Climate Change: Creating a Healthy Communication Climate

communication climate arguing photo

Climate Change: Three Steps to Creating a Healthy Communication Climate
Dr. Lisa Dunne, 2017

This blog is a truncated adaptation of a presentation I gave at Azusa Pacific University’s Impact Conference in February 2017. The title of that speech was Climate Change: The Impact of Communication Climate on Oxytocin Production and Socio-Academic Success. The video is available on the media page of this website.

In the 1911 novel The Secret Garden, visionary author Frances Hodgson Burnett tells the story of a young orphan’s journey. After her father dies, young Mary is raised by servants who catered to her every whim, never providing boundaries or discipline. When her entire household is struck with a plaque and she is the lone survivor, Mary is sent to live with a distant relative, Colin, in Yorkshire, England. He, too, has been raised with no boundaries and no discipline. Both had lost parents to death. Both had suffered significant wounds from the past. Both struggled to allow love into their hearts in the midst of tragedy, fear, and hopelessness. At the end of the story, though, both children make peace with their past, allowing hope to enter their hearts and love to enter their lives. The power of forgiveness sets them free from a life of bondage.

Burnett put it this way in the final chapter:

“People began to find out in the last century that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries, as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet-fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there…you may never get over it as long as you live” (p. 262).

It would be over 100 years until we would be capable of viewing Burnett’s insightful literary musings under the lens of a microscope, but modern scientific studies in forgiveness, gratitude, and attachment underscore the profound transformations we are capable of when we refuse to be held captive by bitterness. This is not merely a single instantaneous decision but a continual quest throughout one’s entire existence. It’s a lifestyle. It’s how we respond to interpersonal struggles. To betrayal. To brokenness. It’s a fierce willingness to cling to love and trust, to hope—a refusal to write people off, to retaliate, or close ourselves off from others, no matter how deep the wound.

When I was 19 years old, I boarded a plan bound from Miami, Florida to London, England, and on the flight, I penned these words in my journal: “I will never fall in love again.” Through a series of relational wounds and familial abandonments, I had allowed a proverbial layer of ice to settle around my teenage heart. Little did I know that the God who ordained every day of my life had prepared for me to meet a young man on the very first day of that trip, a man who would melt the icy crust off of my heart and become my husband.

As many of my readers know, I didn’t have a happy or stable childhood. The years of my youth were fraught with betrayal, abandonment, neglect, fear, abuse—a trail of brokenness. I could have ended up in juvenile hall or as a teen mom or as a suicide statistic, but instead, through the grace of God and the courage and compassion of a next-door neighbor, I became a Christian.

What are some of the reasons we close ourselves off to others? Maybe we have been wounded and lost trust, maybe we feel like we know better than everyone else, or maybe we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as overly self-sufficient—as fiercely independent rather than interdependent. Dr. Henry Morris once called this a “spiritual cardiosclerosis,” an intentional hardening of the heart.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that refusing to forgive another’s wrong is like drinking poison yourself and hoping it kills the offender. Those dark seeds of unforgiveness and negativity, as Burnett poetically mused in 1911, are deadly to the heart, to the mind, and to the spirit.

I love these words that Paul spoke to the church in Corinth: “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange…open wide your hearts also.” Instead of closing ourselves off emotionally from others, God calls us to “open wide our hearts” and love.

Romans 1:20 tells us that God’s character is evidenced in the natural realm. The triune, relational God who created us is a personal, connective God, and he calls us into relationship with him and with one another. As part of the design for relationship, the human brain is wired for connection. As UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Siegel, says, we are “genetically hardwired to take in signals from our external environment to alter its own internal states.”

We also know that social support is tremendously beneficial, physically and psychologically. An article in the Journal of Psychiatry (2016) notes a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, fewer incidences of disease, and even a longer life span for those with socially supportive relationships.

What’s new and exciting in the field is the impact of a tiny but mighty neuropeptide called oxytocin. Initially it was linked solely to uterine contractions and infant attachment. Today, though, we know that the “love hormone” affects recognition, trust, anxiety, and stress. Low oxytocin levels have been linked to depression, schizophrenia, and autism. This is a neuropeptide God designed within your body to enhance your interpersonal relationships! Pretty amazing stuff.

Dr. Paul Zak, Clairemont University, is one of the leading researchers in the field, and he has studied oxytocin, the “moral molecule,” all over the world in all types of situations. He believes that oxytocin fosters prosocial behaviors, including trust, stronger relationships, and generosity. In fact, Zak’s research has even shown that countries that are more trusting with one another also experience greater economic prosperity.

How can we benefit? We need to make sure we are building healthy ties for our past, present, and future relationships.

Assessing the Past

First, let’s talk about connecting with our past. For years, Harvard University’s Family Involved Network of Educators, now called the Global Family Research Project, has been studying the impact of familial connectivity on academic success. Family is our first attachment, our secure base.

Overwhelmingly, their studies have shown that the number one contributor to student success, K to college, is an involved family. I know we live in an anti-family culture, and many schools even scorn the support of family (consider the Chicago school that banned families from packing their own children’s lunches or the college dean who wasn’t allowed to talk with the parents of a troubled student who ended up committing suicide).

Connecting to our family increases our sense of trust and resilience through the bond of oxytocin. A healthy family bond helps to deregulate stress and strengthen socio-emotional as well as academic health. Families are intended to be a blessing and a sense of strength and support, but the larger culture, including the public school environment and even the church environment, often encourages segregation rather than support in this regard. At the very least, our internal policies and procedures should default toward rather than against family support.

Just saying.

How do we apply it? If your family ties are healthy, create open communication environments. Give your family the opportunity to support and encourage you in what you are doing, and give them the honest open door to know what challenges you are facing. If you are unable to gain support from or emotional connection to your family, determine to make peace with your past. We need to develop a coherent narrative, making sense of what the sovereign God has allowed to happen in our lives and how he uses all things, all things, for his good and for his glory.

As Ephesians 4:32 reminds us, we are to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

We become peacemakers by forgiving others and making sense of what God has done through us and in us as a result of that brokenness. We also become peacemakers by seeing the good in others and the propensity for wrongdoing we all share. We see this around us in the news media constantly today—utter disrespect for others.

In fact, I was previewing a new interpersonal communication textbook the other day, and I was shocked by the total disregard the authors showed for the author of a popular marriage book. The authors literally spelled out in derogatory fashion, column by column, the comparative lack of experience and education the popular author had achieved, as if to say that his world-renowned theory had no grounds due to his lack of formal training. Some of the greatest minds in history lacked the academic credentials these authors would demand in exchange for respect. Let’s not write someone off because he or she is less educated by our standards. After all, Balaam, son of Beor, was rebuked for his transgression by a donkey.

Hebrews 3:12-13 says, “See to it…that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”

As Dr. Susan Forward says, we are all “forged in the crucible called family” (Forward p. 166), which has long-lasting impacts on our beliefs and our behavior. If the thought of parental involvement makes you cringe, I would encourage you to search your heart for signs of spiritual cardiosclerosis. If you find yourself gravitating toward destructive relationships, paralyzed by perfectionism, or engaging in constant criticism, these might also be clues to an unresolved past issue.

You can’t control the past, but you can make peace with it. You may need to ask the Lord to rebuild some of your foundations for you, to help you see life through a new lens, his lens.

Embracing the Present

After we fix the foundations of our past, we want to assess our present communication climates with the goal of connecting authentically with those in our realm of current influence.

I mentioned earlier that Dr. Paul Zak (2014) has found that connective storytelling impacts oxytocin production, which enhances trust and community-mindedness. Additionally, former Harvard professor Dr. Shawn Achor has also demonstrated that gratitude journaling, peer-to-peer praise, and intentional encouragement foster connectivity, which fuels oxytocin production. This makes for happier work, he says, which equals reduced stress, greater productivity, and increased positive social interactions. Oxytocin has also been shown to help increase empathy, enabling students to deepen social connections to healthy community.

Monica Worline, executive director of the CompassionLab at University of Michigan, says that noticing more, interpreting generously, and cultivating empathy will all create a more compassionate—and thus productive—workplace environment. In other words, our communication climates: listening, noticing, and demonstrating warmth and compassion, have dramatic impacts on the peer culture of organizations, whether that’s work or school.

Philemon 7 says, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

So how do we apply it? One practical application is simply being in the present moment with our peers, supporting and encouraging them, refreshing their hearts. It might mean traversing our workplaces, schools, and cities with our eyes up instead of down on our phones so we can read and respond to the faces of our classmates and colleagues.

Additionally, we can make gratitude part of our regular peer interactions. Make your first email or social media post of the day an encouraging word. Look for ways to sincerely complement or encourage others. What if we turned our social media posts into opportunities not for unwholesome talk, as Ephesians 4:29 says, but for building others up according to their needs that it may benefit those who listen?

Reflect on your present connections. How do you or will you connect and communicate intentionally with your peers?

Building for the Future

Finally, in addition to our past and our present, we want build effective communication climates for our future. All across America today, we see the trend toward isolationism. It’s not a new social disease, but it has been exacerbated, I think, by counterfeit mechanisms that can make us feel connected temporarily but which are ultimately poor substitutes for the real thing: F2F relationship. Andy Stanley says Americans are increasingly “together but alone.” George Gallup observed that in the midst of increasingly overcrowded cities and frantic personal schedules, “Americans are among the loneliest people in the world.”

We also live in a culture of profound selfishness. Whether it’s the $258 billion a year teens spend on clothes, entertainment, snacks and jewelry or the $133 billion of food Americans throw away each year (almost 40 percent of the total food supply). Or the 24 million kids in the US who live in a home without a dad. As Scott Cook once said, the survivability of a nation depends on the collective efforts of its citizens.

Civic engagement has been shown to counter negative moods such as depression and anxiety, to decrease heart disease AND to increase lifespan and life satisfaction. Check this out. A University of Texas, Austin study showed that state volunteer rates are strongly connected with the physical health of the states’ population. States with a high volunteer rate have lower rates of mortality and heart disease. States with a lower volunteer rate have more health problems overall.

Harvard’s Thomas Sander puts it this way: “Civic engagement…is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century…it miraculously improves both your health and the community’s through the work performed and the social ties built.” As Proverbs 11:25 reminds us, a generous man will himself be blessed.

So, what do we do with this information? First, we need to embrace intergenerational mentorship: If your realm of influence extends only to those within 24 months of your own age, I want to encourage you to reach out, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “outside of your generational lens.” The perspective of someone older who has traveled the road you are treading on can be incredibly valuable.

Reach out to someone a decade or so ahead of you with one hand, and reach to someone a decade younger that you can pour into on the other. In this way, we will begin to crush the generation gap that has divided so many Christian entities.

Second, plug in to a local church. I can’t stress enough the importance of connecting to the local church—not only for your own good, but for the sake of the gospel. Early and Wheeler note that there are over 200 million unchurched people in the US, one of the largest mission fields in the world. Barna’s 2016 State of the Church Report shows that though 73% of Americans still self-identify as Christians, a smaller and smaller minority are connected to the local church each year.

Dr. Martin Luther King said that we all have to decide whether we “will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life’s most persistent and nagging question,” he said, is “What are you doing for others?”

Consider your future communication foundations. Are you engaging with the church or larger community? What steps are you currently taking or will take after today to set up healthy future communication climates? As Christians, we can’t simply soak up information; we must impact the world with the voice God has given us. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). So, what do we do from here? We need a communication climate change in our past, present, and future. As a fair exchange, Paul said, we must open wide our hearts.

As Colin and Mary learned in The Secret Garden, forgiveness breaks the chains of bondage. Gratitude sets us free from a life of half-empty glasses, giving us a perspective of joy and hope and freedom. Once we embrace those foundations, we can fully appreciate the beauty of the relationships that God designed for us to enjoy.

Instead of living in closed communication climates, let’s make peace with our past, let’s live fully in our present, and let’s begin building a healthy future foundation so that we can most effectively impact our planet for His kingdom.