I was in my favorite local Mexican restaurant the other day…anticipating a fine repast after the morning’s worship service. We were seated and one of the servers came to the table. “Hola, mis amigos!” It’s the regular greeting from this young man who often attends to our lunch needs.
I, having just finished preaching to vast throngs (ok, a couple) of worshippers at the church, was entirely focused on “what’s for lunch.” Our friendly server, however, was more focused on updating us on his family situation: his son was turning one in a few days; he expressed some consternation over how much money to spend on the party (“An $80 pinata!” he said, chagrined that his wife wanted to spend so much); the reluctant acknowledgement of surrender to his wife’s fiscal plans for the baby’s birthday; and the requisite recent picture of the cute lad.
Meanwhile, back at the menu…which I was clearly brandishing in my hand and which was supposed to be signaling my strong desire for some, you know, food…I realized that I had fallen into the wrong conversational category–again.
Communication theorists like to tell us that there are different modes and manners of communication. There is, though, a bit of “art” in the attempt to parse the different kinds of communication (by the way, we’re talking between people here, not between people and their dogs or cats or other species of pet).
Two frequently noted types of communication are transactional and relational. Transactional communication is viewed as the simple, well, transaction of business. “I’d like an iced tea, please?” “Would you like sweet or unsweet?” “Sweet, of course, you dolt” (actually, that last phrase is best left unsaid–otherwise the transaction might go awry).
You get the idea–transactional communication is a short-term exchange of information to accomplish a set purpose. There is no sense that anything of personal impact is going on (unless, of course, you try to pass along some unsweet tea to this particular tea connoisseur). That doesn’t diminish the weight or content of a particular transaction, it is just to say that the point is usually the exchange itself.
Relational communication is deeper, personal, affective, and impactful. It is the mode of communication we use when we value our connections with people and are trying to enhance those connections. “I love you, Sweetie!” Some academics hold that relational communication is only happens between people with already close connections–I think they’re mistaken.
Of course, out here in the real world where theorists dare not tread, the lines between the communication categories are not so neatly drawn. Our communication patterns tend to float back and forth betwixt the two types and become entangled with each other such that it’s sometimes hard to tell where the emphasis lies.
As an example, the use of what may appear (on the surface) to be relational communication to accomplish a given task is just gussied up transactional communication. “I love you, Sweetie! Would you get me some sweet tea?” (Did you see the clever use of “sweet” variants there?)
Transactional communication is usually easy. It’s direct, operates with an economy of words, and requires minimal (usually no) investment of relational energy. And, I think we do this all the time. At the store; at the favored fast food joint; wherever we find ourselves, it is easy to default to transactional communication. This is particularly true if you find yourself on the introverted end of the personality profile assessment results.
I think though, as Christians, we miss the point of communication when we let ourselves fall into a habit of transactional communication. It lends itself to us thinking that others are just agents placed here to meet our personal needs.
I’ve scoured the Gospels and I cannot find a place where Jesus was merely transactional. Every word seems to have been packed with relational and redemptive purpose. Even those moments that may have seemed to be purely transactional (“Hey, go get me a donkey to ride into the city”) resulted in marvel at His wisdom and power and deepened people’s connection with Him.
Would that we would be so relationally purposeful in our communication. Our everyday interactions could be characterized by a deepened sense of purpose in connection as we look people in the eye and really see them.
Our responses to public issues could transcend pointed, twitter-sharpened communication and, instead, drip with winsomeness as we speak life into the culture.
The thing is, a focus on relational communication is not hard, it just takes a bit of time. Time that we often believe that we don’t have because we are too stinkin’ busy with our “important things.”
How can we measure the impact of our words and ensure those words genuinely reflect the love of Christ in our hearts? At every juncture we can pause to do basic relational things: we can find out people’s names; we can engage them with them by using their names; we can inquire about how things are going for them; we can pause to pray if that’s warranted (or at least commit to praying for them, lest we incur the wrath of those behind us in the express checkout lane). Simple? Yes. Regularly done even though simple? Not at all.
One of the most basic, yet frequently forgotten things I’ve found in my own Christian life is that every word I say to others has a relational component (contra those communication wise ones)–whether I act purposefully on that relational component or not.
If I’m purposeful and caring and loving, I can move someone a little further along in their journey toward Jesus (or, at least, not put a pothole in the road). If I am not purposeful and caring and loving, I will (at the least) miss an opportunity to briefly invest in someone’s life. I will (more often than not) be counted among those whose conversational interactions are characterized by mere transaction.
The Apostle Paul said, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Galatians 4:5,6). I think he was onto something about relational communication long before the contemporary theorists arrived on the scene.
© 2019, All rights reserved. Scripture from the New International Version, Zondervan.