“Oh. My. Word.” That was my unsophisticated reaction to reading Ike Lasater’s Words That Work in Business: A Practical Guide to Effective Communication in the Workplace. (Yes, bad pun intended.) I always like to be pleasantly surprised by titles I thought would be underwhelming to read, but this little gem sparked something in me that will long endure. It gave me a new perspective on several key areas of my personal and professional life, so I need to spend more time with it. I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was riveted by it—and then jolted.
The author assumes prior knowledge of Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. But even without that knowledge, the reader can still infer the basics of NVC from Lasater’s book, consulting Rosenberg’s seminal work later. (NVC is about connecting with ourselves and others from the heart. It’s about seeing the humanity in everyone and recognizing our commonalities. It offers a simple yet effective framework to bring awareness to what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and how we’re listening to other people so we can communicate with better clarity and compassion. Rather than judging, blaming, or criticizing, we start on neutral common ground to share what’s important to us in order to connect with others on a more empathetic level by tuning in to what they’re needing, hoping, or desiring.)
I’ve already acknowledged in this series that sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. I admitted my need to be less of a “negaholic” and “complainiac” at times, but I wasn’t always sure how to go about doing that. In the previous post, I also noted that I need to “stay in conversation” and improve my skills in that area, too, but I wasn’t always sure how to do that, either. After reading Lasater, I had a much better track to run on for charting a new course.
The Past Is Present in Our Speech
In many ways, Words That Work in Business is something of a psychology of personal interaction. In it Lasater describes my upbringing perfectly:
I was implicitly taught how to analyze who was at fault, and thus who was to be blamed and punished. I learned how to protect myself from criticism, avoid punishment, and redirect blame. The results of this not-very-conscious process of blame and shame determined how I felt. My learning was how to avoid being blamed and punished; thus, I learned how to avoid what I did not want. This process did not help me learn what would enable me to flourish and throve or how to create the life I wanted.
Can I just go back in time and teach this book to my 17-year-old self? Better yet, can someone teach it to my parents so they can teach it to me? Or is it too late? If so, maybe I can just learn the principles in this book and model them for my grandkids (if I ever get any). Until then, maybe I can just start practicing with my colleagues until I get it right. Lasater’s “training wheels sentence” for NVC newbies is this:
“When I hear __________ , I feel __________, because I need __________. Would you be willing to __________?”
The concept is simple, but the implications for personal interaction are profound. In my world, for example, I’ve heard dozens of sermons on not judging others, but most of them were just negative approaches. “Thou shalt not!” But what is the positive practice to replace our incessant judging and criticizing? Lasater shows us. In fact, never before have I been so “lit up” by the appendices of a book. There Lasater gives us lists of helpful words and strategies for each of the blanks in the above “training wheels sentence.”
Preaching without Being Preachy
Does evangelicalism need a pioneer to explore these issues when it comes to homiletics? Which theological traditions might be open to such principles? Which would probably dismiss them out of hand? I have a few hunches, but that’s beside the point. I just placed another Rosenberg title on my Amazon wish list to help me pursue these stirrings: Practical Spirituality: The Spiritual Basis of Nonviolent Communication. All preachers want their words to “work” in the pulpit. Maybe there’s something here that can be helpful to us.
Quite honestly, I need to sit with this for a while. I think God is inviting me to something, though I’m not entirely sure what it is yet. In part, I’m wondering how NVC could apply to weekly preaching—where much damage is often done by our “violent” words to the congregation, unintentionally so but definitively, nonetheless. Alas, we preachers give ourselves a pass, ardently claiming “faithfulness to the sacred text” (and therefore faithfulness to God), even though we’re likely doing a lot of damage in the name of God. How can this be? I’m thinking more here about our homiletical posture than our sermonic content. How we say something can be just as important as what we say (cf. John 12:49).
Patience When We Blow It
Part of the joy in this approach is Lasater’s encouragement for us is to stop judging ourselves so harshly when we stumble in this area. This verbal life takes practice, he insists. Lots of it. “Make requests of yourself and others, not demands. Learn the difference. Feel the difference. Learn to learn.”
But therein lies the problem. There’s too much I want to learn. And read. And study. But if I try to do it all, I suspect I’ll never get around to writing this dang dissertation that’s hanging over my head. So, I need divine grace at any moment to know which areas of study God wants me to pursue. On my own, I have too many. Maybe there’s a book out there that can help me with the Faustian curse that still haunts me from time to time. That, too, is likely connected to my own history of “growing up messed up.”
Thank God, then, for grace. When the Lord spoke his ultimate “Word” to us, it was Jesus, his divine Son, full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). Consequently, there’s always hope.
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 Ike Lasater, Words That Work in Business: A Practical Guide to Effective Communication in the Workplace (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2010), 8.
 Ibid., 1