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Why An Incarnational Approach To Communication Works

A recipient of the Certificate of Appreciation from the US Department of State for his “contributions to international cultural affairs,” Renier Keyser has been a passionate culture-maker for more than 25 years. Currently he focuses on developing communication and training solutions for companies that employ large numbers of minimum wage earners, most notably in the mining, and waste and recycling industries. This is a summary of his interview with Ziwani’s Sibs Sibanda.

SS: Please unpack for us what ‘incarnational communication’ is, and how your professional journey led you to this type of work.

RK: Although it has become a trendy topic, the whole concept of incarnational communication actually originated in the early 1970s in the field of Christian missiology. It was a new approach for missionaries who wanted to evangelise cross-culturally – they realised that to be effective in other nations, they first had to learn that nation’s language, assimilate their culture and their ways of doing things.

My personal journey in this field started almost 30 years’ ago, when I joined Theatre For Africa. Our projects entailed creating awareness among mostly rural communities about the politics and economics of wildlife conservation. These were funded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Ultimately, the aim was to create local ownership and adoption of these ‘western ideas’ – among people who live far away from any urban development. Let’s just say we learned many lessons along the way!

SS: Obviously the concept refers to the Incarnation of Christ, who took on the form of a man and walked in our footsteps, as it were. The writer of Hebrews states that ‘he is able to sympathise with our weaknesses’ because he became like one of us.

In the business context, I guess it refers to not simply ‘jetting in’ with what you think is the solution, but to immerse yourself in the experiences and challenges of those you are working alongside. The aim is not just to better understand the context and give them better solutions, but to actually facilitate a process whereby they would come up with their own solutions for the challenges that they have.

RK: I agree. Christ didn’t speak to us in high theological terms. He told simple stories about ‘a farmer lost his sheep,’ ‘a farmer sowed seed’ – and then instructed his listeners to think it through and discover the truth for themselves. It’s about presenting information to people in a way that they can find what applies to them for themselves.

Of course, as a manager in a company you feel very out of control of that process. But it is more effective in the long run if employees have had the opportunity to first acknowledge the problem for themselves, and own the problem – before they can come up with a solution, and therefore own that solution.

SS: I think in the business world (especially when you talk about management and employees) often there isn’t even agreement about what the actual problem is. Can you give us an example of a problem you’re currently trying to solve?

At the one company I’m working with, 85% of their employees are minimum-wage earners. Coming from across South Africa and other African countries, they not only have incredibly diverse cultural backgrounds, but also different levels of education. To complicate it further, this company provides on-site waste management services, which means that their employees are stationed at their clients’ properties. Their own employees don’t even walk through the same factory gate in the morning – they are physically scattered all over the country.

The classic communication model refers to your message, coding and medium, and in this environment you really have to put in a lot of effort into the coding. You have to carefully consider the language(s), metaphor(s) and the emotional tone(s) of your message before you send it down this ‘broken telephone’ – to reduce the noise that interferes with not just the information you want to communicate, but also the intent behind it.

SS: Typically, management has the vision and values, and they are trying to communicate these to their employees. So we could be talking about what methods and techniques management can use to communicate more effectively.

Or we could take it a step further, and call on management to allow the values and the culture of the business to actually be shaped upwards. In other words, trusting that those working on the ground are spending so much time doing what they do, that they also have ideas and solutions that can move the business forward.

RK: That is fair to say. In my experience, however, employees usually report to their managers in a way that makes them look good, and managers then colour their report to their superiors in the same way. By the time decision-makers receive information, it’s very hard to tell what is actually happening on the ground.

So one of the problems I’m working on, is creating a direct line (almost) from employees so that they can be heard by management. But more than that, how do you open up management’s willingness to listen, their ability to hear, and then act on the bottom-up information? That is where the challenge lies. Because management is under relentless pressure – they have many battles to fight, and there are many voices in the room. My job is to help them find the truth in all these messages, amidst all these voices, and to help them to not just react, but actually include the information in strategic thinking.

SS: So what does it mean to think and act incarnationally in the business context? Is this something every Christian business leader should be thinking about and trying to do?

RK: To think and act incarnationally, you have to find the time and space to hang around your employees. Pick up some of their language, learn to appreciate their culture, ask many questions. You have to realise that before they clock in at the factory or arrive at the office to link arms with you in tackling the challenges your company is facing, they have their own personal challenges. What pressures do they live with at home? What do they have to overcome just to get to work on time every day? Confront some of your assumptions. Develop an informed perspective on the world they live in, and allow that to shape the way you view them.

Businesspeople are task-oriented, because you have to find practical, technical solutions. You have to find the fastest way of solving problems at a profit. In many African contexts, however, people go about life and work in a more emotional way. Therefore it is important to consider how your employees feel about something. When you communicate information, you also have to speak to their emotions.

Should Christian business leaders adopt this approach of authentically acknowledging people’s feelings, and getting to know the world they live in? You don’t have to, but it would be wise.

Throughout the Bible, God uses the incarnational approach. Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt. He had to work for a wealthy businessman before being thrown into jail, so that he could understand the way the Egyptians work – before he could become prime minister. Moses was raised in Pharoah’s courts and trained to govern a nation. Then he had to flee to the desert, tending sheep for many years – before he could lead a nation through a wilderness to their promised land. Think of Esther, or Paul. There are so many examples where God would first send someone to live in a specific environment, ‘to become like them’ – before he would deploy them to be effective in that environment.

SS: That is insightful. Why would you say this incarnational approach works so well?

RK: Well initially, everything takes longer to get done – which is not what management wants to hear. But you have to weigh that up against how much you gain, and how things speed up later.

When ‘you speak the language,’ emotional buy-in happens so much faster. It builds trust, and reduces conflict and resistance to change. Because they understand you correctly the first time, there are fewer mistakes, and you spend less resources redoing things. All of these are good reasons why an incarnational approach works.

But one of the biggest gains is how it transforms management into leadership. As a leader, you don’t simply want to pass on information – you want to inspire people. You want your employees to volunteer their best efforts to achieve the company goals you’ve set for them. And if you can engage their imaginations, they become self-motivated. If it’s no longer your goals for them – it becomes ‘our goals’ and ‘our way’ of doing things. They become innovators. They feel free to bring their ideas, and implement them without you having to micro-manage that process or drag it out. Once you get that momentum, it releases a sustainable, positive energy throughout the company.



Renier Keyser

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