The Method not the Message

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We often experience the challenge of communicating with other individuals in our lives, whether they are our coworker, family member, spouse, or our child. In some cases, we deliver an idea which is just informational, and it reaches the listener without problem. However, often times we stand in the position of trying to present an idea, give direction, offer advice, or give warning to the other person.  We have a pure message to deliver that is noble and worthy of being delivered. We have a good point that we want to make and we want to lift the attention of our companion to something they have not paid attention to.  Sometimes, we would like the other person to see things in a different light and perspective.  Or we aim to change or convince them to abandon their current position and align themselves with ours.  Our intention is pure and our message is worthy, but is that enough?

The challenge we often face is how to deliver that message? In short, what is the method or approach that we use to communicate with the other person?  This is where the majority of us fail most of the time and hence, our message does not reach the ear, or it reaches in a distorted or disturbing manner which in turn is received by rejection and apprehension.  For example, a parent may advice their child not to go out to play and to study and do their homework first.  They may choose the approach of yelling to their child and communicating that message in an unpleasant tone. Or they may choose the wise approach of communicating to their child in a compassionate manner where they motivate their child to do their work first and then play later.  If the child receives this kind and soft approach, they are more likely to listen, understand, and commit to the request of their parent.  Likewise, there are numerous similar examples in our daily lives where we can realize the consequences and results of different approaches.

Indeed, so important is this matter such that our Almighty Creator (SWT) has given us clear direction in the Holy Quran how to approach or advise others, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations with them in the best manner.” [16:125] The Holy Prophet (SA) was a perfect role model who embodied that spirit and among the tools he used was good morals and manners which Allah (SWT) praised in him, “And most surely you conform (yourself) to sublime morality.” [68:4] So much that Allah (SWT) has declared him to be the great example for mankind, “Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar for him who hopes in Allah and the latter day and remembers Allah much.” [33:21]

A perfect example of offering advice and enjoining the good is the famous story narrated in most authentic books of tradition that the Master Youth of Paradise, Imam Hasan and Husain once passed by an old man who performed ablution incorrectly and one of them said to his brother, “Come, let’s guide this man. They said, “Oh Shaykh, we would like to do Wudhoo, can you help us and tell us who has better Wudhoo from us and who does not.” So they both performed the ablution and when they were finished, the old man said, “By Allah, I was not doing my Wudhoo correctly! As for you, both of you did the Wudhoo correctly.” By their wisdom Imam Hasan and Husain chose to point to the man in an indirect manner what he was doing wrong by demonstrating the ablution themselves.  In this polite and dignifying manner, the old man did not feel that he was offended by two young children who knew better than him.

We present to you and to ourselves a few tips and reminders on what could be a proper and acceptable method in offering advice, sharing an opinion, or delivering a message:

1. Ask Permission. Unsolicited advice is a major cause of grief among friends and family members. Thus, asking if your advice is desired shows respect for others and prevents resentment.

2. Examine Your Motives. Make sure that you give the advice for the sake of Allah (SWT) and not for the sake of your personal glamour.

3. Watch Your Tone of Voice and Volume as well as Your Physical Expression which can speak negatively of your attitude in giving the advice.

4. Be Sensitive About How to Approach a Subject. Be aware of when and where you can bring up issues and make sure that you have enough time and privacy.

5. Avoid Giving Advice in the Form of Reprimand. A believer covers up and advises his or her fellow believers, whereas an evildoer exposes and humiliates.

6. Keep Privacy. It is narrated that the Prophet (SA) said, “Whoever pursues the shortcomings of people, Allah will pursue theirs.” Imam Ali (AS) also said, “To give advice in front of people is one form of censure.”

7. Listen First. Doing so makes it makes it more likely that the other will then listen to what we have to say. One needs connection before correction. It is empathic listening that establishes the connection.

8. Consider the Other’s Frame of Mind. Moments of emotional upheaval are not conducive to giving advice. Always state the positives first, this will make the other person relax and welcome your advice.

9. Offer Advice Without Insisting. Offer your insights, experiences, and ideas as if they were another point of view. By not insisting, you increase the chances for your words to be considered.  It is obligatory on the advisor to render sincere advice to others, but it is not his right to compel others to follow his advice.

10. Avoid Making Judgments. Do not attack the other person’s character. An advice that is perceived as being harsh or judgmental is likely to offend the person hearing it.

11. Avoid Threatening. Do not make threats or scare someone by turning advice or criticism into veiled ultimatums. Such displays of authority are unlikely to produce positive results.

12. Be Specific and Brief. Make your advice short and to the point. He who is preoccupied in telling others how to be good may not find time to be good.

13. Avoid Redundancy and Repetition. If you constantly repeat and pester the person with the same message again and again, this approach repels and annoys the listener and distracts them from the message you are trying to deliver.

14. Show Humility. One way to do this is to make it clear that you are willing to ask for and receive advice yourself; that person will automatically feel that you are on the same level and would accept from you what you have to say.

15. Practice What You Preach. Allah (SWT) says, “It is most hateful to Allah that you should say that which you do not do.” [61:3] A person is less likely to adopt your advice when your actions contradict it.

16. Consider Misunderstanding. Giving an advice requires a great deal patience and devotion. In case the person you are advising attacks you verbally you should never return the harm.

17. Be Kind and Gentle. The Prophet (SA) said, “Gentleness is not to be found in anything but that it adds to its beauty, and it is not withdrawn from anything but it makes it defective.”

In conclusion, it is the method of communication that matters and makes a huge difference on the reception of the listener, not the message itself. It is the messenger who wisely delivers the message who can create a great impact on the receiver. Three different people can deliver the same message with three different approaches and only one can successfully deliver.  Let’s try to tune our approach and communication skills so that we aid the message and not kill it.

Written by: Jerrmein Abu Shahba

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