Monday, July 2, 2012

The Limits of Verbal Communication: Part of a Conversation

            I like words; they serve me as a preacher and teacher in the same way that tools serve the carpenter, and it is through words that I earn my living.  But words alone have their limits.  Words alone serve to reach the mind of another, but for total communication, one also needs a bodily presence.
            This is not to devalue words and their power to inform.  I remember in college being converted from pacifism to non-pacifism through reading the words of Martin Luther, in his tract Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved, written in 1527.  Luther’s mind reached across the centuries to touch mine, and his words succeeded in winning me over to his point of view.  Words retain their power to influence the mind of another, as mind meets mind.
            But for a more total communication, something more is needed than words alone.  That is why I prefer a phone call to an email, and a visit to a phone call.  Experts tell me that about 80% of communication is non-verbal, consisting of such things as tone of voice, body language, and speed of speech.  I’m not able to verify the percentage, but certainly most of truly effective communication is non-verbal.  I recall having to confess a person while visiting the church of another priest, and the person spoke no English.  (I remain tragically unilingual.)  The confession therefore was in a language foreign to me.  I could not, of course, offer the customary words of counsel afterward, but I did understand from the non-verbal parts of our encounter that this was a person who fervently repented of their sins, and who sought the mercy of God.  I was able therefore to offer sacramental absolution, even though I did not understand the words of the confession.  (I may add that such confessions are, and should be, a rarity.)
            The limits of verbal communication are also why written sermons which one reads in a book are less effective than sermons actually heard in church.  Preachers do not simply aim at the minds of their congregations, but also at their hearts; their aim is not only to impart data, but to transform life.  To succeed at such a task, one needs to communicate the Message at the deepest level, not only offering words, but also driving them home through the fervency of body language and dramatic rhetorical device.  The preacher knows (or should know) that he is not simply passing along information, like a person sharing a recipe, but striving for the souls of men.   One needs to look into the eyes of the one receiving the words, for it is through the eyes that one reaches the heart.  (That is also why preachers should avoid preaching from a manuscript, for one cannot simultaneously look at the notes and at the hearer.) 
            Words alone are wonderful, but for total communication such as is needed to communicate the Gospel, often they are not enough.  God knew this too.  That is why He not only sent words through the prophets, but embodied the Word in the Incarnation of His Son.  Bodily presence can transform words into a sacramental encounter, and it is this encounter which is the preacher’s goal.

For other voices in this conversation about words, see:


  1. An additional point about hearing a sermon in church rather than reading it in a book is that one has just heard the epistle and gospel read, and one is surrounded by the ikons of the saints and by the faithful gathered for worship. One hears as part of a community, rather than as a private individual.

  2. As a writer and avid reader, I love the written word, and I do feel as though it can reach me, emotionally, and can even become a conversation. Just as viewing and venerating an icon can become a conversation. Even viewing a piece of secular art.

    But I do find myself at times reading a passage from a book aloud, in order to better hear the author's voice. I almost always read poetry aloud for the same reason. And I love to hear an author read her own words and offer a Q&A a the end of the reading. Maybe it's that conversation you're talking about that I'm craving.

    That craving often drives me to the movies to hear the words from a favorite book spoken aloud by actors, which can either be exhilarating or disappointing, depending upon the skill of the screenwriter, the actors, and the director.

    On a spiritual level, the most powerful example of this is the reading of Holy Scriptures--especially the Gospel. I can read them alone at home, for my personal edification. But when the Gospel is read by the priest as part of the Divine Liturgy, something else is at work: the washing of the water with the Word. The written words become sacramental. They become part of the conversation between priest and laity, between God and man.

    Good post, Father Lawrence. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Really appreciated the post, Father. So much of the act of communication is in truth done through the interaction of word with our other senses - our hearing, our seeing, our feeling, etc. That human fullness greatly increases our possibility of true understanding. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Non-Verbal Communication is what makes and breaks all kinds of relationships. And for that reason there is much misreading and misunderstanding of almost any kind of intercommunication within any kind of relationship.

    It takes self-discipline to be attentive...listening...feeling...discerning...reflective in order to not misinterpret and/or misunderstand non-verbal communication. Not everyone is up to the challenge of non-verbal communication even though they can casually engage in it with limited attention.

    Although it can be risky, I have discovered through personal experience that personal correspondence can sometimes be the only way to meaningfully interact with the other because face to face intercommunication did not succeed. Prayer and stillness are the bedrock for effective and meaningful verbal and non-verbal communication.


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