Speaking with Truth and Love
About the Guest
Words are like seeds. It's best then to be purposeful with the words that you sow. Tim Muehlhoff, an associate professor of communications at Biola, encourages listeners to anticipate the effect their words have on others and to think twice before they speak. Tim explains that behind each communication problem is usually a heart problem, and cautions against exploding your emotions on others.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
Words are like seeds. It’s best to be purposeful with the words that you sow.
Speaking with Truth and Love
Bob: Have there been harsh or unkind words spoken in your marriage recently? Tim Muehlhoff says: “That’s not just a marriage issue. It’s a spiritual issue.”
Tim: One thing we forget about words is what Jesus said about them—that we’re going to be held accountable for every word we have uttered. He particularly isolates the word, “careless”—careless words. Jesus is saying, “No, no; I’m going to help hold you accountable to those words because it is showing Me what your heart is like.” I think that is powerful for us to remember—that the Judgment Seat—we’re going to have to give an account for all the words. Think about how many words that will be in an entire lifetime of a person.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, April 30th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Ultimately, the way to tame our tongue is to get to the heart of the issue. We’re going to talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember a message I heard from you—this had to be more than two decades ago. You had a message where you compared words with seeds. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Dennis: Yes. “What you plant is what you grow. So, be careful what you sow.”
Bob: You were really exhorting husbands and wives, at that point, to be very purposeful in how we communicate with one another—what we say, what we don’t say, how we say it—all of that. Communication is important.
Dennis: It is. It all came about, I really think, out of Proverbs, Chapter 18, verse 21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue. And those who love it will eat its fruits.” So, you really have to be careful of the words you sow—in your spouse, your children, in your world—because they are either going to grow life or they are going to result in death.
And we have a friend with us—at least he was a friend until we had a meal together.
Bob: —had lunch together. [Laughter]
Dennis: Then, we came into the studio here; but we’ve decided to go ahead—
Bob: We still like him; don’t we?!
Dennis: It was a close vote! [Laughter] But you and I voted, and it was a close vote. Anyway, Tim Muehlhoff joins us on FamilyLife Today. Dr. Muehlhoff, welcome to the broadcast.
Tim: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
Dennis: Tim has his PhD from Duke, and [Laughter] he is an associate—
Bob: Wait, he went to a different school. It was the same state.
Dennis: Oh, it’s UNC.
Bob: North Carolina is where he is from; yes. That’s right.
Dennis: But based upon the basketball season they just had, I heard he’s trying to transfer his PhD to Duke. He did go to the University of North Carolina. He is the associate professor of Communications at Biola University in Southern California. He and Noreen have been on the Weekend to Remember® speaker team—how many years now?
Tim: I think 18 years.
Dennis: Eighteen years.
Dennis: They have three children.
And Tim has written a book called I Beg to Differ. It’s subtitled Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love. Now, who hasn’t had some difficult conversations because the nature of any relationship is: “We’re going to have differences.”
Bob: Well, and you agree with Dennis that words are very powerful; right?
Tim: Oh, incredibly. That’s my key verse of life—is: “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” I think all of us have relationships where we’ve seen both happen, either intentionally or unintentionally. So, we need to figure out: “How can I purposefully make my conversations life-giving rather than uncivil and imparting death?”
Dennis: So, give us an illustration from the author.
Tim: I’m sure all listeners, who have teenagers, know the difficulty of sitting down with a teenager. You’re saying to yourself: “Don’t overreact. Be calm. You be the adult. Don’t respond to what they are doing”; and that lasts for all of—what—two seconds?
And then, pretty soon, you’re yelling. You’re saying, “…because I told you so”; and you just realize you’ve become your father.
We had neighbors—when we were in North Carolina—that we didn’t get along with—and horribly convicting—because you know I have a PhD in communication; I’m a follower of Christ. I have to go over to that house and apologize, like every other week, because I’d said something; or we tried to talk about it, and I’m the one who got angry. It kind of spiraled out of control, and emotions started to become very high.
So, because you know what to do does not necessarily help you. That’s why one key chapter in the book has to do with spiritual disciplines. You usually don’t see a chapter on spiritual disciplines in a book about conflict resolution or communication. But I think that is absolutely foundational to us being able to do what we feel like the Holy Spirit is leading us today—or what we know we should do—but doing it in the moment is very difficult.
Bob: You believe we are becoming increasingly careless with our words; right?
Tim: Yes. I think technology is really fostering that. We talk, all the time, with tweets. You get my instant reaction to something. We are producing so many words. It’s impossible to stop and reflect when you’re always communicating and narrating. What we need to do is step back and say: “But those words do impart life and death and are hugely important when it comes to a person’s self-esteem and how they see each other.”
There is a technique that we call “feed forward,” which is anticipating the effect that your words are going to have on a person. The book of James gets at this a little bit—
Tim: —when you imagine that your word could be a spark that could take a dry, rural area and turn it into a wildfire that would consume everything in its path.
Dennis: You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned James. I was thinking of James, Chapter 4, as you were talking. He asks a great question—he says, “What causes quarrels, and what causes fights among you?”—
—whether it is with your teenager, with your spouse, your neighbor, or a co-worker. He goes on. He says, “Is it not that your passions are at war within you?” He is beginning to touch on here—it really is a spiritual issue. You’ve got to go to life in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit wants us to measure our words and use our words carefully. He doesn’t want us to sow death in the life of another person.
Tim: Yet, we do not live a kind of life that would allow us to be the type of communicator that God wants us to be.
At our marriage conferences, we quote Peter. Peter says, “When cursed, I want you to give a blessing instead.” And that word, “blessing”—we get the English word, “eulogize,” which means to speak well of a person. Well, if I am to respond to my teenage son, or a co-worker, or a neighbor with a blessing—precisely in that moment when they’ve been mean to me or cursed me—I will have to live the kind of life that allows me to do that in the moment.
Tim: I think most of us, as Christians, we’re not living the kind of—
—lives that would allow us to do the things that the book of Proverbs would suggest—or James.
Bob: I think you make a great point because a lot of people will look at conflict in marriage and they’ll say: “We’re having this communication problem. We’re not communicating well with one another.” And part of what you are saying—if I hear you right—is: “If you have a communication problem, there is a heart problem behind it,” and, “Unless you deal with the heart problem, we can’t do a whole lot about your words. Now, we can help you with your words, but really getting the heart right is the first step”; isn’t it?
Tim: Right. It is back to what we were saying: “I can know what to do, but I might not want to do it—
Tim: —“or I’m unable to do it because I just don’t have that kind of spiritual or moral strength to actually do it.”
Dennis: Well, one of the things you talk about in your book—we get in a habit of just exploding our emotions, and we’re careless with our words. I want us to back up a second and just talk about how words really can bring death. You tell a story that occurred in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a few years ago—
Tim: Oh my goodness.
Dennis: —that really was a showstopper for me.
It showed how words can really impact a person’s performance.
Tim: Well, I’m from Detroit. I was born and raised in “Hockey Town”—Detroit, Michigan. So, we hate the New Jersey Devils—particularly, a man named Claude Lemieux, who is a phenomenal hockey player. He actually won the MVP of the Stanley Cup. And he just loves being hated. He’s the kind of guy you’d love to have on your team; but when he’s on the other team, you despise him.
So, they are in the Stanley Cup. He is going through a very bitter and public divorce. Matthew Barnaby decides to do some trash-talking to him—and just skates up to him and starts to ridicule him about his public divorce. Kerry Fraser, who wrote a book—he’s one of the top officials of hockey—Claude Lemieux skates up to him, with tears in his eyes, and pleads with Kerry Fraser, “Please make that man stop.”
Kerry Fraser later notes, “Claude Lemieux could have had a broken leg,”—
—“and he would have played in that game. Nothing would have kept him from winning the Stanley Cup; but here, somebody mentioning his divorce, literally reduced him to tears.” Kerry Fraser said, “I don’t know if he could have continued in the game if he didn’t go and actually talk to the referee and say: ‘Look, you’ve got to stop—this is dirty. You need to stop…’”
Bob: Tim, we undervalue how powerful our words are. All of us do. We don’t take full account of the fact that: “When I say something, that can be devastating,”—not just in the moment—but it can have a generational impact in a person’s life. That’s why words are so significant and why we need to be careful about this.
Tim: And as parents, especially. I have a good friend of mine who is a celebrated artist. He’s won national awards but has always questioned his work. When I got to know him, he mentioned—a long time ago—that one of his family members, in a moment of anger, called him, “Dumb.”
He never forgot it. So, here he wins all these awards. It is obvious people think his work is brilliant / artistic; but his self-esteem is governed by this one word, “Dumb.”
And to think that—I mean, I wonder what that family member would say—saying: “Oh, come on! I just said it in a moment of anger. You’ve been drawing on that for 20 / 30 years?” So, our self-perception or the things that we think are true about ourselves. I might be talkative. I might be quiet. Self-esteem is the value you give to the perception.
I have a student, who doesn’t really ever talk in class. Well, self-perception—I think that student would say: “Yes, I don’t really ever talk in class. That’s just not what I do.” Self-esteem would be: “Does he or she feel good about it?” They might feel that they are actually dumb, and that’s why they don’t want to say anything.
All of us are governed by our self-esteem. If we take a look at communication research, our self-esteem is really cemented by the words that people say to us—by what we call significant others.
I love what a friend of mine, who used to speak at our conferences, said, “Eventually, you get the spouse you deserve because you’ve created that person over time.” Think about that!
I’ve been married to Noreen 24 years. I’ve been the loud speaker in her life—either positively or negatively—I’ve cultivated her self-esteem. So, at the end of the day, I have the spouse that I have created.
Bob: That goes back, really, to what was the thesis of your book, Building Your Mate’s Self-Esteem. You were talking about how we have a power in one another’s lives for good or for ill.
Dennis: We do. And you can either get busy building, or you can use words to tear down and destroy another person. Unfortunately, marriage—because of the close proximity of two imperfect people—it really lends itself to a gravitational pull to become negative and to chip away.
I compared the tongue—in the book, Building Your Mate’s Self-Esteem—I compared it to an ice pick or a paint brush. Your tongue can be an—
—ice pick that chips away at your spouse’s net value, and net worth, and who they really are; or it can be used as a paint brush to paint in the numbers and fill in a beautiful picture.
I reflect back on four decades of marriage—and what’s the saying?—“I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.” And I’ve—as I’ve gotten older, one of the things I’ve tried to practice is just saying nothing. Just because you think it, it doesn’t need to be said. In fact, try to find a way to build up your spouse—and encourage him or her—and find a way to paint in the picture so that it’s beautiful.
Bob: And that’s where words can be equally powerful. We talk about the destructive power of words—but I’ve shared this story on FamilyLife Today—I don’t know that I’ve ever shared it with you, Tim. When I was a college freshman, I got a job at the campus radio station. I’d been on the air for maybe three or four weeks. I walked into the station one day. The station manager,—
—who was a faculty member at the college, said, “Where did you work before you worked here?” I said: “This is my first job in radio. I’ve never done anything.” He said, “Well, you’re doing a good job.” Well, I can show you, outside his office, where we had that conversation. I remember it vividly.
And what am I doing today; right? Here I am—on the radio. I don’t know if he played a part in that, but—
Dennis: Oh, yes, he did.
Bob: I don’t know how—
Dennis: You know he did.
Bob: —yes; I don’t know how great a part he played, but it was a part. Sure.
Tim: Yes. One thing we forget about words is what Jesus said about them. We are going to be held accountable for every word we have uttered. Now, why would Jesus make such a big deal about words? Because that is how you can tell what a person’s heart is like.
I had an interesting experience at Biola. They started taping classrooms to put online. I’ll never forget the first day when I started and saw the red light on, above the camera. I suddenly realized,—
—“Everything I’m saying is going to be recorded, downloaded, and will be up on the internet in the next couple days.” It radically changed what I said—even jokes that I would just kind of throw off to the side.
I do think Jesus is saying, “I’m going to hold you accountable for each one of those words.” He particularly isolates the word, “careless”—careless words. And by careless, I think He means words that we thought had no significance—so, I just take that word—I say it. I don’t even need to think about that because I’m just throwing it out there—talk about tweeting.
But Jesus is saying, “No, no, no; I’m going to hold you accountable to those words because it is showing Me what your heart is like.” I think that’s powerful for us to remember—that the Judgment Seat—we’re going to have to give an account for all the words. Think about how many words that will be in the entire lifetime of a person.
Bob: Well, it’s interesting to me too—you paid attention to the red light on the camera—but there were 30, 40, or 50 recording devices sitting in your classroom—
Bob: —because everything you were saying was being imprinted on them. But for some reason, when we are just talking, person to person—and we think, “This is
casual / this is comfortable,” we lose sight of the fact that we are making a mark on the lives of the people we’re talking to.
Dennis: We do. And one of the things you do—Tim—that I really like—you kind of boiled down a communication climate into four components that foster good communication. I loved the first one which is: “Acknowledgment of the person.”
Tim: We make the mistake of equating acknowledgment with condoning. The mere fact that I acknowledge you doesn’t mean that I condone your argument. It doesn’t even mean that I agree with your argument. It simply means I think your argument is worth listening to.
Tim: Social critic, William James, once thought, “The worst punishment I could conceive of was a person walking through a crowd and not being acknowledged.” So, if I acknowledge the viewpoint of my co-worker—
—it doesn’t mean that I agree with his or her perspective. If I acknowledge the weight of my son’s—my teenage son’s—argument, it doesn’t mean that I’m condoning what they believe.
In one of my classes—this may be a little controversial—I had them read the Quran, cover to cover, because, if we are to be good Christian communicators and take seriously Jesus’ admonition that we are to go into all parts of the world with the gospel, then, we probably need to understand what one out of every five people in the world subscribes to—Islam.
Well, when I gave the assignment, I got a reaction from both parents and students, saying, “I don’t want to read the Quran.” “Well, have you ever read the Quran?” “No.” “Well, why wouldn’t you want to read it?” “Well, I disagree with it.” “But you’ve never read it!” “No, I don’t need to read it to disagree with it.” I said: “I’m not asking you to agree with the Quran. I, first, want you to just simply understand what the Quran is saying. Then, you can evaluate it.”
See, there are two forms of listening. We get these confused—the order of it.
There is listening to understand and listening to evaluate. We always should start with simply to listen to understand what a person has to say and ask questions. I don’t need to jump in and disagree as I’m listening to understand where you’re coming from.
Dennis: You don’t want to build your case, at that point—just affirm the person for what they think and what they are feeling.
Tim: And in a perfect situation, I wouldn’t even build the case, mentally. We call that defensive listening—as I’m listening to you, I’m mentally playing chess with you—moving your arguments to a certain position. Finally, I can trump you—and check mate—the debate is over. So, even though a person may not, technically, be listening to evaluate—mentally, they really are: “I’m listening to you—looking for arguments that I could poke holes into.” It really takes a gifted communicator to sincerely listen, initially.
And the part we are going to get to later—the four-part communication model that I advocate in the book—the first step is simply, “Listening.” As Scott Peck once said, “The number one way to love a person, simply, listen to them”—
—to affirm them.
CBS News did this great bit. It was really a niche market, where they had one correspondent. This is when they had telephone booths. He would go to a city—go into a telephone booth, take the phone book, and simply just randomly point to a name. Then, call that person and say: “Hey, I’m with CBS News. I’ve actually got a camera crew. Can we come over and interview you?”
People were like: “You don’t want to interview me. You must have me mistaken.” He said: “No, no; no. Is your name So-and-so?” “Yes.” “I want to come to your house and interview you.” If they agreed, he’d show up with a camera crew, sit down, and interview that person. It was so esteeming for that person—to say, “You really care about my story, really?” “Yes.” And that’s one of the most life-giving things we can do for another person—is to say, “I want to hear your story.”
The Harvard Negotiation Project says, “The biggest mistake we make with people is we just trade conclusions.
We do not trade or share: ‘How I arrived at that conclusion.’” That’s incredibly important—that I get the backstory of your convictions.
Dennis: Another component that you talk about that creates a good communication climate is really one of those kind of “Duhs”; but it really is good to talk about it. It’s commitment. You have a quote by Julia Wood, who is a relationship expert. I really liked this quote. She says, “The hallmark of commitment is the assumption of a future.” So, if you think about conflict in a relationship, there is a whole lot more safety when there is the assumption of a future together.
Tim: Well, in marriage, it’s undeniable—to say, “I am committed to you regardless of where this is going to take us—this particular disagreement. I want you to know that I love you, respect you, and I’m committed to you.” To your teenage son or daughter: “I want you to know my love isn’t up for question in this conversation. We may disagree with each other,—
—but I want you to know that I love you and I’m committed to you.”
I think we need to do that with non-Christian neighbors, as well, to say: “Hey, listen. I’m committed to our friendship. I don’t think this disagreement is going to stop the friendship, on my end.”
So, quickly, in today’s culture war atmosphere, we get this attitude of: “If you don’t agree with me, I’m taking my toys and leaving. I will end this relationship over this particular issue because it’s that important to me.” To reaffirm commitment to a person is to give them the freedom to work out our disagreements, and it’s not going to end that relationship.
Dennis: That does mean, however, that you have to fill in the blanks after you make that statement. You have to behave in a way that doesn’t withdraw from the relationship—doesn’t punish the other person when they don’t come over to your side and immediately agree with you. Especially in marriage, you’ve got to make sure, as we mentioned earlier, when there is an insult that comes your way, you give a blessing instead. You keep on loving, and you keep on hanging in there.
And that’s what, I think—I think that’s why the Bible is such a relevant book.
It talks about real people who hurt one another and gives them a game plan for how to have a hopeful future.
Bob: Well, and you have been through the Scriptures to see what they say to us about how we are to navigate difficult conversations and to do it with truth and love. That’s what’s at the heart of your book, I Beg to Differ, which we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
I think there are, probably, a number of husbands and wives who find themselves in the same place when they try to communicate with one another. They are just getting hung up as they try to express themselves and listen to one another. This book could be very helpful for them. We’ve got copies of it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Let me encourage our listeners, “Go to FamilyLifeToday.com”—which by the way, just got a very nice new facelift. If you haven’t been to the website, you ought to see it. The team has done a nice job fixing up our website.
So, go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
In the upper left-hand corner of the site, you’ll see a box that says, “Go Deeper.” When you click on that box, it’ll take you to where you can get information about Tim Muehlhoff’s book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love. You can order from us, online, if you’d like, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
You know our goal, here at FamilyLife Today, is to provide practical, biblical help for your marriage and for your family, day-in and day-out. We believe your marriage and your family relationships are so critical that we need to be thinking biblically about how we navigate these relationships every day. That’s why FamilyLife Today is here.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue to talk with Tim Muehlhoff about what we do in marriage when our communication is going sideways: “How do we do a better job of expressing ourselves to one another and listening to one another?” We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Hope you can tune in.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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