Effective Communication, Part 1: How to avoid being a “master of disguise”

 Several years ago, I heard a sound bite from the movie “The Master of Disguise.” Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the movie, as I’ve never seen the whole show. In this scene, the “Master of Disguise,” played by Dana Carvey, dismissively (and humorously) cuts off a conversation:


It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? (And, of course, kids everywhere would probably love saying this to their parents during conversations about homework, chores, or curfews!)

Imagine, though, that you were trying to communicate something really important to someone…perhaps you were trying to share your grief about a recent event in your life, or your heartache about a broken relationship…and you got this response. Or maybe, you are a parent of a child with disabilities, and you’re inquiring about a youth event your child desperately wants to attend. Perhaps you’re a Sunday School teacher, searching for the words to describe a child’s dangerous behavior to a parent. Imagine this response… How might you feel then?

My role as a consultant allows me to hear lots of conversations about kids with disabilities. Over the years,  I’ve heard many such ‘communication roadblocks” spoken by pastors, teachers, administrators and parents. Often, the comments appear, on the surface, to be assertive or instructive, but really, they’re communication STOP signs in disguise.

One such roadblock is what I call the Knowledge Master. This type of communication is designed to put the listener in his/her place by asserting expertise, and insinuating that the listener will NEVER master the concept. Here are a few examples:

  • “Oh, you don’t understand…you’ve never led a group trip before.”
  • “You just don’t get it…you’ve never been a pastor.”
  • “You wouldn’t understand… YOU don’t have a child with ADHD.”
  • “Do you even KNOW how to work with kids who have learning disabilities?”

Before we collectively gasp and cluck our tongues to berate these speakers, let’s not be hasty. We’ve ALL said things like this, haven’t we?

In the short-run, we’ve probably gotten what we wanted, too: no more talking! However, as the Church, we need to be interested in the long run…we have a long-term responsibility to encourage and teach each other, and this kind of communication just doesn’t work!

So, how do we address this particular “Knowledge Master” sort of problem?

Rather than using your expertise  “bully” the listener, take a deep breath. Reflect back what you are hearing, and offer your insight–assertively, but kindly.

Instead of “You don’t understand…you’ve never led a group trip,” try this: “It sounds like you would like us to do some scripted social skills training while we’re on the trip. That’s really important to your child’s progress in school and in youth group. What I know to be true is that our travel time and project time on the trip is very unpredictable, and I know I won’t be able to follow the script. However, I can be sure that your child is paired with Janie, our college volunteer. She has a great rapport with your child, and she has helped him in group discussions for the last semester. Let’s brainstorm some other ideas that will help to make this trip meaningful.”

And now, let’s address this from the parent side:

Instead of “You wouldn’t understand…YOU don’t have a child with ADHD,” consider the following: “I’m glad you told me about my child’s tendency to interrupt–and disrupt–your class. I really understand your frustration! One thing that has worked for us at home is to have Gracie sit right near me during bedtime stories. I tap her on the shoulder to remind her to give her brother a turn to read. And at dinner, I have learned that complimenting her manners often helps her to show me how polite she can be. How can I support you as you work with her? What might work in Sunday School?”

These are just examples, of course, and scripted blog conversations are much easier than in-the-heat-of-the-moment talks. Perhaps that is why God put our tongues so close to our teeth…so we can quickly bite our tongues instead of saying something we might regret! (I have plenty of bite marks on my tongue to prove that this method IS effective!) Sometimes it’s best to say, “Let me think about that…” allowing yourself some time to reflect and formulate a rational and relationship-building response.

Yours for kind and candid conversation…

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