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Communication During Stressful Times: Principle over Process

Written by guest contributor Jon Vaughan

Most of us have done some sort of study on communication, whether it be a small group study, a Bible study, or a self-help type of book. How to create processes around communication is usually one of the key topics, and you’ll find helpful tips like:

  • Don’t start a conversation when you are angry

  • Don’t go to bed angry

  • Leave yourself time to think before you speak

  • Eat a sandwich before a high-stakes conversation because you are grumpier when you are hungry (maybe that one is just for me)

Processes can be helpful when thinking about how to navigate many communication situations. The problem with process is that it lacks a “North Star.“ My great friend, Dennis Latimer, gave me some wisdom around this, and it’s been helpful in communication, particularly when there is a lot at stake:

Processes are good, but principles are better.

When you have principles at the heart of conversations, even when the process breaks down, your principles don’t change. What does that mean, practically? A great example is when talking about parenting: when you have a set of principles, communicating through struggles can become more clear even when the process of communication breaks down. A principle of parenting could be, “We want to instill in our children that honoring God in activities means giving our best.” When things get tough and our children don’t want to continue in an activity, instead of it becoming an opportunity for relational strife, we have done the work on the principles. So while the process by which my wife and I will talk through this may not always align, the principle always directs our decision.

Emotions can cause any process to break down—you’re tired, you’re overwhelmed, you’re anxious... But when you prioritize principle over process, the strength of your principles will prevent the difference in process from causing a breakdown in relationship, even if the communication isn’t perfect.

If you are one of the many families living through childhood cancer, there is nothing in your life that will cause more emotion, tension, and high-stakes conversations than making decisions about your child’s health. Even if you have established a strong process for communication, a slight breakdown in that process can leave room for misunderstanding that can grow into mountains of difficulty in the marital relationship. If you have the “North Star” of your principles, those misunderstandings, whether big or small, can get redirected back to the principle and save relational equity—because you both know your hearts are aligned, even when the words don’t always come out right.

For example, when your child is diagnosed with cancer, it’s completely understandable that their health takes the front seat in your family's life. But if you’re following the principle of keeping your marriage first, then even when the stress of treatments, finances, and all the other “what ifs” enter the picture, the principle will center you. It will open the door to help you find creative ways to work together, communicate, and connect. One of our Lighthouse staff members shared here how this principle guided her marriage when her child was on treatment years ago.

Another principle in your marriage might be that you’re a team—use that “North Star” to ensure that all the decisions you make regarding your child’s treatment and how your family will operate in the “new normal” work for both people on the team. And when one team member inevitably feels overwhelmed, create space for coming together to reevaluate and reassign positions.

Yes, process is still valuable. We led off with some ideas: get composed before talking, don’t go to bed angry, pause between thought and words, and eat a meatball sub. But don’t let process alone be the determining factor in your relationship—create your “North Star” of principles and let that be your guide.

Together we Lighthouse.

Jon Vaughan is a native Atlantan who currently lives in East Cobb with his wife, Molly, and three children, Nate (11), Hollis (8), and Walker (5). He is the current Board Chair for Lighthouse Family Retreat and has attended 5 retreats. Jon is the President and third generation owner of Brand Vaughan Lumber, who provides building products and installed services to professional home builders and contractors.

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