A part of my job every semester is to teach a class called Speech Communication. It’s a required course for all of our undergraduate students, so I’m well aware that some of them arrive in my classroom with apathy, some with nervousness, some even with a measure of dread. After all, “Public Speaking” appears on most lists that outline “The Top 10 Things People Hate.” Public speaking usually ranks higher than bugs and heights and small spaces. Often, it’s even number one—beating out financial ruin and deep water and death.
It’s my goal, then, to do what I can to make every student feel comfortable—and to impress upon the class just how important their time in Speech Communication can be.
Besides, Public Speaking is only a part of what we practice in the course. During the first unit of the semester, we focus our attention on Interpersonal Communication. We discuss listening techniques and self-disclosure principles and conflict management, and we spend at least one day specifically on the art of conversation. Conversation is, of course, something that each of us engages in—every day, all day long. We flippantly fling messages—back and forth and back and forth. Yet we don’t often enough stop to assess our own effectiveness in this area.
So I tell my students that our conversation matters. The words we choose. The tone of voice we use. The nonverbals we employ. It all matters. Deeply.
In the first place, it matters ethically—because every time we communicate, every time we ask a question or voice an opinion, every time we decide to turn a blind eye or walk away, every time we update a Facebook status or write a blog post or shoot a text message through the air, we also make important moral choices. Every time we send a message to another human being, we simultaneously decide whether or not we will be respectful and responsible, honest and fair. Will we stand for what is right or condone what is wrong? Every time we communicate, our integrity is on the line. Will our actions live up to our words?
But if that isn’t important enough, our conversation matters even more than that. It also matters eternally—because ministry happens in conversation. Every time we converse, we answer the call to care for another person. Every time we communicate, we are also deciding whether or not we will love our neighbor more than ourselves, shine a light in the darkness, lend our voice to those who have none. Every time we converse, we have an opportunity to serve and support and shepherd another soul.
Every single time.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that all of the conflict in our lives and in our country will dissolve if we just talk about it. I know it’s more complicated than that. I’m not saying that decades of pain can be erased with platitudes.
But I do believe that our inability to communicate well is an important piece of many problems. We are a country and a church that’s forgotten how to converse, and too often we don’t even seem to care.
So let me call us to consider the power of our conversations.
Not all of us will send the very public messages to the masses. Not all of us will march in protests or write major headlines or preach the sermons or make the laws.
But all of us will talk and listen to the people in our community. At least we should. And that’s actually where real change can begin.
Culture is created in our conversations.
Culture can be changed when each of us shows great wisdom with our words. Culture can be changed when each of us listens—for understanding and with empathy. Culture can be changed when each of us takes just a minute to look another person straight in the eye.