Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How Good Questions Build Strong Relationships

The heart of this blog is relationships, how to enjoy them, and how to repair them when they have broken down. For that reason, I write a good deal about communication. Communication is the life blood of relationships. Couples that communicate well tend to have strong marriages. Families that communicate well handle adversity better than other families. Work places where good communication exists are more productive and more enjoyable. One component of good communication that is often overlooked is the importance of good questions. Communication thrives when it includes the right kind of questions. Here are a few of the things good questions can do to make your communication better and your relationships stronger:

Good Questions Invite Conversation

Good questions are open-ended, that is, they can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, but invite greater explanation. If someone in your family or work isn’t incredibly talkative, a good question will keep them from simply answering yes or no. Sometimes people just need to find a comfort level in a conversation before they open up and relax. Good questions will help them do that. For example, “Did you go to the game this weekend?” isn’t a good question. “How was the game this weekend?” is much more likely to start a conversation.

Good Questions Welcome Different Opinions

We’ve all been in conversations where someone is rambling on about how much they hate this political candidate and that new album, and about how anyone who eats fast food is irresponsible. It’s hard to find a place in that conversation to offer up that you are actually voting for the candidate that they hate so much, and that you just bought that new album which you plan to listen to on the way home after you hit the McDonald’s drive-thru. Good questions allows people to have their own opinion. If you can’t talk with someone you disagree with, you will spend your life talking with the small number of people who think exactly as you do, or with people who don’t mind lying to you to humor you. Differences are not to be feared. We can learn from them, and they can often add to our enjoyment of the other person. Good questions allow honest disagreement.

Good Questions Show That I Care

It can be easy to talk about what’s going on with me without even realizing that we haven’t talked about you yet. Good questions show that I care about what’s going on with you. They allow me to hear about your day and learn more about you. When you are asked a question and you feel that the person asking really cares about the answer, you feel valued. That value will make the conversation flow more smoothly and will add enjoyment to the relationship.

Struggling with a relationship in your life? Take a second to think up some good questions. It will make the communication easier and over time will make the relationship stronger.

Photo Courtesy of Death To Stock Photo

Friday, September 25, 2015

20 Albums In 20 Weeks: After All These Years by Andrew Peterson

We have reached the half-way point in our exploration of 20 Albums in 20 Weeks. In case you missed a week, here are links to each of the albums we have look at so far:

 This week’s album is After All These Years: A Collection by Andrew Peterson. I was a slow convert to Peterson’s music. His voice was different than I expected. The intelligence of his lyrics drew me in, however, and before long his music became a welcome retreat for me.

What They Think

There aren’t a lot of reviews out there for Peterson’s work. You are more likely to find reviews on his books (he’s a talented author as well) than you are for his 9 full length albums. He is well-respected in Christian music circles, even though he doesn’t have a pop sound or produce stadium shaking worship songs.

What I Think

Peterson’s music is intelligent and honest. The folk edges of his voice and accompanying music are relaxing and encourage contemplation. After All These Years: A Collection offers a great selection of his songs as well as a few new ones. I think that Peterson’s work is some of the most worshipful out there today.

Favorite Lyric

If a man has got to listen 
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes 
Of all the happiness they've got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even follower's get lost
Cause we all get lost sometimes

Where It Fits

I will continue to escape into Peterson's music for times of reflection and to relax. When life gets hectic and I'm losing my bearings I'm as likely to go to this album as to anything else I have. If you are needing some new insight into the Christian life, or just some moments of calm and contemplation, this album is a great place to start. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Not All Communication Is Relational: How To Know If You Are Relating When You Communicate

As a minister and counselor, I’ve sat across from countless couples who were seeking to restore, repair, or rebuild their families. When I asked what they felt the biggest problem in their relationship was, the overwhelming majority answered, “communication”. Everyone knows that communication is an essential component of healthy relationships, but did you know that not all communication is relational? Here are three signs that your communication isn’t making your relationships stronger:

Your communication is only to give or receive information.

Many people only communicate when they need to find out information. “What time is soccer practice tomorrow?” Are you picking up dinner tomorrow night or should we make something here?” “Did you pay the electric bill last month?” This sort of communication is important, and relationships struggle without it. If, however, this is the only communication that’s going on in your family, the bonds that hold you together are growing weaker by the day. Communication isn’t always about getting answers, sometimes it’s about being known. There needs to be conversations that take place simply to let the other person know what’s on your mind. Sometimes we just need to talk things out, other times we simply need to be heard.

Your communication doesn’t foster a greater understanding of the other person.

This builds on the last point. Healthy communication isn’t just about information: “how much did the plumber charge us?”, it’s about the people who are talking back and forth. The amount of the plumber's bill is important, but it’s also important to know why your wife is so afraid of the family running out of money. You should learn why your husband feels humiliated to have someone else make repairs in the house, or maybe you should find out why your spouse seems checked out about the whole process. Communicating is a way of getting to know the people around you better,and every challenge that comes up is an opportunity to communicate and connect.  If none of your conversations lead to a better understanding of the person you are talking to, then you are missing something.

Your communication is all statements and no questions.

When someone never asks questions you can assume that they either want to control the conversation they are having or that they don’t really care what you think about things. Questions open people up. When I ask a question, I am making space for a conversation to go someplace I didn’t foresee, which can be scary, but healthy.  Questions allow my conversations to become less about me and more about the person I am talking to. When two people in a relationship are willing to ask honest questions from time to time, and not simply blurt out what they think, the relationship grows stronger.

All relationships need communication, but all communication isn’t relational. Take some time today and ask the people around you a few questions and get to know them better. You will be communicating more effectively and your relationships will become more enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

How To Make Your Work Seem Less Like Work

I don’t know where the following quote originated, but I’ve heard it in several places over the years:

                If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

The idea is that it’s much better to do work that you love. Your passion for your work will make what you do seem less like work and more meaningful and enjoyable. For many people though, this is not an option. Many of you may be reading this and thinking, “my job pays the bills, that’s all it does, and right now I can’t change jobs”.  If you are stuck in a job you don’t love, each day can become a grind. It’s easy to wake up every morning with a feeling of dread about the day ahead. It becomes an almost unbearable weight to live under.  There are ways, however, to make your work seem less like work. Whether you love your job, or you are spending hours each night sending resumes across the country, these thoughts can improve your time at work:

Embrace the relational part of your work.

For work to be meaningful, it has to include a relational component. Odds are that your work for someone or that someone works for you. You may be part of a team that has to work together.  Find ways to encourage those around you. Take time to get to know them if you can.  It’s not always possible to get super close to the people at your work, but finding ways to enjoy the people around you can go a long way toward improving your work environment.

Special note to stay at home moms: this one can be a challenge for you. Your children will not meet your needs for relationship. So, embracing the relational part of your work may mean connecting with other moms in your community.  Children are takers by nature (it’s not malicious, it’s just what 3 year-olds do). They take time, attention, and energy. They are wonderful, but you need other relationships to stay healthy. So, find some other moms, schedule a play date, or call them on the phone. Many single moms feel very alone, and that can make your workday very difficult.

Embrace Your Measurables

Few things can be more frustrating and disheartening than feeling like what you do doesn’t make a difference. If you work with a group of people it’s possible to do an excellent job yourself, and still have the project fail. Or, you can put in tons of quality hours and not be able to see any impact for your effort.  If this is the case you have to find your measurables. Take time and establish some clarity about what you do. Set some clear daily goals for yourself. It may be 10 sales calls, 45 minutes of homework, or getting the dishes cleaned during naptime. Whatever it is, be clear and realistic about what you want to achieve and give yourself some credit when you get it done. Odds are you are getting a lot done, you just aren’t recognizing it!

Embrace God’s Approval

God has created you to find some satisfaction and fulfillment in work. Whether you mow yards, do homework, or raise children, God is pleased with your effort to take care of your part of the world. God is with you and not silently judging you from millions of miles away. Remember to pray about your day. What you do matters to God and more importantly, you matter to God.

I hope your work this week is satisfying and enjoyable, if not, I hope you’ll be able to take some of these steps to make your work seem less like work!

Photo Courtesy of Death To Stock Photo

Thursday, September 10, 2015

20 Albums In 20 Weeks: Strange Wilderness by Lord Huron

Many thanks to minister and music connoisseur Josh Rouse for his recommendation of Lord Huron!

What They Think
Spin Magazine considers Strange Trails an album that has unjustly been overlooked.1  Metacritic users rate the albums combine to average a score of 7.5 out of 10.2

What I Think
 I have a soft spot for Indie Folk music. I love Fleet Foxes and retreat to Bon Iver for a calm sound when days get a bit too hectic. While it seems that everyone is taking their shot at an Indie Folk album, Lord Huron hits the mark. The album has a slow and steady pace that settles in as you work your way through the album. It's an interested listen to say the least.  Everyone may be making a folk album right now, but Strange Trails is one that’s worth a listen.

Favorite Lyric
I am not the only traveler
Who has not repaid his debt
I’ve been searching for a trail to follow again
Take me back to the night we met
(from The Night We Met)

Where It Fits

This won’t be in my everyday playlist, but it’s excellent road-trip music. It is also a perfect soundtrack for Fall when things start getting a bit colder. If you haven’t listened to Lord Huron yet, check them out. You’ll be glad you did!

2- http://www.metacritic.com/music/strange-trails/lord-huron

Monday, September 7, 2015

Is Your Work Producing The Life You Want Most?

Children are wonderful. With my daughter starting her senior year of high school, I’ve been even more aware of how valuable she is and our moments together are. The church is quick to praise the benefits of family as a hub of growth and character development, and they are right to do so. Families are a wonderful gift and can be powerfully productive. In their attempts to praise the goodness of families, many within the church have stretched a verse from the Bible beyond its original meaning, leaving many people feeling discouraged and confused. The verse is found in a collection of poems and songs from the Old Testament. It reads,

“Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hands. How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them! He will not be put to shame when he confronts his accusers at the city gates.”                                                         Psalm 127:4-51

While these verses affirm that children are a wonderful thing, many have gone on from there to state that all families should have as many children as possible, or that the presence or number of children is a direct indication of how pleased God is with you. I’ve sat across from countless couples who have been exposed to this type of thinking. Their efforts to have children have failed, and broken and defeated they’ve asked, “what did we do to make God angry with us? What is it about us that keeps God from giving us children?”

The answer is nothing. God isn’t angry, and they haven’t done anything wrong. We live in a broken world, and everything bears the marks of that brokenness, including our bodies.

So, what do these verses mean?

The poem must be considered in its totality. It’s not a poem about whether you should have children, or why you may be unable to carry them. It’s a poem about work, specifically the kind of work that God calls us to. It opens with the statements that there are ways of building homes and guarding cities that are not effective. The writer also notes that it's pointless to wake up extra early and stay up extra late just to get a bit more done. Working your fingers to the bone may get you ahead in the short term, but it’s not how you were created to live.

For work to be all that it is supposed to be, it must be done with God. Work at its heart is to be a relational activity. Not only should work begin in relationship, but it’s real value is that it also produces relationship.  The poet uses child birth as an example of the type of work that we are called to. Child birth (at its healthiest) comes out of relationship. It also creates new relationship, between child and mother, and child and father, it even adds to the existing relationship between the husband and wife. 

So, the primary thrust of the passage is that the effort and hours of our life should begin with relationship with God and should result in relationship with other people. Those relationships (not just children, but all relationship) are like arrows in the quiver of a warrior. Our relationships make us strong. Lack of relationship can leave us empty. Unhealthy relationships can be incredibly painful.  We don't have full control over our relationships, and some of them may not end well, but they are worth our effort. They are worth attempting. 

So, does your work currently produce deeper and better relationships? Promotions are great. Raises are always welcome. Recognition of our efforts is rewarding. Relationship, however, is the true prize of life. They make life more enjoyable and make us more healthy. May you always have a quiver full!

Photo courtesy of Death To Stock Photo
1- Passage from the New Living Translation

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How To Receive The Advice You Desperately Need

As I have written often in this blog, communication is the lifeblood of relationships. That statement is not a new idea, but we often live as if we don’t believe it. Communication takes work. It’s a skill that has to be practiced and maintained. Samuel Johnson wrote about one component of good communication:

                “Advice is seldom welcome. And those who need it most, like it least.”

The ability to listen to things you may not want to hear, or to receive thoughts that may differ from your own is an elite-level communication skill. It’s easier to assume that you have things figured out and simply block out dissenting voices. Ignoring the advice or insight of others shuts down communication and will eventually damage the relationship. Here are three things you can do to be more open to the thoughts of others:

Ask For Input

Your co-workers, volunteers, or family members may not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. This is especially true if you have not received their input well in the past. The people around you have valuable thoughts and insight, but they might need an invitation to share it with you.

Appreciate All Advice

When people share their ideas with you, they are sometimes sharing something very personal. So, listen well. Make eye contact. Allow them to finish their thoughts before you jump in. When they have finished, thank them for their input, not in a quick way to end the conversation, but in a genuine way. Appreciating someone’s thoughts will often cause them to be more open to share them with you again in the future. 

Act On It, Sometimes

It wouldn’t be wise to act on every piece of advice that you are given. Your experience and wisdom matters too.  It’s also a bad idea to never act on what others tell you. If you never change your thinking after talking with someone else they will eventually stop sharing their thoughts. You know you aren’t perfect, that means that there are times when others thoughts are going to be better than yours. Practice the humility required to listen to others and change course when needed.

When you have the ability to hear hard things and to act accordingly, your relationships become more healthy, and you become more productive. It’s not always easy, but it’s a skill that you can develop with practice, and it’s a skill worth having. 

Photo Courtesy of Death To Stock Photo