When asked to consider what is most important in your life, most people would say it is the relationships they have that mean the most. When asked what is most stressful in your life, many would say relationships! Relationships are the source of the best and worst in life, but the most important point is we all need good, healthy, and flourishing relationships.
I love the quote, “If you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room” or some versions say “then get into a bigger room” (Author unknown). I would like to add to this, “If you are the smartest person in the room then get into a bigger room and build relationships.” Relationships are so important in our lives both personally and professionally.
Jesus modelled the importance of relationships through the time He spent with his disciples: The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught (Mark 6:30). He also encouraged them to build relationships by sending them out in pairs: Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two” (Mark 6: 6, 7). Furthermore, Jesus clearly states that the most important commandment is to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36 – 40), thereby drawing attention to relationships with God and with others. Your experiences in life will be dramatically impacted by the relationships you make. In fact, it is stated in 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NLT) that three things will last forever, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. This scripture also gives us a clue about how to treat others with which we are in relationship. Relationship with God and others characterised by love is the most important thing. “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women and children. We are hardwired for connection – It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”[i]
However, relationships are not always easy. Do you find that sometimes when you communicate with people you get a negative reaction, but in other situations you get a positive reaction? This article seeks to address some of the challenges that we can face in relationships, by focusing on the walls that relationships must traverse and the role of words in that process.
Walls of Protection and Harm
It is helpful to imagine a wall made of bricks that exists between people, representing an individual’s emotional and relational limit of openness and boundary toward others. We all walk around with a bit of protection around us, and that is a good thing. We need to be wise, and we need to guard our heart: the Bible teaches us to guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life (Proverbs 4:23 NLT).
Sometimes the wall that should be protecting us and mediating safe relationships can become that which inhibits healthy relationships. How so, and what can we do about it? Before further examination we must exclude two extreme responses.
The first to avoid is tearing down the wall in its entirety. We can’t just tear the wall down or people can feel too exposed or vulnerable. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries allows us to remain safe and to build appropriate healthy relationships. [ii] We need to carefully remove the bricks between us as we build the relationship, so as to create a safe place for people to be able to communicate and share some of who they are.
Alternatively, one cannot leave an unhealthy wall of separation as it is. Stephen Fogarty in AC Chapel last year made a great statement: “We meet people at the point of vulnerability.” If we don’t ever allow the wall to come down we cannot truly connect with other people. It’s hard to build relationships when there is a massive wall in between. The goal is appropriate dismantling proportionate to the person and kind of relationship.
At the moment you have probably thought about how an individual responds to their own wall; but what affect do you have on the journey and wall of another who is trying to navigate creating healthy relationships?
Walls and Words
Every time you communicate with someone you are affecting their wall. For instance, some of the ways that we communicate make the wall higher. Every word we say either builds up the wall between us, blocking the relationship, or brings down the wall, brick by brick, so a more a genuine connection can occur.
Some of the things that build up a wall between people are:
- When we feel judged
- When we feel intimidated – that we are not smart enough
- When someone abuses power and we feel inferior
- When we are interrupted while telling our story
- When we feel shame or fear
- When we feel unsafe
- When people don’t listen
- When people aren’t sensitive to our feelings
- When people criticize us
- When we don’t feel valued or respected
- When we feel like people don’t see us
- When we feel the person doesn’t really care about us
Poor communication is a recognised major source of bad relationships. It therefore becomes vital to consider what you say and how you say it. In addition, we might add from where you say it: from what character, values, motivation and intentions. Relationship is influence. What affect are you having on those around you: friends, colleagues, family?
Not only are there ways to communicate that builds up the wall, but there are ways to communicate that will carefully break down the wall between us, open up communication, and build relationship. A great example of this is the fruit of the spirit. Imagine if we all communicated in a way that showed love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT). What a great place to start.
A cursory examination of the Gospel of Matthew reveals a number of communication acts that brought down the barriers and walls with those Jesus related to.
- Matthew 4:18 – 20 “Come with me” “I’ll show you” (Inclusive)
- Matthew 5:1 – 12 “You are blessed” (Encouraging)
- Matthew 5: 14 “You are here to be light” (Purposeful)
- Matthew 5:19 – 20 “Show the way for others” (Empowering)
- Matthew 5:33 “Don’t say anything you don’t mean” (Authentic)
- Matthew 5:38 “Live generously and graciously towards others” (Giving)
- Matthew 7:1” Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures or criticize their faults” (Caring)
- Matthew 10:13 “Be gentle in your conversation” (Gentle)
- Matthew 13:43 “Are you listening? Really listening?” (Respectful)
- Matthew 14:13 “He had compassion on them” (Compassionate)
- Matthew 14: 27 “Jesus was quick to comfort them. Don’t be afraid” (Comforting)
- Matthew 18:10 “Don’t treat people arrogantly” (Humble)
- Matthew 18:17 “Offer God’s forgiving love”. (Forgiving)
- Matthew 18:22 “Forgive people seventy times seven” (Forgiving)
- Matthew 19:19 “Show honour” “Love your neighbour” (Honouring & Loving)
The wall comes down brick by brick or it goes up brick by brick. Every time you come across someone and start to communicate think – am I:
- bringing down the wall and building relationship?
- adding to the wall and blocking the relationship?
To put the question in terms of the approach of Jesus, am I being inclusive, encouraging, purposeful, empowering, authentic, giving, caring, gentle, respectful, compassionate, comforting, kind and humble, forgiving, honouring and loving?
Sometimes it is hard for someone to take the bricks down because of past relationships. In these instances the casual attending of an unskilled listener may not be sufficient. Attending to the entirety of the person’s message including the emotions behind the words are essential. [iii] Trained chaplains can provide a safe place to talk about the bricks and the wall that may be coming between people, and then they might be in the position to be able to start removing the bricks. In other cases, the person may need some additional help if the bricks are stuck – a counsellor or psychologist can often help with this. No matter where we are in our own journey, relationship with God is always available and beneficial..
Relationship with God
Having a good relationship with God helps us in relationship with others: 1 John 4:19 – We love others because He first loved us. Of course, sometimes we need to remove the wall we have put up between us and God. How we see God affects everything, especially our relationship with ourselves and others. Do you see God as an inclusive, encouraging, purposeful, empowering, authentic, giving, caring, gentle, respectful, compassionate, comforting, kind and humble, forgiving, honouring and loving God? How we see God affects our relationship with Him, and only we can bring down the wall between us and Him. However, it helps to know he already unconditionally accepts us – He desperately want relationship with us. When we are secure in His love then we can love others.
We are made for relationship. The greatest commandment implores us to be in loving relationship with God and others. Yet following the commandment is not always easy, and the world of interpersonal relationships can be fraught with barriers that do not serve healthy relationship. We need to work on our own emotional and relational limits to openness and barriers to relationship. Sometimes in order to do so we will need help from others. We must also take responsibility for our influence on others. Sometimes we can be a hindrance to the journey of others, or we could be a help to them through our words and actions. In everything, though, we need relationship and help from God. You were made for relationship!
About the author: Susan Marcuccio is the NSW/ACT State Director of Chaplaincy Australia. Susan is also a Professional/Pastoral Supervisor and Chair of Training Standards with Australasian Association of Supervision. Susan is passionate about people being well trained to provide quality empathic care and support, and for people to engage in transformational learning.
[i] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead (New York, Penguin Books, 2015) 10-11.
[ii] Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes and When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Zondervan, 2008) 27
[iii] Stephen Roberts, Professional Spiritual& Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain’s Handbook (Woodstock, SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012) 92