Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Communication Cycle

Secure communications during wartime are critical. You never want your enemy to know your plans. The element of surprise can offer enormous advantages. So it has long been routine to encode military communications in order to deprive the enemy of critical knowledge. It follows that code-breaking is a big part of military intelligence. Just as you want your codes to be secure, you want to be able to read an enemy’s coded messages. During WWII the British were second to none in the art of code breaking. Bletchley Park was the home of Britain's codebreakers. The “boffins” at Bletchley regularly penetrated German codes, thereby shortening the war by years.

What is less obvious is that ALL of our communication is coded. Language is a form of code: an agreed upon way of communicating ideas via symbols from one brain to another. If you doubt this, just try reading Sanskrit. You’ll instantly realize that you don’t know the code. And what is true of verbal communication is just as true of nonverbal forms. In one culture failure to make eye contact is viewed with suspicion. We think the person is lying. In another culture to look another in the eyes is a sign of hostility and aggression. And that OK sign that Americans use? In Brazil that’s the equivalent of the raised middle finger so popular with some Beltway drivers.

Communication is difficult and imperfect, even assuming that all parties are honestly trying to communicate—something that’s not always the case. When you examine what’s involved in this surprisingly complex process, you will wonder how we ever accurately get our ideas across to another.

The woman on the left has an idea that she is trying to communicate to the man on the right. The process begins in the privacy of her brain where her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts give form and shape to an idea that she then encodes into language.

At this point her private thoughts become public behavior, a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication. It’s important to realize that in face-to-face communication as much as 93% of the communication is nonverbal. This reminds us of why, when dealing with an emotionally charged issue, a phone call—or worse, an email—is such a poor way to communicate. When there is a lot at stake in getting your message across accurately, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue.

Back to our diagram, the man must now decode—interpret—what he has just seen and heard. This happens in the privacy of his brain. And it all runs through a filter, the existence of which he is probably not even aware. It is a filter made up of his feelings, inferences, attitudes, and thoughts. And there is no reason to assume—in fact there is every reason NOT to assume—that her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts are the same or even comparable with the feelings, inferences, attitudes, and thoughts of the man. Our language, both verbal and nonverbal, picks up all kinds of subtle and highly personalized connotations during our lives, much of which we are not even conscious.

C.S. Lewis touched on this in The Screwtape Letters, in which the senior demon, Screwtape is instructing his junior tempter, Wormwood, in the fine art of ensnaring a human soul: “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother's eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her . . . . In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.”

So how do we reduce the likelihood of a breakdown in communication? There are many techniques that can come into play. Here are a couple basic ones:

1.      Paraphrase – Restate in your own words (not parroting) the content (words) of the other person’s verbal communication. You say something like, “Let me see if I understand what you just said…” Then you paraphrase. You then ask the other person to confirm that you got it right. It may take several cycles before both parties agree that accurate communication has taken place.

2.      Perception Check – A perception check is a guess at the emotional inner state of another person. It is guessing about another’s feelings based on what you have inferred from their body language, tone of voice, and choice of vocabulary. You are not TELLING the other person what they are feeling. That can be highly insulting. You are asking, in very tentative language, if you are correctly interpreting their feelings. A perception check would be something like this: “I am wondering if you might be upset about that. Am I right?” Done in a careful and sensitive way, a perception check is a very caring and loving think to do. It communicates that you are really listening and that it is important to you that you truly understand what the other person is trying to say.

Where paraphrasing focuses on the verbal component of communication, the perception check deals primarily with the 93% that is nonverbal. You need both. This closes the communication cycle, thus assuring the speaker that she is being heard and understood.

We live in a world where communication, particularly online communication, is devolving. Increasingly we seem to be expressing ourselves with little more than grunts, gestures, and the occasional blow to the head. As Christians, let’s take the lead in caring for others by actively listening; hearing what they are trying to say.

I am indebted to the work of Dr. John S. Savage, founder of L.E.A.D. Consultants, for much of this essay.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Walker

I’ve seen her in all kinds of weather: hot, muggy August afternoons, frigid January evenings, crisp autumn days, gentle spring mornings. In the face of blazing midsummer sunshine, drizzling rain, or spitting snow, she’s out there trudging up and down Boonsboro Road and Rivermont Avenue, logging her miles on Lynchburg’s north side. She covers a lot of ground in her walks. I’ve spotted her from as far west as the Boonsboro Kroger and as far east as Riverside Park—a good three miles apart.

Whatever the conditions or the time of day, her demeanor is never changing, a steady determined pace paired to a face set in stoic concentration. She neither smiles nor grimaces. She doesn’t look about. She just focuses on the task at hand—her walking. I’ve never seen her pause or break stride. Her legs move with the steady rhythm of a metronome. Hers is no casual stroll. She walks with purpose and intent.

I know neither her name nor her story. I’m lousy at guessing ages but she has clearly seen a lot of winters. Her hair is slate gray, her face, wrinkled and weathered. Year round she boasts a healthy tan from her many hours in the open air. Her eyes are bright and clear.

But whatever her story is, there is a tale of pain hidden inside it. Because like a torpedoed ship that’s taking water, she lists to the port. Her head and shoulder have a pronounced leftward tilt. Is she a recovering stroke victim? Was she involved in some terrible accident? Does she suffer from a birth defect that left her body forever twisted? I don’t know.

Many are the times that I have thought of stopping my car in a quest for answers to my questions. I’d like to hear her story. But I’ve always deferred. When I spot her she seems invariably to be going opposite my direction. By the time I pulled over, parked the car, and crossed the street, she would be hundreds of feet behind me and drawing away at a steady rate. Besides, it’s really none of my business and she might just remind me of that fact. And who knows what pain might accompany telling such a tale? Some experiences in life are best left undisturbed, buried in the past.

Still, we all go about telling our stories, whether intentionally or unwittingly. And that includes this nameless walker. By her actions, her body language, the constancy of her walking, she has told me that she is not a woman to be imprisoned by the pains of the past. She is not just a defenseless victim of circumstances. She is disciplined. By her steady stride she has taken control. She is claiming responsibility for her own future health and vitality. She is silently proclaiming to the world that she will not be kept down by circumstances.

I have also noticed that the time of day when she walks varies. That suggests to me that she is living for more than her own health—that her life is filled with other things—things that demand her time and around which she has to plan in order to log her miles each day. And that suggest to me that this is a well-rounded soul. It’s amazing what we can learn from the example of just a solitary woman taking a walk.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


While I led a Bible study last night at church, nine fellow Christians were being martyred in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. My brothers and sisters in Christ there were shot down in cold blood by a 21-year-old man who had just spent the previous hour seated among them as they prayed. Almost instantly the word “senseless” was used to describe this mass murder as police and city officials were asked to comment on the killings.

Certainly from the perspective of any reasonable, rational, normal person, “senseless” seems a perfectly appropriate word to apply to an act of violence perpetrated against innocent people who apparently had no previous connection with their killer. Because for most people, for people like you and me, we cannot make sense of something like this. It MAKES NO SENSE to us.

But we mustn't be too quick to label as senseless an act that may well have made perfect sense to Dylann Roof, now in police custody after a massive manhunt. Because the word “senseless” has different shades of meaning. One meaning certainly applies to what happened in Charleston last night. The other? Maybe not.

Most people would agree that these killings were senseless in the sense of being a stupid or foolish act. Whatever sick, dark, well of hate this deeply troubled young man drew from as his motivation for this vile act, he has accomplished nothing that will work to his or anyone else’s advantage. In addition to ending the lives of nine strangers and wrecking the lives of who knows how many others, he has effectively destroyed his own life as well. If that’s not senseless in the sense of being stupid, then I don’t know what stupid is.

But senseless has another meaning. It can refer to actions that lack mental perception or comprehension. We thus might refer to the acts of an idiot or a madman as senseless. And it may prove that as the backstory of this awful deed unfolds we will learn that Dylann Roof is simply deranged and will find his place in history among the annals of the criminally insane.

But there’s another possibility. There is such a thing as evil on this earth; evil that brings with it its own worldview. From within the framework of a sin-sick soul, seen through the worldview—the lens if you would—of evil, this deed may well have made perfect sense. Actions that most people would view as random and irrational may have seemed perfectly logical and coherent to this angry young man. Such evil is the rotten fruit of a series of bad choices. And while there may be all kinds of mitigating circumstances, they remain choices—acts of deliberate and conscious will—for which the killer is morally culpable and responsible. Only time will tell if the murders in Charleston were senseless in this second meaning of the term, the act of a madman, or if they are simply and horribly an act of unspeakable evil.

I hope and pray that Dylann Roof is insane, that he is barking at the moon mad, and that he will be safely locked away for the rest of his life. Because if he is not, then the only alternative is that this young man is the living personification of evil who has taken a giant step toward eternal damnation. For if the first alternative is likened to a rabid dog, dangerous but random in his attacks, then the other is a dangerous and calculating predator—a hungry tiger on the hunt, out to make a kill.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Politically Incorrect Response to the Charlie Hebdo Attack

I did a quick internet survey by country of the global state of some basic western values. This was not a scientific study, so I don’t claim precision in the results. But anybody can replicate my Google search for “the ten worst countries for freedom of speech,” for example, and find multiple lists from a wide range of sources that all show very similar outcomes. I arbitrarily chose 8 categories: basic human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, civil rights for women, political corruption, illiteracy, and infant mortality. That’s 8 categories with 10 results for each. 33 nations provided the 80 possible results, with 19 countries appearing on more than one listing. In fact, 6 countries were listed 4 or more times for a total of 30. These included: Somalia (6), Syria (6), Afghanistan (5), Sudan (5), Iran (4), and North Korea (4).

Out of the 33 nations, 19 (58%) have a Muslim majority. In nearly every one of these cases that majority accounts for over 90% of the population. 4 of the countries have Muslim populations of 25-50%. 3 of the countries are totalitarian communist states. And of the six countries that showed up the most often, all but one are Muslim states in which the practice of Islam is almost universal. The sole exception was North Korea. And these five Muslim countries are all well-documented centers of activity by radical jihadist terror groups.

Ø  Basic human rights, 8 have a Muslim majority.
Ø  Freedom of religion, 8 have a Muslim majority, a 9th (Eritrea) is 50% Muslim.
Ø  Freedom of speech, 5 have a Muslim majority.
Ø  Freedom of the press, 5 have a Muslim majority, plus Eritrea.
Ø  Civil rights for women, 9 have a Muslim majority.
Ø  Corruption, 8 have a Muslim majority.
Ø  Illiteracy, 7 have a Muslim majority.
Ø  Infant mortality, 8 have a Muslim majority.

I could have used other categories with comparable results. For example, there are only 7 nations on earth where a conviction for homosexual acts can bring a death penalty. All are Muslim states. Likewise the nations where anti-Semitism is widespread are almost all Muslim states.

So I ask myself why many North Americans and Western Europeans on the political Left are so quick to accommodate or defend or apologize for Muslims in the face of repeat attacks on our society by Islamist radicals? The values I researched are hallmark values of liberal western democracies. They are widely regarded as the fundamental rights of all people everywhere. They are all values long cherished in post-Enlightenment societies. I am most amazed when I hear apologists for jihadists among the Hollywood establishment. Don’t these people realize that if Sharia law were in place in California they would all be condemned as whores, adulterers, and blasphemers and quickly put to death? Have they learned nothing at all from the beheading of Western journalists? Where is their sense of self-preservation? The jihadists hate us. And a big reason is the perception of our society that they have gotten from our movies and TV shows! A staggering percentage of Muslims in these most repressive countries really do believe that Hollywood accurately portrays the values and lifestyles of average everyday Americans. We only talk about culture wars among ourselves, relying on such weapons as pontificating politicians and talk radio hosts. The jihadists are waging a real culture war—with real bullets.

Certainly it is true that only a small minority in the Muslim community actively supports the jihadists and an even smaller minority is personally engaged in violence. But it is also true that when it comes to the basic values cherished by Western democracies, no Muslim society measures up to our standards. There has never been a democracy in the majority Muslim world. Not one. Not in Africa, not in the Middle East, not in Asia. Not in poor countries like Yemen. Not in rich countries like the United Arab Emirates. What’s more, those Muslim countries where the values listed above are most in evidence are the ones that have become the most secularized. Here is the stark contrast between Muslim and Christian societies. In places where Christians become serious about following the teachings of Jesus we see these liberal social values increase. Precisely the opposite occurs when Muslims become zealous about following the teachings of Mohammed.

Islam is simply not a religion that supports some of the most fundamental values cherished by western democracies. Nowhere is that more evident than the typical Muslim attitude toward our First Amendment rights. It is not possible to live your life faithfully guided by the teachings of the Quran and at the same time embrace freedom of religion and freedom of speech. For Muslims are compelled by the Quran to defend the honor of their founder, if necessary by the sword. Christians are under no such command. We believe Jesus Christ is more than able to defend his own honor. He called us to carry not a sword but a cross. We are his witnesses, not his Pretorian Guard. Charlie Hebdo didn’t just lampoon Islam. They have published stuff similarly blasphemous in the eyes of Jews and Christians. But it was only Muslims that responded with lethal violence. We have equally satirical publications in the U.S. The Onion can be hysterically funny. But some of what they write is deeply offensive to any Christian… but we don’t firebomb their offices. The difference is vividly symbolized in two flags.

The Christian flag...

And the flag of a terrorist group, the Caucasian Mujahideen, one of many Muslim flags prominently featuring a sword...

 I don’t agree with those who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Ours is no theocracy. But it most definitely was established on a Judeo-Christian foundation of what constitutes basic human rights. Getting that fact straight is an essential first step if we wish to avoid more atrocities like those in France this week. The American people, and our public officials in particular, have an opportunity to learn some painful but important lessons from this week’s horrible attacks. I hope everybody is taking notes.