By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
If “music,” said Dr. Martin Luther, “is second only to theology,” it may be just as legitimate for pastors to say, “Communication is second only to theology.”
Communication is one of the most critical aspects of leadership. Unfortunately, pastoral awareness of the critical importance of communication skills in general–and the ritual use of communication in particular–have gone largely unnoticed in the typical seminary training curriculum.
Introducing Deborah Tannen
In chapter two of her book, Talking From 9 to 5, best-selling author Deborah Tannen states that communication is ritual, that is, it has predictable patterns to convey specific styles of communication. These patterns, she says, are culture-related. They are gender-specific. The meanings of these ritual communication patterns vary from culture to culture, between male and female, etc.
Unfortunately, because communication patterns are “ritual,” the uninitiated may grossly misunderstand the real intent of ritual communications. Here’s some examples.

Five Styles Of Ritual Communication

1) Saying “I’m sorry” when you’re not.
The Point:

For many women, and a fair number of men, Tannen noted, saying “I’m sorry” isn’t an apology. Not at all! Instead, it’s a communication ritual used to restore balance to a relationship.
The Problem:

Those saying, “I’m sorry,” in this way may not be accepting blame at all. Instead, they may simply be trying to restore relational balance. Instead of alienating the other person by appearing “pompous,” “controlling,” etc, saying “I’m sorry,” gives an opening for balanced, mutually beneficial discussion among equals.
The Pitfall:

Studies show that, in general, women tend to use “I’m sorry” to establish or re-establish relational balance. Men, more hesitant to say, “I’m sorry,” tend to   use it more literally, that is, to apologize and admit failure. Communication across gender lines may be a very fragile enterprise. At best, not recognizing the intent of this style of ritual communication can cause misunderstandings. At worst, it can result in all-out disaster.
2) Giving Criticism
The Point:

Women use criticism to extend concern, interest, and ownership to equals. Men use criticism in a competitive manner to challenge others to greater excellence. For many men, the competitive scenario created, (e.g. “Ah, I can do better than that!” “Oh yeah, just watch me!”), encourages and incites excellence. Among males, it demonstrate their respect for the other’s competence, strength, and prowess.
The Problem:

The male preference for competitive ritual communication seems uncaring, harsh and mean to women. Female preferences for using criticism to support is often misperceived as “nagging” to men. The result? A vast chasm of communication between “Mars” and “Venus.”
The Pitfall:

When ritual communication styles are misunderstood, unnecessary attributions (e.g. “he or she is an antagonist”) or unfair characterizations (e.g. he or she is just a crabby ole ____”) may arise. Unless this real intent of this style of communication is recognized, there is inestimable potential of inciting, perpetuating, or escalating unnecessary conflict.
3) Confrontation
The Point:

In general, men are more likely to enter a direct challenge with opposition. Women, on the other hand, prefer an indirect approach. First, they establish rapport. Then, and only then, will they solicit uncensored advice and/or challenges.
The Problem:
Men may grossly mistaken the women’s lack of male directness as “cowardly,” “weak,” etc. Women, on the other hand, may retract from the threatening directness of the male approach.
The Pitfall:
Confrontation, to a great degree, is gender-related. If the preferred communication ritual is not recognized, the wrong approach may irreversibly destroy trust and rapport. Disregard for respective communication rituals can be interpreted as insensitivity. Bridge-building and mediating conflict can become a difficult–even impossible–task. One can only wonder how many church conflicts, especially between pastor and other-gendered parishioners, are the result of a misunderstanding of confrontational styles.
4) Asking, “What Do You Think?”
The Point:

Women use some ritual communications such as “What do you think?” merely–and specifically–to show consideration and build rapport.
The Problem:

These styles of ritual communication, often intended to show consideration, may be misinterpreted by others as indicating a speaker’s lack confidence and decisiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth!.
The Pitfall:
Males may mistakenly interpret “What do you think?”  to be indicative as uncertainty and hesitancy. Almost always, Tannen suggests, women using this ritual communication style are extraordinarily strong, courageous, capable individuals with great conviction. “What do you think?” may also indicate that the speaker possesses unusually strong skills in building rapport and communication.
What’s the bottom line? Though men may not understand it because it is not their preferred communication style, women who use this communication ritual may be demonstrating remarkable leadership potential!  Encourage and use these God-given leaders!
5) What’s So Funny?

Research, as Tannen noted, indicates that there are gender preferences for humor. Men prefer razzing, teasing, and mock-hostile attacks. Women, on the other hand, prefer self-mocking.
Among same-gendered recipients, shared humorous communication rituals can be exhilarating and rapport enhancing. The same rituals, however, can be perceived as insensitive, uncaring, merciless and unnecessary. This is especially true for women who observe–or are the focus of–the male “mock attack” ritual.
Well-intended humor may cause untold harm when ritual preferences and perceptions are ignored. Tragically, male humor which may have been intended extend friendship, respect and acceptance to a female may have the exact opposite result.
Women, directed by their own gender rituals, may become infuriated at a man for having made another individual the “butt” of a joke. Men, on the other hand, may not understand why women continually put themselves down to make themselves the “butt” of the jokes.
What’s the bottom line? The price of not recognizing other-gendered communication rituals can cause unnecessary–and unintended–alienation, hurt and conflict.
Not Just Gender-Related
Tannen claims these ritual communication patterns are gender-specific. This is not necessarily so. Simply to assert that “all” males or “all” females behave in a certain manner is unreasonable, unrealistic and false. It may also be “sexist.” Cultural influences, personality characteristics, education and awareness of communication rituals, and expected behaviors of individuals within certain settings (e.g. church) may also play a major role in the use and perception of ritual communication patterns.
Yet, in spite of these influences, Tannen indicates that gender is a major factor in ritual communication. To the extent this is true, Christian leaders must factor in these communication preferences in their ministry dealings among parishioners of either gender.

Improve Your Communication Skills!

What things can pastors do to improve their communication skills?
1) Become Aware Of Communication Issues. Communication issues are a major blind side for pastors. Awareness of this is always a good and essential first step toward growth.
2) Read and Learn About Communication Issues. Tannen’s books, Talking From 9 to 5You Just Don’t Understand, and John Gray’s books on communication and relationships (e.g. Men are from Mars…, et al) are an excellent beginning. Enrolling in communications-related classes at a local college or university is another outstanding option. If possible, enroll in classes held in a multi-cultural setting so that you can observe and experience the richness and variety of ritual communication styles.
3) Observe And Learn Your–And Others’–Ritual Communication Styles. Start to become cognizant of your own ritual communication preferences. How do you use humor? How do specific individuals respond to your humor? Do you notice a difference in the reception of the humor along gender and/or cultural lines? Do you make direct statements sound like questions? Or are you direct and emphatic when making statements? How do groups and individuals respond to your style in various situations? How do you criticize and encourage? Do you nag? Are you bossy? How do others perceive your criticism and encouragement? Are they annoyed? Encouraged? Do they get the message intended?
4) Don’t Treat Everyone Alike. People are not clones. All women are not alike; neither are all men. Ritual communication may be strongly influenced by gender-related preferences and tendencies. However, only the most insensitive leadership would engage in a stereotypical “pigeon holing” of any individuals. This does a great injustice to God’s people and inflicts harm on the pastoral office.
All Christians–male, female, young, old, and of all ethnic and cultural groupings–are God’s individually gifted and chosen children of God. Each has specific purposes, needs, functions, motivations, personalities and potential contributions for the church.
Reaching out to each individual. Recognize and celebrate their respective preferred ritual communication styles. This approach can help build strong, trusting bridges of encouragement for effective teamwork in ministry.
5) Learn And Develop Skills In Using Various Styles Of Ritual Communication. Various ritual communication styles have endured is simply because they work. Notably, they work best in the situations for which they were designed. Understood and used properly, they help build rapport. They strengthen relationships. They ease tension. They build trust. Most importantly, they can help build ministry.
Learn your preferred style. Learn other’s styles. Then experiment with other ritual communication styles. Learn what is effective and then adapt your communication style for more effective communication.
Once you gain a mastery of various ritual communication styles, who knows what good can result? Indeed, the energy you spend on understanding ritual communication may help you avoid “fighting fires” in your ministry. It may help direct precious energies toward carrying forward the mission of Christ’s Church.
Most importantly, understanding ritual communication may open up new opportunities for a more effective pastoral ministry to all parishioners. As you understand them, you will be able to give them greater affirmation, an affirmation that may well come back to strengthen you in your ministry!
Thomas F. Fischer

Leave A Comment