June 11, 2015

Stress and How We Retain Information

I was at a parish that had devoted a great deal of time on communications related to a capital campaign. They sent out letters and emails. Announcements were given and small groups met to discuss the plans. Multiple bulletin boards displayed architectural plans and the adult formation hour was used to discuss the project. Utilizing every vehicle in their tool kit, the parish sought to ensure all members would know about their plans to proceed.

This is an ideal congregation to work with. One who wants everyone to have access to the same information and for folks to feel a connection to the decisions being made by their leaders. A parish where there is an ethos of transparency and trust.

So why is it that sometimes folks still don`t hear the messages we send? This is a common question and the answers are varied. I have heard comments ranging from lack of engagement to “People hear what they want to hear.” What if there was a different answer?

It turns that organizational or personal stress can biologically impact our ability to gather or retain information. “As the body prepares to handle a perceived threat, the stress hormone cortisol shuts down neurons in the brain, preventing it from storing new information,“ cites Marcia Reynolds, author of Outsmart Your Brain, Covisioning, 2004.  

In the January 1, 2003, Harvard Business Review article “Don`t Let Stress Strain Communication,” Anne Field notes that stress can lead to communication hang-ups such as unclear directions, defensiveness, and forgetfulness. 

Those providing and those receiving communications then are hindered by stress on the body and its impact on neurological function. 

While not all stress can be eliminated, Anne Field suggests some tips for lessoning the impact:

  • Keep messages short and clear 
  • Vary how you communicate and repeat the message 
  • Encourage people to ask questions
  • Look out for participants who withdraw

I would add that changing the lens from “some folks are just not going to get it” to a more compassionate frame aids in how information will be received. In this way, addressing our parishioners’ communication needs and addressing them with compassion embraces the theology of communications as a ministry and increases the ability for those involved to receive our messages.

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