the room.
All communication involves sending and receiving. Yet communication dynamics can vary between sender-focused and receiver-focused styles. Sender-focused communication is defensive; it holds onto something for the sake of the sender. Receiver-focused communication yields something for the sake of the receiver; it is servanthood-oriented. I have called this kenotic communication. Kenotic comes from the Greek word for “empty.”
The Bible sheds some amazing insights into the topic of conflict and communication. Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s passage in Philippians 2 where Jesus empties himself to the point of death. It’s an early, concise hymn of Jesus’ mission. But what most Christians don’t know is that the context has to do with conflict and communication within the church. Will there be unity or disunity?
After encouraging his readers to live in one accord, Paul warns them to “do nothing out of rivalry or vainglory, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” This humility is not an inward, pious self-perception; it is an outward, relational humility. Such humility seeks to help others shine where we might want ourselves to shine in social settings.
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This is mediation language. Underneath all of our positions and demands lie our needs and interests. This is where two sides can have more empathy for each other, where walls come down and bridgework can be built. Mediators understand how solutions that meet the interests of all parties can lead to win-win outcomes.
But there’s more here than having our own needs met during a conflict. Paul invites church members to fully tune into the needs of others to the extent that new life springs up for others through acts of servanthood. This framing is what triggers Paul to reference the mindset of Christ. Jesus (my paraphrase follows), “did not prize his own self-importance like a Greek or Roman god, but emptied (kenosen) himself of this divine status in order to be a true servant for humanity.”
This reading fits with the earlier verses. Paul asked his readers to put aside their own self-importance for the sake of unity. He warned against vainglory (kenodoxia), which literally means “empty glory.” When you try to fill communication space as if your status, your words, your ideas and positions are most important, there is no real substance in that space. But choosing to be empty of all of this through mindful humility results in fullness of new life for others.
This framework has rich implications for congregational patterns of communication. As we recognize our sender-focused styles that pour out of us without thinking, we can begin to shift our focus. We can place a higher emphasis on the receiver and make sure that what we send is yielded to the other’s best interests. But to do this, we first have to empty ourselves of our tendency to “grasp” communication energy back for ourselves. This amounts to our laying life down to give life to the other.
The art of listening is vital to healthy receiver-focused communication. When both parties use this style, there is a fruitful outcome; something new is borne out of conversation. But even when another party is sender-focused, you can still engage them in a receiver-focused manner. This resonates with turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and giving your coat—all forms of overcoming evil with good.
While active listening is clearly the overarching discipline in kenotic communication, it relates to a set of skills that can be practiced in our daily conversations. These skills all spring out of the Christ-mindset whereby we clear away our own communication baggage and seek the betterment of the receiver. I will touch on three skills:
Acknowledging the other is a broad category that keeps the communication center of gravity with the other person. Rather than shifting a conversation back to ourselves, acknowledgments keep the conversational ball in the other’s court. Nonverbal nods and eye contact can go a long way. Short statements of empathy empowers the other to go deeper. Echoing back or summarizing in fewer words what you’ve heard validates the other person.
Our society often makes us hurry conversations into solution-mode, and we forget at times that another person may just need to be acknowledged for what they are feeling. Saying, “That must have been really hard for you,” is one way to acknowledge. In my experience with victim/offender reconciliation work, I have learned how important it is for both sides to hear acknowledgments. They build trust, and they open the other to go deeper and be more expressive.
The Question also keeps the focus on the receiver. These can be clarifying questions that help you understand another’s view better, but questions also convey genuine interest. Questions can effectively prevent conflicts from flaring. One time I yelled at my daughter who was sitting on the front porch, seemingly neglecting her animal chores before her ride to school. Had I approached her with a question rather than a blaming accusation, I would have learned that she was protecting the cat food from our roving, hungry chickens.
One reason Jewish tradition is not known for theological splits as one observes in Christian history is that the question was central to rabbinic education. Different views could coexist—even on the same page of biblical commentary. One way to disarm a heated debate is to ask descriptive questions to the other person. “How did you come to that viewpoint?” Nothing to argue there, since it shifts the conversation into the realm of story. This, then, creates bridgework.
Finally, the skill of Restraint involves our choice to pause or remain silent. Restraint gives us the freedom to mindfully control our communication choices. At the same time it assures us that we do not have to control conversations. A simple pause amounts to yielding communication energy to the other, and it heightens our focus on timely, life-giving responses. In his final hours before the cross, Jesus showed where power resides through the mindful restraint of speech.
Proverbs is full of admonitions to restrain words. Fools do not think before they speak, and their words gush out with folly. Moreover, such words are harmful and they lead to death. In contrast, the wise person chooses few words, gives a soft answer and uses a gentle tongue. These reflect a disciplined mindfulness, and the fruit of restraint is new life for both the receiver and the sender.
These three skills are all responsive. They correspond to God’s communication (or revelation) style. They are invitational rather than coercive. They are life-giving, geared for the growth of the other, rather than life-sapping. If our destiny is to mature into God’s character, and if this character is best seen in Jesus who took on the “form of a servant,” then, as we work out our own salvation in the realm of conflict and communication, our conversation choices will best be informed by the Christ-form.
Kenotic communication leads us into a mindset where we become good stewards of communication. Just as we mindfully manage our time and possessions, we can mindfully change our default patterns of speech. In either case, trust has to be activated. Radical trust erodes against our habits of blaming and shaming, judging and begrudging. Radical trust, on the positive side, helps us build the life-giving skills of word stewardship.
Working out our own salvation in this area will take work. Change is never automatic, especially when it involves emptying our pride. All of us in the church are in the same boat; we all wrestle with mistrust toward certain people in our weekly lives. Perhaps you find yourself mulling over conflict situations that eat away at your mind. Is it possible that these irritants provide the very context for new growth, new adventure?
Thank God for the amazing resources we have from biblical and church traditions. There is hope for change, or we wouldn’t be asked to put off the old and put on the new. With John the Baptist we can say, “I must decrease so he must increase,” not out of a demeaning attitude toward ourselves, but out of loving humility toward others so they can shine out in new ways. As we seek salvation in the realm of our talking and listening, we will find ourselves and others redeemed in the pattern of sacrificial servanthood thaTet gives new life.
Ted Lewis is active with the Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Ore. In addition to his restorative justice and church mediation work, he offers workshops on Kenotic Communication for church groups (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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