When I started as a young (26-year-old) pastor, I realized I was not trained or experienced enough to counsel the people who came to me with their problems. One thing that helped me was discovering Transactional Analysis, then a popular new theory of understanding how humans interact with each other. I experimented with it in a couples’ marriage encounter group I put together. I was way in over my head, but we all learned a lot.

One of the exercises we tried has stuck with me through the years. When a married couple are having trouble communicating, they can begin sorting things out by following a simple exercise. If one person expresses a complaint, the other should not answer back right away, because they’re likely to respond defensively with a counter-complaint, which will probably escalate into a heated argument. Instead, they should respond by restating their partner’s original complaint to see if they really understood what their point was. Only after they can restate it to their partner’s satisfaction, indicating they really heard them right, should they respond.

For instance:

She: “You haven’t helped me with the dishes one night this week.”
He: His impulsive response might be: “I’m working longer hours at my job, and you don’t seem to care.”
She and He: On to a hurtful argument.

Instead, he might respond more thoughtfully:

She: “You haven’t helped me with the dishes one night this week.”
He: “Are you’re saying you feel overworked?”
She: “No, I’m telling you that I miss our time together talking about family over the dishes in the evening.”
He: “You miss having that relaxed time together? I do too. I guess we’ve both gotten too busy.”
She and He: On to virtual hugs and cuddles.

As we tried to put this into practice in our marriages, we learned two things: (1) It works, and (2) It’s REALLY hard to do. Judy and I have managed to pull it off only two or three times in our 62 years together. Most often we depend on short-cut techniques we’ve learned over years of practice to avoid responding the wrong way all the time.

Communication problems have escalated with the advance of modern technology. Social media can quickly turn into ANTIsocial media. Posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever’s the latest-fad-platform are more often clever, snarky and even sarcastic, rather than expressing warmth, care or concern. A lot of unnecessary hurt is caused by accidental insults and criticisms. Beyond this, there are intentionally hurtful messages that spread negative information through hacking, bots, etc. “Fake news” seems to have become an acceptable strategy for confusing people about reality: “You have your truth; I have my truth.”

Well, here’s a word from the Lord Jesus. Even in his day, there were people trying to spread confusion about what is the truth. In his Jewish tradition, it was believed that vows or oaths before God could help separate truth from fake news, but Jesus taught an even better way, and we need to hear his challenge again in our day:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)

It’s as simple as that.

– Pastor George Van Alstine