Paul Newman had a line in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” In a standoff with the police, he yells out, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” There are times when I wonder if in our day and age, “what we have here is a failure to communicate civilly.”
Years ago I heard a piece of advice about things we say, “All the words we say should have three characteristics: they are true, necessary and helpful.” I suspect it is the last two characteristics that most challenge us. For example, when we have a lot of energy about a topic, it may well seem necessary for us to say what is on our mind – but that does not mean, at the moment, it is really necessary for anyone other than us. The same thing goes for being helpful. Will the words we say to be helpful to the person receiving them or to the situation at hand? True, necessary, and helpful. Good guides to conversations private and public.
You might be asking what brought this all to my mind? This week I received an email from a friend of mine who was on his way back to Nashville, TN when he stopped in an old country diner in Jackson. He liked the placard on the wall near his table.
The Four-Way Test of the things we think, say, or do:
1. Is it the truth?
2. is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will be beneficial to all concerned?
My friend, a Franciscan priest, is increasingly concerned about the increasing lack of civility in dialogs public and private – especially when the participants have professed Christians who are called to model Christ in all things.
As people, we will always struggle with the truth and fairness of the things we think, say or do. Even if we agree with someone about the “facts” at hand, we operate our of a set of values that shape our vision of the world. The place where discussions, disagreements, and arguments can be found is generally rooted in the communication and miscommunication of values.
Communication with disagreement can even be helpful. In fact, being challenged by another view or a differing value can become a pathway to new personal and communal growth, a pathway to something better. Disagreement with miscommunication is likely the gateway to a discourse that is increasingly uncivil. And that threatens goodwill, friendships, and the benefit that can be received by all.
Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote: “The proclamation of the Gospel requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience; one which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35). By his approach to them, his dialogue with them, his way of gently drawing forth what was in their heart, they were led gradually to an understanding of the mystery…In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communication, and meaning.”
The challenge is that, like Christ, we are called to speak that truth in a way that is necessary, helpful, in goodwill, and builds right relationships – and reflects the values of Christ.
This article is everything in my heart and more. Communicating with respect and dignity is what Cary and I work so hard to teach, model, and develop in all areas of our practice. Thank you Father George from Sacred Heart Church in Downtown Tampa for writing this piece.