Effective Communication Part 3: Don’t be a Cinderella Step Sister

I love fairy tales, don’t you? They teach some wonderful lessons while entertaining us with princes, clever animals, poison apples and magic kisses. And, of course, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

A favorite fairy tale is Cinderella…I love when the pumpkin  turns into a coach! I must confess, though, that I always have felt a bit sorry for Cinderella’s step sisters! The thought of them shoving their ungainly, bunion-covered feet into those tiny pumps seems so humiliating. They also made me  angry! How dare they try to push their way into a shoe that was designed uniquely for Cinderella!

Sometimes, this occurs outside of fairy tales through flawed communication. Consider the following quotes from teachers and ministry professionals:

  • “I used to volunteer for a special needs camp, so I know all about your experiences.”
  • “You don’t need to explain your child’s issues. I have three kids of my own.”
  • “We get it. We’ve dealt with kids just like yours before. We don’t need more information.”

Depending on the tone and context in which these statements were delivered, they could be construed as comforting to a parent. When a parent has a strong relationship with a teacher or ministry volunteer, these statements may be supportive and encourage peace of mind. However, each of these statements can be a huge roadblock to communication and relationships. When a speaker assumes that he or she knows exactly what a parent is experiencing, communication is abruptly and painfully halted. Using our Step Sister analogy, the speaker is shoving his/her foot into a shoe that was custom-made for someone else. It doesn’t fit.

Just like Cinderella’s custom-made slipper, WE are custom-made by God…and so are our children. Our unique personalities and perceptions shape our journeys, and while we may share some common knowledge,  it’s presumptuous to say, “I know all about your experience.”

Because you don’t

You don’t the shame that mom felt as she tried to manage her child’s outburst in the middle of a first communion service
You don’t know the ache in that dad’s heart as he willed his 11 year-old daughter to write the letters in her name
You don’t know the agony those parents experienced as they watched their child being taken away in handcuffs.

Even if you have experienced those situations in your own parenting, it is important not to diminish the parents’ grief by dismissing them with “I know all about that.”

Instead, offer compassion and mercy through your words:
“Tell me about what you’re experiencing.”
“I can’t imagine the ache in your heart.”
“What a terrible thing to happen in your family. I’m so sorry!”

As your conversation continues, try finding solutions:
“What would make you feel better?”
“Can I do something that would be helpful? What can I do?”
“How can we learn more so that church can be a safe and successful place for your family?”

Remember that sometimes, thorough communication has to wait. If a parent is clamoring for your attention on Sunday morning, just as you are ready to preach or teach a lesson, it’s okay to make arrangements to talk later: “I’m going in to teach the middle schoolers now, so I’m not going to be able to focus on what you’re telling me. Can we meet after church and set up a time?”

Remember, too, that YOU have unique “shoes,” too…your own experiences, talents and abilities will allow you to support and minister in a way no one else can…and undoubtedly, you are a tremendous blessing to families as you use these gifts.

Yours for happy endings~

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