True Communication: Putting the Receiver First

Monday Musing with St. Paul 

From the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls

Today, I’m beginning my series of reflections on the qualities of a good communicator that St. Paul reveals in 2nd Corinthians. 2 Corinthians is the letter in which St. Paul feels the need to explain himself–even to the point of defending his apostleship. St. Paul’s explanations–and the sincerity of his defensiveness–can give us special insights into the choices Paul made, and his motivations for them, as he seeks to communicate the Gospel of Christ to the Corinthians.

The letter begins with Paul’s typical self-identification as a communicator for Christ, followed by his greeting to the Corinthians. After that, comes a beautiful blessing to God, the Father of Jesus, who gives Paul what he needs so that he [Paul] can give what he receives to the Corinthians. In this prayer of praise, Paul is affirming that his life, his apostleship, is for those whom he serves, those whom he’s addressing.

“It is for you…”

Paul specifically goes on to say very eloquently: “If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” (2 Cor. 1:6)

So closely intertwined does Paul see his life in Christ and the Corinthians’ life in Christ that a little later, he speaks of how the Corinthians are his “boast” before God, and that Paul is the Corinthians’ “boast” to God. Later, he says, “we are workers with you for your joy…” (2 Cor. 1:24).

It is clear even from these few phrases how focused Paul is on the well-being of the Corinthians. He offers his sufferings and joys for them; he risks all so that they might receive the joy of the Gospel of Christ.

In other words, from the very beginning of this Letter, Paul’s attention is never on himself; it’s on the recipients of his message. For Paul, his whole life is focused on those who are receiving the Gospel from him. His listeners are truly at the center–not just of his ministry, but of his life. Their needs and their good become the gauge by which he makes decisions–such as whether or not to visit (cf. 2 Cor. 1:23). Paul understands even his sufferings and joys primarily in the light of the needs of the Corinthians: for strength, encouragement, repentance, etc.

Key to Pauline Communication: the Receiver’s Needs Come First

Communication studies talk about focusing on the audience. As Daughters of St. Paul, we often reflect on how well we communicate Christ in our apostolate. A number of years ago, we began to talk about making the receiver the starting point of our communication.

This is a very practical image or way of speaking for someone who works in media. Where do we start when we want to make a movie, website, or book? Do we start with our own ideas and experiences, or with the needs of others? Our own ideas may be wonderful, but if we start there, if our own ideas are what primarily drive our project, than our starting point is ourselves and our endpoint may also be ourselves. Unintentionally, we may find that the entire media project–article, blog post, book, TV program, or app–is forced to “fit” to the needs of the people it’s intended for. Because it is really addressing our needs.

Writing a book for myself is not something I’ve done. But I have written blog posts for myself. And I know a few TV producers who created programs that they thought were wonderful…but which no one wanted to watch. This is a common mistake of writers and media producers of all kinds.

The Driving Force of Communication: the Needs of Others

Instead, if our starting point is the needs of the people we are trying to reach; if the needs of others become the driving force of whatever we produce, then the project–no matter how simple–has the potential to deeply touch hearts and change lives.

Our market-driven, mainstream media have learned this to some extent. Their marketing departments get to know their audience well so that whatever media they make will address the needs of that audience. The mainstream media may not do this out of love, but as Catholic Christian communications, we can learn from them: they have recognized that to deeply connect with their readers/listeners/receivers, they need to know them very, very well.

Like St. Paul, the best communicators start with the needs of their receivers/audience, and then they figure out how to address them. It’s a basic premise of love–putting the needs of the beloved first.

Humanity is God’s Beloved. God the Father–most dramatically in Christ Jesus–put the needs of the Beloved before his own, even before those of his own Beloved Son. Putting the beloved first is the model of communication that St. Paul followed and talks about in 2 Corinthians. Putting the beloved first is the first quality of communication that we are called to, as those who wish to share the Gospel to others.

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