3-1 Building rapport in conversations
Sensitivity To Our Audience
If we really want to make encounters and conversations work, we need to consider who we're talking with. The Lord's parables of Mt. 13:44-49 make it clear that people have different motivations when they first encounter our preaching. Some are merely fish caught in the Gospel net and compelled to come in; others are as the merchant man who is searching for good pearls, who sells all he has to get that pearl and just have it, gazing at it with admiration and appreciation each day; others are as the man who finds something of value in a field, maybe he sees there's some precious raw material he can exploit there, and so he buys the field in order to get some benefit for himself. The strange (to my ears) comment in Mt. 13:44 that the man 'hides' his discovery appears to contradict the reality that we should joyfully share our discovery of Christ with others. Perhaps the picture is being painted of a man with all the wrong motivations, who comes to the treasure from the viewpoint of 'What can I selfishly get out of this' (it may be in our age... a desire for welfare support, a partner, a social club...). And yet all the same he has come to the treasure, been called to it, allowed to find it... that is perhaps the point. All these types of people have differing motivations, and need to be treated differently by us. Noah's ark is a well known type of the salvation which humanity can find in Christ; and yet close analysis of the Genesis record reveals that there were some animals whom Noah had to bring into the ark and take them with him (Gen. 6:19; 7:2); and others who came to Noah and entered into the ark of their own volition (Gen. 6:20; 7:9,15,16). The same Hebrew is found in Gen. 8:9, about how the dove came to Noah of its own volition, and Noah welcomed her and took her into the ark. Putting all this together, we are to compel men to come in (Lk. 14:23); and yet we are also to be there to welcome in the seekers who seek of their own volition. It's easier to do the latter; to put up a website, waiting there for some eager seeker to come and find. But we are also to compel people in, and to also bear in mind that there are some who will be attracted to the Gospel from selfish reasons, as the man who buys the field thinking that he can exploit it for his own benefit. These too we are to take on board and not turn away. Whilst people, with all their wonderful uniqueness, should never be pigeon-holed nor over-categorized... all the same, we need to consider the type of person we're dealing with as we plan out our approach. For if we seek them, we will consider who they are, and how appropriately we can engage them.
Preaching is essentially about building relationships, not platform
evangelism. The Lord taught that His preachers were not to go
"from house to house" but rather to remain within an
acceptive household and make that their base (Lk. 10:7). In modern
terms, I think we could interpret this as meaning: 'Focus on building
relationships; don't build up a shallow relationship with a lot
of people, but rather try to get deep with one household'. But
in our internet age, how do we build relationships; how do we
conduct ourselves in real face-to-face conversations?
- The Lord maintained eye-contact with His listeners: Mt. 19:26;
Mk. 3:5,34; 5:32; 8:33; 10:21, 23,27; Lk. 6:10; 20:17; 22:61;
Jn. 1:42. These are all separate occurrences; the fact is really
being emphasized. This paying appropriate attention with eye contact
is also a good strategy for matching the silences that occur from
time to time in any serious conversation. Most of us can
tell when another is thinking by observing the eyes, and
when they are not their eyes will tell you.
- There is a sense of mutuality and rapport built up between the preacher
and the hearer in all successful preaching. Jonah “cried” to Nineveh
(Jonah 1:2; 3:2,4) and they “cried” to God in response to his ‘crying’
to them- the same Hebrew words are used (Jonah 3:5,8). As Jonah cried
to God from the belly of the fish, so the Ninevites were inspired- presumably
by what he related to them of his own life- to cry mightily to God for
undeserved deliverance (Jonah 3:8).
- Be yourself, relate as a real person, not some do-gooding missionary
with all the answers talking in his own in-house jargon, but behave
appropriately to the circumstances, not only culturally but situationally.
Don't pretend to be an expert. Be friendly to the dog if you like dogs,
but don't romp on the floor with it etc. Remember how the Lord healed
the blind man and then told him not to tell anybody (Mt. 9:30). Clearly
the man wanted to shout out his good news. But by quietly walking around,
seeing life as it really is, being his normal self, this would be an
even more powerful witness.
- The missionary needs to know why they are there. This sense of purpose
helps us cope with the rejections better and also gives a positive feel
to the contact.
- Make constant affirmative response like " uh-hm, a-ha, yes,
OK, right,” etc., just to affirm we are listening if the contact is
talking for any length of time. Also matching their speed of talking
is another way of showing empathy.
- Matching, or mirroring, non verbal behaviour and posture is
another good rapport builder. Matching speed and tone of speaking and
the speed of breathing, empathy is conveyed, if this has been done effectively
then it is highly likely that if the missionary slows down his/her breathing,
speaking, and shows signs of relaxing, then C may follow.
- Allow your sense of humour to come out if appropriate.
Focus on the contact's needs, not your own, you are there for your reasons,
but your reasons are not to dominate. Empathise, i.e., walk with the
contact in the conversation, sometimes leading sometimes following,
but don't try too hard to lead. Try to steer a balance between
positively teaching truth and correcting error whilst at the same time
constantly affirming the contact and showing signs of acceptance of
them on a personal level.
Turning Conversations Around
In practice, this is what preaching is all about. We all mix with people.
We nervously seek to start conversations about the Lord, and yet so often
they go wrong. The person refuses to ‘play ball’, i.e. they change the
direction of the conversation; or they get even more committed to their
At the outset, we need to note that the majority of ‘conversations’ between
people aren’t conversation at all. Each person has their own agenda
and point of view which they want to get across, talking at the
other rather than listening and responding appropriately. We see it all
the time- in dialogue between politicians, parents and children, husbands
and wives, women and men.
Many people have strong feelings, stemming from past experience, in which
they may have felt their opinions etc were discounted or of little value.
They therefore become all the more desperate to make their point. There
are so many people from abusive and dysfunctional backgrounds that this
is getting a very common feature of society world-wide. Some will articulate
this by talking loudly over the top of another, or constantly
interrupting, dominating or trying to dominate the conversation. Some
are more masked than others in the way they do this, but this desire to
be heard and valued are so strong in the majority of those we meet with.
If the impression we give is that we are here to prove others wrong and
ourselves right, then we may be guilty of harnessing our knowledge of
God’s Truth for our own ego. On the other hand, there is in Scripture
the concept of ‘Truth’ and error. And we are to be a light to those who
sit in darkness. And we are to perceive ourselves this way. And yet if
we are going to lead others to Truth, we need to be aware of where they
are coming from, and be all things to all so that by all means we may
We have all walked away from verbal exchanges where we have sought to
preach the Truth, wishing we had said something different, wishing we
had had the presence of mind to give a better answer to a difficulty question;
or berating ourselves, having forgotten a crucial point central to our
argument etc. It seems to me that whilst on one hand preaching can be
likened to a warfare, a tearing down of the bastion of unbelief, the Lord’s
servant taking people captive unto the will of God (2 Tim. 2:26 RV), this
is only one facet of the picture. Taken too far, we can become motivated
perhaps by a fear of failure, we try harder and only get into a verbal
battle, a jousting match, or worse. We will often ‘lose’ these exchanges,
because we were unable to convince our 'adversary'. Thus such exchanges
become like a court battle of who's right and who's wrong, one-upmanship
and point scoring. We will then end up feeling that the person has rejected
the calling of the Father simply because my argument wasn't good
enough. This need to win, this fear of failure, is the way of the world
not the way of God, it is not " reasoning together" . There
is too much ego involved. Preaching, though it might seem otherwise at
times, is not a competitive sport. If we failed it's not because we did
not try hard enough, nor is it because we did not know enough, perhaps
it's because we tried too hard driven by a fear of failure, or perhaps
we have thought too highly of ourselves, thinking we speak for our God?
Before we get into situations we need to ask ourselves certain questions:
What's in it for me?
What is my motivation? why do I, personally, preach?
What do I get out of this activity or what do I expect to get out
What am I afraid of?
The answer/s and other questions will probably be different for each
of us. There are some other things we also need to be clear on too. Such
as: What is preaching? What is it I am actually 'preaching'? What are
my personal weaknesses and strengths? We need to be clear on these
sort of things as they impinge upon our
attitude toward who we are, what we do, how we do it, and most importantly
how we consider others, particularly those to whom we, in this context
'preach'. This has a lot to do with how we perceive ourselves. As a distinctive
minority group it was natural to be always on the defensive, and in the
past our preaching has been characterised by a confrontative and at times
an adversarial approach. It could be that because of our possession of
Truth, of the right interpretations which form part of our covenant
relationship with God, we have tended towards self righteous invulnerability,
to not admit any possibility of our being mistaken, to give the impression
we have the answers to everything and our audience are totally ignorant.
We forget that those to whom we preach have more knowledge, factually,
both about life and often the Bible, than we assume. We need to get it
in the right place and order for them, not only teach them new
I submit that because we have been too ‘confrontational’ in our perception
of preaching, too based around winning an argument, that there was until
a few years ago a reluctance to 'preach' because for one reason or another,
many brethren & sisters feared they will not measure up and fail in
their own eyes and let the rest down. Both the adversarial approach and
the fear of failure are unscriptural. And it is a joy to see the younger
generation far more committed to witness. This can only be a positive
sign. Preaching is done as a natural response to the grace we have
ourselves come to know, from a desire to share the Hope of Israel with
our fellow human beings, not out of the shoulds, oughts or musts of blind
obedience, obedience without content, or fear that if what is perceived
as an 'order' is not obeyed one's eternal life is in jeopardy.
We will avoid being patronising, preaching at rather than to
people, if we remember we are no better than they and that the way
to pass on this Gospel is through a genuinely sincere relationship of
equals, of men and women who know their desperation.
To be able to gain the trust of others one needs to show oneself trustworthy
and in this atmosphere of mutual consent, one can at times, guide or lead
the conversation. In the end, this is what we are seeking to do. And it
is easier than it may seem as most people genuinely want to be able to
trust others, to be trusted themselves, and be treated as equals or at
least feel valued. So what we need to do when we are in such situations
is to be genuine, be oneself. In every situation in life we can choose
to either play a role or be ourselves. Though in the past we may have
tried to be, none of us are experts with all the answers, we all have
vulnerabilities, doubts about ourselves and even about our understanding
of some difficult passages in the Bible. We can pretend to be otherwise
but this will soon be noticed and acted upon even if only subconsciously.
We need to know these things about ourselves and be OK with them. God
will speak through us if we allow it, not so much with expert answers
but with love, charity, and empathy for the human condition. The focus
in this relationship is not upon our needs but upon the needs of the other.
So rather than churning over quotes in our own minds, talking to ourselves,
and just waiting for the opportunity to 'blurt' them out, we need to listen
to the other person make a conscious and thoughtful response. By at least
acknowledging to our God and ourselves that we are not perfect in the
sense of being 'all good' and righteous but that we make mistakes, have
failings etc., we can be more 'real' in our relationships. The more real
the more believable, the more believable the more willing the other is
to let us lead at times. By being real, not behaving as others say we
'should', 'ought' or 'must' we attract others who may feel oppressed by
the " obedience without content" control structures of our/their
society. Paradoxically, people want a leader. They want to be themselves
and be valued for who they are, to be listened to, but yet they also realize
deep down how they are floundering in a cruel and hard to understand world.
And so to the skills of good communication. We must show a value for
what the other person is saying. This is also called " active
listening" which is basically letting the other know we are focusing
on them and giving them our full attention. Included in these are the
appropriate use of expressions like, " a-ha" , " uh-hum"
, " yeah" , " OK" , " right" , " oh"
, " I see" " I hear what you say" , " I understand"
etc., with the accompanying tone of voice and non-verbal behaviour such
as eye movement, facial expressions, body posture and rate of breathing
which mirrors that of the other. It is very important to maintain a high
level of eye contact, but not to stare as this may be disconcerting. Focus
on the other while they are speaking rather than rehearse the next response
no matter how many times one may have heard the same thing. Silence will
probably indicate the other is thinking about what has just been said
and is important, there is no need to fill the gaps, it is more important
to be friendly and real than have all the answers off pat. On the other
hand when the other has stopped thinking, (the eyes will indicate this)
it may be worthwhile to:
1. Paraphrase or reflect the content of what the other has just said.
Paraphrasing is not the same as parroting, though this is sometimes
useful in helping the other finish a sentence. The former is reflecting
the important content in one's own words. Reflecting the content, though
we may not always get it right, helps the Other clarify their thoughts
and get to the real issues which may not be what is presented. For example
" Oh yeah, well if God is so good and loving why does He allow
so much suffering?" may be presented whereas the underlying issue
may be of some kind of abuse being suffered by the other or someone
known to them, or an untimely death in the family. By accompanying the
Other on their walk along their own path of thought rather than trying
to defend God which may also include some element of self defence, we
allow the other to think more clearly and in a constructive way. By
defending God, or ourselves by launching into some monologue on "
good and evil" in this encounter we put the Other on the defensive
and serve only to entrench the possible thought that God is unloving
2. Reflect feelings. Rather than launching into a speech about
" good and evil" or asking a 'why' question in response to
the above, the reflection of content response may also include a reference
to feelings, " It sounds as if you're angry at God. That He
can't possibly be loving if He allows so much suffering." Twist
your face up if the Other recounts suffering to you. This sort of response
allows the Other to explore their feelings more fully and feel the pain
that is hidden by the anger. The result of which is the dissipation
of the angry feeling and the exploration of the real problem. Of course
its not that simple in reality and there may be a few more steps before
the underlying problem is reached. There is also a problem in our
response to the anger or any other strongly expressed feeling. In our
culture we learn to deny our feelings and encourage others to deny theirs,
to philosophise about our problems as if they are 'out there' and don't
really belong to us. This is a coping or survival mechanism. Staying
in our heads enables us to cope with the fiery darts of the wicked and
not show our vulnerability, but there is a price, unexpressed feelings
warp our discernment. Reflection of feelings enables the other
in recognition of these repressed feelings. We need to realize in such
situations that though the expression of feeling may be directed at
us or what we have said may have elicited an emotional response, in
most cases we are not responsible and should not take it on board nor
3. There are three predominate modes of sensory perception and communication;
they are seeing, hearing and feeling. These correspond to three different
ways of thinking, visual imagery, mental self talk or auditory, feeling
or bodily sensation or anaesthetic. Often in our communication we mix
up these modes of awareness, we say " feel" when we mean "
think" , " see" or " hear" when we mean "
know" or " understand" , that sort of thing. Though some
people may be equally versatile in all three modes, most of us rely
more strongly on one mode, by carefully listening to the words used
by the other one can identify their generally preferred mode of thinking.
This is helpful to good communication in several ways. It give insight
into personality, mutual understanding is increased and by matching
the words used in the conversation, trust is facilitated and strengthened.
4. Asking questions is a way of controlling the direction of the conversation.
Asking too many questions though can be intimidating and the other will
either shut down and wait for the next question, become angry and stone
wall, or feeling violated will become defensive and possibly even offensive
and aggressive, or withdraw and possibly even terminate the exchange.
Be that as it may There are two major categories of question, some are
called " open questions" and the other " closed questions"
. Closed questions are a form of control, leading to specific answers,
often already known or presupposed, are used by lawyers in courtrooms
to restrict witnesses in their range of answers and in other instances
where the questioner like a government instrumentality has power or
seeks to gain such. Usually the answers to such questions are short.
The other may choose to expand on their answers but is unlikely to do
so if feeling threatened. However when the other makes generalisations,
as is sometimes the case with " open questions" , closed questions
are a useful tool in helping them define and focus on the real issue.
One type of question falls between and that is the " Why"
question. We are usually taught very early on in our social development
that the " I don't know" response to a why question is not
adequate and to avoid a punitive response from a usually angry parent
or other authority figure we need to have a well thought out intellectual
response even if it's not true. Such questions in adulthood may elicit
a similar intellectually thought out reason in reply which as in childhood
are often, to varying degrees, unconvincing and frequently fall into
the category of " excuses" , " rationalisations"
or outright lies, as the childhood pattern of denial to escape consequences
has been frequently and successfully indulged in a shame-based society
where such denial and lack of trust is commonplace. Open questions are
very different in their effect particularly if a bond of trust has been
formed. There is still room for a pre-programmed response, for the other
to read between the lines or give an answer they think one wants, but
given such freedom is more inclined to be open and give a freer answer.
The open question is an invitation to explore what is important or of
most interest to the other person.
5. Summarising is a bit like paraphrasing but like the word suggests
it is a summary of a number of statements picking out the salient features
and presenting them in such a way that self and the Other have an overview
of what has been discussed until that point. Summarising clarifies what
has been said and puts it into a fairly organised format which enables
the Other to absorb and ponder what has been shared. This is a necessary
part of the process as often people are confused, in denial and resistant
or are unable to think or talk through their belief structures coherently.
6. After summarising there is an opportunity to do a little ‘Reframing’,
something our Lord did a lot. We all get stuck at sometime or another
in a frame of reference the origin of which is exterior to ourselves
and likely reflects how others see us, or think we should, must or ought
to be and what we have come to believe about ourselves. The idea behind
reframing is not to deny the way the Other sees the world, as inappropriate
as this may seem to be, but to carefully present another, perhaps expanded,
view of the world based upon what has been revealed in the conversation
and though specifically articulated is known to the other. This enables
the Other, if they so choose, to see things in a new way, from another
point of view which may be more appropriate. Reframing allows a shift
in attitude out of a false self of shame or grandiosity, where projection,
blame (shaming others), denial etc are the survival tools or coping
mechanism of a dis-eased self worth, where the ego or self is the God-like
centre of the universe, 'imbued' through 'socialisation' by cultural
agents e.g. parents, older siblings, other family and educators with
a God-like responsibility for the feelings and actions of others, into
the light of the reality of individual self-responsibility.
Note: This is the outcome of discussion with John Stibbs, who should
take credit for much of the above.