Too Cold, Too Hot, Or Just Right?

Sometimes, I'm cold. I'll sit on the back row in Relief Society meetings, avoid any real conversation, and then dash out the door as soon as I say, "Amen." I'm always feeling shy and slightly anxious at the prospect of sitting next to sisters I don't know or who are casual acquaintances. (Even more bizarre, I'm slightly uncomfortable even sharing hymn books while singing!) For me, it's simply easier to smile at sisters from across the room and then wave a friendly "good-bye" from my car as I race out of the parking lot. (I know, I sound horribly unfriendly and cold!) But, sometimes, I'm warm. I excel in small talk and polite conversation. Still, I have to make a conscious effort to be "warm" and engaging--especially among my Relief Society sisters. So I wince when I hear fellow sisters talk about the unfriendliness or coldness of various ward Relief Society "climates."

In this post I'll discuss various communication climates within our individual ward Relief Societies--particularly climates surrounding the Sunday Relief Society lessons. This post is based on a presentation I gave for our stake Relief Society leadership meeting last October. (As the 1st Counselor in our stake Relief Society presidency, my stewardship involves the Sunday lessons instruction.) I will lay out my comments in the following order:

  1.  The various dimensions and degrees of communication climates

  2.  Their application to our ward Relief Societies

  3.  Ways in which we can foster more warmth and love in our ward Relief Society communication climates

  4.  The power of Relief Society presidencies, instructors, and audience members' comments in fostering negative or positive climates

Communication climate refers to the social tone of a relationship or relationships within groups. The climate doesn't involve specific activities as much as the way people feel about each other as they carry out those activities. For example, we know that lesson content in our Relief Society manuals is exactly the same. But the presentation and context of the lesson differs in each ward due to the way in which the instructor presents the information and how that message is received by the sisters in the audience.

In other words, it's not the lesson material that differs--it's the style, manner, and tone of the Relief Society instructor's delivery that determines positive or negative communication climates. It's also the way the sisters in the audience respond to the lesson content, to the instructor as a person, to the instructor's teaching style, and the sisters' feelings about each other as a whole. To top it off, sisters' comments during the lesson also positively or negatively affect the communication climate. Every class, every lesson, and every comment has the power to create a unifying communication climate or a discordant one. Take a look at the sisters below. Let's assume this scenario takes places after a Sunday Relief Society lesson. What are the different ways we could interpret this particular learning environment? Have you ever felt depressed or demoralized by comments made by the Relief Society instructor and/or comments from sisters in the audience? I know I have---I've played the roles of both women portrayed below.

Here are some comments I've heard over the years that have hurt other sisters:

  • "You're not a good Mormon unless you've read the entire Book of Mormon."
  • "Having sex outside of marriage is the sin next to murder." (A principle taught in the Book of Mormon, I know. Growing up, I heard this phrase repeatedly in Seminary and Young Women's.) However, I wonder how LDS young women who have transgressed this law must feel. Now, as I listened to the Relief Society lesson, I wondered about the young woman seated behind me. She was investigating the Church and living with her boyfriend. I also cringed knowing that a less active young woman---who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock---sat silently two rows behind me.
  • "Past mistakes and sins cannot make you stronger. They stunt your spiritual growth." (Not according to the Book of Mormon in Ether 12:27.)
  • "My children have all made wise choices because they didn't want to disappoint me. And we all know that my youngest is, well, practically perfect." (Yes, the instructor said this with a straight face.)

Surely, we must help each other discern and overcome sin during our Relief Society time together. However, for every sin we discuss, we should emphasize the healing and redemptive power of Jesus Christ's atonement. Christ is our advocate and the encompassing and powerful counterweight of hope and grace when our works and imperfections fail us. I wonder what would happen if Jesus Christ became the literal and permanent "centerpiece" on our Relief Society lesson table and lesson discussions? Surely, we would bask in such a loving, warm communication climate!

Alma 26:16 says, "Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord, yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full, yea we will praise God forever.  Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel."

Should we not spend our precious Relief Society time rejoicing in our Savior rather than beating ourselves and others because of imperfections? Our gathering time should be a place of peace and safety assuring that none of our sisters leave feeling judged, demoralized, or shamed.

Let's now discuss how the following communication patterns determine a warm or cold communication climate:

  • The Warm: Righteousness and unity promoted from the doctrine outlined in the Church approved lesson material. A warm and loving Relief Society instructor who is sensitive to the feelings of the sisters in the room.

  • The Cold: Sometimes the Relief Society instructors's perception and meaning of the message can distort and undermine the true meaning of the lesson. Also, comments (and thus other perceptions) make from various sisters in the audience during class discussion can further distort meaning and create disharmony among the sisters during class. Finally, the sisters' perception of church "culture" vs. church doctrine during lessons and class discussions can further distort meaning, thus effectively undermining unity and harmony.

Communication climate is strongly related to job satisfaction and performance. This principle also applies to our Relief Society lessons and discussions. Just like the weather, communication climates can change from cloudy and stormy to warm and sunny in an instant. One word, one comment can change the whole dynamic.

Why does some communication create a positive climate while other behavior has the opposite effect? The communication climate is determined by the degree to which people see themselves as valued. How we speak and act in our Relief Society lessons and discussions matters. Many times sisters often quietly accept what is being said, but go home feeling discouraged or devalued.

Let's become more aware of our communication climate to promote unity:

  •  Climates of discord: Evaluation, judgment, superiority, pride

  •  Climates of unity: Love, mercy, the atonement, "We're all in this together" attitude,  empathy, compassion

In my opinion, the sure-fire way to create positive communication climates is to invite the Spirit and encourage it to stay. When we speak of Jesus Christ, we can automatically invite the Spirit. If we put too much of our focus on our ability to "perfectly obey," we may too easily think of Christ's atonement as an "after thought." We can temper the "justice" tone with the "mercy" tone in our lessons and class discussions by emphasizing Christ's power to heal and deliver us.

To further promote unity, we can emphasize the Savior's unconditional love for each one of us. When we learn to love ourselves, we can more easily love others. As I've stated in previous posts, our Heavenly Father expects us to be fallible and make mistakes. That's all part of the Plan of Salvation and the reason for Christ's atonement. Surely, we are all capable of sin and righteousness. According to LDS therapist, Wendy Ulrich, we can promote unity and love by coming to some sort of self-acceptance of ourselves and each other, and be willing to do things imperfectly until we learn to do all things well (Ulrich, 2009).

To further promote peace, we can emphasize the co-exsistence of "good" or righteousness, and "bad" or sin/weaknesses within ourselves and in each other. I suggest the following:

  • Let's try to eliminate the "either/or" perceptions of each other during lessons and class discussions. We're not all "bad" and we're not all "good."

  • We can accept that we are a combination of both our strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.

  • Being wrong or inept doesn't make us bad. We can balance our awareness of our weaknesses with an awareness of our strengths (Ulrich, 2009).

As I've stated before, we can create unity when we look to our Savior as a "measuring tool" for righteousness, and not each other. None of us are completely whole, and thus we all need the healing grace of "the great physician," our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our Relief Society atmosphere can be a hospice for our emotionally sick and wounded selves rather than a prideful showcase for our individual and/or family obedience. When we make insensitive comments in terms of comparing our personal obedience to the commandments at the expense of the others, we foster competition and pride among our sisters.

When we teach and discuss from a position of strengthening and empowering ourselves and each other through Christ's atonement, we create and generate a genuine love, peace, and unity in our ward Relief Societies.

Patricia Holland makes the following observation along these same lines in her 1985 Ensign article, "The Fruits of Peace." She said:

Moroni taught the same principle. 'Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ' (Moro. 7:48). As women, we have the choice and privilege to connect ourselves to God in a way whereby we draw his nourishing love down to our very roots. Such peace and power can then be extended to others. When we pollute the powerful potential for love with our pettiness and our fears, then disease replaces emotional health and despondency replaces peace.

I believe that when we learn these principles, we can then qualify ourselves to build a city of Zion suitable for our Savior to dwell.

Ready to build?