in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 26, 2021

Want People to Hear Your Message? Let Them Overhear It

Vintage friends talking sitting outdoors.

Have you ever attended a wedding where, though you weren’t the one exchanging vows with your beloved, you still felt your own commitment to your wife renewed?

Have you ever been reading a book, and come upon an insight that was so profound your jaw literally dropped, and you spent the next couple minutes staring off in the distance, absorbing its significance?

Have you ever been at a church service where the pastor was speaking to the congregation’s unconverted, and while you already believed, you felt your heart greatly stirred?

Have you ever watched a play, and left the theater with a head full of questions not only about the plot, but about its intersection with your own life?

Have you ever had a friend share an experience that, though they didn’t know it at the time, helped you figure out what decision to make with an issue you were personally struggling with?

In all of these situations, you were privy to a message or an experience that wasn’t explicitly directed to you. You overheard it.

And that made it all the more powerful.

Kierkegaard and Direct vs. Indirect Communication

What is the best, most effective way to communicate a message to other people? Particularly, a message concerning principles, beliefs, and important truths? Most crucially, how do you reach people who feel like they’ve already heard your message before, and thus aren’t inclined to listen?

It’s an important question for anyone who wishes to be an influential force in the world — teachers, pastors, parents, and friends who want to impart what may be life-altering, soul-sustaining, direction-changing insights to others, but struggle to know how to do so.

It’s also a question the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explored in his writings. Kierkegaard was a Christian living in a country where his faith was the official state religion. Nearly all of his neighbors were members of the Church of Denmark and thus had been well saturated with knowledge about Christianity. Nearly all could recite the basics of the gospel, yet few seemed to take the message to heart; they hadn’t let it sink into their sinews and allowed it to change the way they worshipped, lived, and especially, acted towards others.

This lack of passion for the faith, Kierkegaard thus observed, was clearly not due to a lack of knowledge; people had the information, but they weren’t appropriating it. The problem, he therefore surmised, was in how the information was being communicated, or more accurately, the way in which the information Christians already possessed was being allowed to lie fallow.

Kierkegaard posited that there are basically two types of communication, each suited to a different type of teaching/learning.

First there’s direct communication — or the “communication of knowledge.” This is the straightforward transfer of objective information — imparting knowledge that is cerebrally grasped and mentally and academically assented to. Think of science and its related fields.

Then there is indirect communication — the “communication of capability.” Rather than involving objective knowledge, indirect communication is concerned with all that is related to one’s religious and ethical existence — who one is and how one should act.

Most significantly, indirect communication is not about adding external knowledge that someone did not have before, but stirring up their internal self-knowledge — awakening people to truths they already know but have forgotten.

In fact, Kierkegaard thought that an overload of information could be the very reason a truth had been submerged in the first place. That is, someone could talk about ethics endlessly, and read every text ever written about ethical principles, and yet fail to ever start acting ethically themselves; one can understand the academic definitions of things like courage and compassion through and through without ever asking the question ancient philosophers thought most urgent: “How should one live?” Information, Kierkegaard argued, doesn’t automatically lead to a decision or transform behavior, and did little good unless it migrated from one’s head to one’s heart.

The aim with indirect communication is thus not to add more and more bits of information, but to move someone from cognitively grasping an idea to coming to a deeper existential realization of it. The ultimate goal is to catalyze a conviction that strengthens their moral character and moves them to action.

This is why Kierkegaard called indirect communication the communication of capability: it’s designed to elicit a person’s awareness of the possibilities embedded in their existence — to evoke their capability to live a more virtuous, faith-filled, ethical life.

In short, the difference between indirect and direct communication is the difference between understanding something and actually expressing it in your life; between knowing about something, and knowing something.

Kierkegaard saw the role of the indirect communicator as akin to that of a midwife who helped create that shift — a facilitator who, rather than trying to stuff ideas into someone’s head, drew out and vivified a person’s latent potentialities.

Kierkegaard sought to be this kind of truth-unearthing midwife in all he did. He saw his lifestyle as a major source of indirect communication, and considered how everything from his daily routine, to which social engagements he did or did not attend, might enhance or detract from his message. And in his writings, he employed irony, pseudonymity, and humor, in the hopes that readers would come to an insight that wasn’t directly offered, but might indirectly work towards their moral and religious edification.

The Transformative Power of Overhearing

“Many who say ‘Here we go again’ have not in fact ever gone before.” –Fred Craddock

In more recent times, Fred Craddock — the minister, Professor of Preaching, and innovator of homiletics — sought to explore the heart of how Kierkegaard’s indirect approach functioned in his writings, and how that dynamic might be translated into oral communication.

Craddock struggled with the same observation Kierkegaard had made — that while the people he was surrounded with understood the Christian gospel cerebrally, this knowledge had transformed very few of them viscerally. They had head-knowledge but not heart-knowledge. He thus wrestled with the same kinds of questions: “How shall we communicate in an atmosphere where it is assumed the gospel has been heard and that now all that remains is supplying more units of information?” How can teachers and preachers “effect a new hearing of the word among those who have been repeatedly exposed to it”?

Craddock found the answer in the style of Kierkegaard’s writings. He noticed that in reading the philosopher’s works, one isn’t confronted with what he has to say, but rather gets the sense of listening in on Kierkegaard’s conversations with God, and with himself; one is left with “the feeling of having stepped into a chapel thinking it vacant only to hear suddenly the prayer and praise of a solitary worshiper.”

In other words, the reader of Kierkegaard, rather than being accosted by his message, feels as if they are “overhearing” it.

Craddock thus advocated for imbuing one’s oral discourse with the same kind of overhearing effect. He recommended a style of teaching and preaching that was less didactic and confrontational, and more open-ended and conversational. It functioned less as a direct assault, and more like a Trojan horse.

Instead of listeners feeling like you’re directly addressing them, they feel as if you’re just remembering and reflecting, while they happen to be present.

Instead of spelling out the applications of your message, you let listeners draw their own conclusions.

Instead of pounding a pulpit, you float out a message that feels, as Kierkegaard put it, like a gentle breeze blowing and breathing overhead.

Instead of trying to fill someone’s mind with your insights and beliefs, you ask questions to help them discover their own.

Instead of making yourself the center of attention, you withdraw in order to facilitate the realizations of another.

Instead of pressing down on someone to force a decision, you allow them room to come to their own choice.

Indirect communication makes ample use of stories, and employs rich imagery, analogies, and metaphors as well; for, as Craddock observed, “people live in images rather than ideas and human transformation occurs when images carrying deep symbolic force are modified or replaced by others.”

Indirect communication intersperses moments of humor into a weighty discussion, so that the tension doesn’t become unbearable.

Indirect communication doesn’t demand audience participation, but evokes it by using descriptive detail, language, and examples that the listener can identify with and relate to.

Indirect communication offers space by speaking in second- and third-person instead of first, and by minimizing eye contact; indirect communication is often conducted side-by-side, rather than face-to-face.

Indirect communication lets moments happen, instead of trying to make them happen.

Craddock didn’t just think indirect communication was a concept around which to build sermons and prepared remarks, but also something embodied in your personal example — that everything in your behavior and lifestyle either worked for or against your message. Even in the things that seem only tangentially related to the core principles you wish to share, like hobbies, diet, and dress, people are overhearing the conversation you’re having with life.

And the effect of that conversation can be far more powerful than anything that ever comes out of your mouth. Nothing is more affecting and convicting than to be confronted with someone who lives on a higher level, who exudes joy and guileless conviction about things for which you’ve grown cynical, who has found a way to convincingly reconcile beliefs you thought were contradictory — who shows possibilities for life you previously couldn’t conceive of or makes you feel your own life is sorely unexamined.

Such encounters stir the heart and imagination and produce the force by which indirect communication — the communication of capability — functions: longing. The longing to be more, do more, to live a different way, and to start taking action to attain that aim.

Why Is Indirect Communication So Effective?

“The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” –George MacDonald

While Craddock and Kierkegaard largely formed their philosophies of communication around the dilemma of how to convert and convict those who had already been exposed to the Christian gospel, but had yet to be transformed by it, the principles they developed apply to the communication of any important existential or ethical truth. Whether you’re trying to convince a friend to join (or leave) a faith, impart your principles to your children, get a spouse out of a funk, or steer a loved one to a better path, letting them overhear your message, rather than hitting them over the head with it, will frequently prove much more effective.

Here’s why:

The indirect gives the listener the necessary distance, space, and privacy to make a decision.

“In sawing wood it is important not to press down too hard on the saw; the lighter the pressure exerted by the sawyer, the better the saw operates. If a man were to press down with all his strength, he would no longer be able to saw at all.” –Kierkegaard

“The direct method is not only nonproductive,” Craddock argues, “it is counterproductive.” This is because “an illusion cannot be destroyed directly,” as “direct attacks only create opposition, entrench defensiveness, and strengthen the illusion.”

When a speaker or writer directly challenges your beliefs, especially if they are a capable and persuasive communicator, the natural inclination is to crank up the drawbridge of your mind. When one’s very identity is threatened, you instinctively wish to protect your feelings and thoughts from being influenced and changed. You begin to look for reasons to dismiss the speaker/writer out of hand — speculating that he’s keeping secrets and is probably a hypocrite, theorizing that his message is born out of some insecurity, or focusing on things that are annoying about his appearance or mannerisms. Or you simply tune him out altogether, and start doodling in a notebook or counting how many tiles are on the ceiling.

A listener will shut down not only when his beliefs are directly confronted, but also when faced with an outpouring of emotion. As Craddock explains, while a speaker showing a little emotion can be quite poignant, a direct discharging of feeling, seemingly marshaled explicitly to move the listener, merely serves to make him feel awkward and uncomfortable:

“Who of us has not been exhausted and at times repelled by direct emotional and intellectual intrusions on our faculties, with all positive effects that might have been there consumed by the communicative effort itself? No matter how much a speaker pledges sincerity, shows feeling, and swears to genuine concern, a direct disgorging of emotion does not reproduce that same experience in me.”

Whether in the form of intellectual challenges or emotional outpourings, direct communication tends to create feelings of hurt, embarrassment, anger, and all-around defensiveness in the listener, who at the same time has no space to sort through and deal with these feelings. Under the glare of lights, or a loved one’s stare of anticipation, a response, a decision is demanded; yet, rather than considering the message, all the listener can think about is their acute self-consciousness.

Thus, while speakers often feel that “the urgency and weight of [their] message call for pressing in and pressing down, leaving the hearer no room for lateral movement,” this pressure most often leads not to the listener’s transformation, but to their full-scale retreat — away from the uncomfortable feelings, and the person, church, or organization causing them.

For this reason, Craddock argues that distance is “a necessary dimension of the experience of overhearing.” The distance he has in mind is not necessarily the physical space between the speaker and listener, but rather the completeness of the message itself — an independence “that says to the listener, ‘You are sitting in on something that is of such significance that it could have gone on without you.’”

Think of attending a play or a symphony concert, where the performers are surely aware of the audience, and yet one gets the impression that they are engaged in their art for themselves and that the performance has a life of its own. Catholic mass (particularly pre-Vatican II) is another prime example: though parishioners are there to participate, the power and necessity of the rituals has nothing to do their presence; they are overhearing a “conversation” the priest is having with God.

Or, Craddock suggests, think of the difference between reading through a dusty box of old letters between father and son, and reading a book called Letters to Henry, in which the missives only came into being once the publishing contract was signed.

Consider the media you consume as well. Isn’t it the case, that the more something tries to be “relevant” to you and your demographic, the more it tries to make an advertisement or article title irresistible and sexy, the less you trust it, and the less you actually want to click the link? I know I am personally repelled, instead of attracted, to any media that seems to be working too hard to appeal to me.

The content I find most appealing, in contrast, is that which the creator seems to have largely worked on because of his own personal desire and interest, with the fact that others would see/read it only a happy bonus. The creator seems to be having a conversation with himself, or with God, with the rest of us merely overhearing it. And that makes whatever is being communicated all the more powerful. As Craddock puts it, “When the artist does not paint for me, the impact on me is greater.”

The reason this kind of “distance” makes communication so effective, is that it facilitates the effect of overhearing. The listener, privy to an experience that would have seemingly gone on with or without him, and is not directly aimed at him, becomes more open, and lets his guard down. Craddock cites the parables Jesus employs so extensively in the gospels as a perfect example of how this dynamic works:

“‘There was a certain man’: anonymous, past tense, somewhere else, nothing here addressed to me. Relax and enjoy the story. And then it happens: I am inside the story, and the door closes behind me.”

A message with an intrinsic life of its own doesn’t demand a response, but can still powerfully elicit one. A listener may still feel convicted or accused by a message, but rather than feeling pressed upon, and desiring to retreat, they have the space, anonymity, and privacy to “to reflect, accept, reject, and decide” and are “permitted room to make the decision about his or her own existence.”

Indirect communication engages the listener and allows for participation.

The power of the indirect method of communication lies in the way its combines both distance and participation. While those two things might seem to be in tension, the former actually increase the latter. By giving the listener ample space and privacy, he is relieved of his self-consciousness, and thus feels freer to get involved in the message.

And, because exactly what to do with that message is not spelled out by the indirect communicator, deciding what to make of it becomes a thoroughly engaging task.

As we said above, direct communication — the transferring of knowledge — is well-suited for teaching objective information. But anyone who has sat through a physics class knows that such communications are not typically very captivating. In fact, they are often downright boring. Such boredom may be unfortunate and yet acceptable when it comes to science classes, in which a student is required to master the information, even if tedious, if he wishes to earn his degree.

But boredom in the communication of existential truths, in which listeners’ interest is entirely optional, carries a real danger — the risk that people will turn away and tune out altogether. Craddock explains these stakes in a brilliant quote that applies as well to faith, as to the communication of all important truths:

“Some listeners in churches have accepted boredom as one of the crosses that come with the commitment, but I cannot.

Boredom is a form of evil; perhaps one of Kierkegaard’s characters was more correct when he said, ‘Boredom is the root of all evil.’ Boredom is a preview of death, if not itself a form of death, and when trapped in prolonged boredom, even the most saintly of us will hope for, pray for, or even engineer relief, however demonic.

For the communicating of the Christian faith, formally or informally, to be boring is not simply ‘too bad,’ to be glossed over with the usual ‘but he is really a genuine fellow’ or ‘but she is very sincere.’ Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

The direct can be boring because the listener is merely a passive recipient of information. Knowledge is poured into his head and his only task is to agree or disagree with it, or, if it consists simply of objective data, to commit these strings of facts to memory.

In contrast, the indirect method doesn’t give the listener all the answers; instead, the message is open-ended and the hearer must make his own connections and draw his own conclusions. Rather than being force-fed ideas, or even kindly given advice, the hearer is tasked with discovering the answers on his own. And instead of merely asking for assent or rejection, an indirect message is designed to produce a reaction akin to the exclamation Kierkegaard was so fond of: “I am undone!”

Overhearing facilitates an experience in which what the listener thinks he knows comes unglued, and he is faced with the task of sorting through his dislodged beliefs, and assembling a new structure. Thus, rather than being stuck in a passive role, the overhearer gets to be an archeologist and a builder — an active participant in the unearthing and deepening of their knowledge.

Just as importantly, because the overhearer experiences the joy of discovery, and feels as though he has come to an insight on his own, he is far more convinced by it than had the insight simply been dropped in his lap by someone else.

The indirect respects the listener.

By offering distance, while allowing for participation, the indirect method respects the listener in several ways.

First, you respect his space and privacy instead of getting in his face.

Second, you respect the fact that you’re not starting on ground level with him, and that he already possesses a certain set of knowledge. You’re not trying to feed the listener new and more information, but simply seeking to awaken him to a fresh perspective of the knowledge he already has.

Third, you respect that the listener has the capability of coming to that fresh perspective, and the desire to expand his understanding of truth. As Craddock puts it:

“The listener is respected for being in possession not only of the mental capacity for understanding what is being said but also of the appetites and capacities for living fully. Kierkegaard appealed to the full range of human faculties for joy, anxiety, love, purpose, meaning, and longing for eternity.”

Finally, indirect communication respects the listener by trusting him to figure out his own lessons and applications from a message, without their being explicitly spelled out. The speaker runs a risk in this, of course, that the overhearer will in fact draw the wrong conclusions. But he is willing to chance a misinterpretation in the short-term, feeling that the greater risk would be to treat the listener as a child — atrophying his capacity to seek and grasp truth in the long-term.

When to Use Indirect Communication

Even though both Kierkegaard and Craddock advocated for the indirect method as the primary means of communicating ethical and existential knowledge, neither thought it should serve as the exclusive method of communicating such truths.

There are certainly times when the direct approach is needed. The indirect operates on the assumption that the person already has knowledge, and that it simply needs to be uncovered, awakened, and renewed. But if a person lacks this foundation completely, then it must be first given directly, before the indirect approach would become relevant.

After someone’s appetite for a subject has been stirred up by the indirect method, then they may be more receptive and ready for direct information that will add to their understanding.

Take a subject like manliness. Since he was a boy, the average guy has been exposed to plenty of ideas of masculinity and what constitutes a real man — typically a hodgepodge of conflicting theories and images picked up from parents, school, and popular culture.

But all that information may not lead him to discover his potential, or convince him to start acting like man. In fact, it may work against such realizations. Such a fellow may come instead to think that the whole idea of manliness even being a thing is silly and that it’s all relative and wholly culturally constructed.

In such a case, reading angry rants about feminism, nancy boy hipsters these days, and the sorry pussification of modern men is decidedly not going to change his mind. Nor would it be effective to simply press a copy of The Way of Men in his hand and tell him to read up. He’s not ready for such a direct argument and would simply dismiss the rhetoric out of hand, finding reasons to disparage the author.

But let’s say one day this guy needs some tips on tying a tie, comes across an Art of Manliness article on the subject, and is intrigued. He starts reading the Art of Manliness semi-regularly — not our philosophical stuff on masculinity, but the tips on dressing and fitness and skills. While such posts don’t communicate manliness directly, they offer indirect snapshots for what manliness looks like, feels like, acts like. Over time, these articles stir up this reader’s interest in what exactly it means to be a man, not just externally, but at the core. If, after awhile of overhearing this conversation on masculinity, he is directed by a friend to our series on the 3 Ps of Manhood, he’d be ready and able to consider the ideas laid out therein. From there, he could move on to working his way through this list of books about masculinity.

What began as indirect communication prepared the way for direct communication.

While I’ve offered this example for illustrative purposes, separating the phases in which one would use indirect vs. direct communication sets up artificial distinctions. You’d actually want to use one or the other side-by-side in all phases of communication; just as light would be meaningless without dark, direct and indirect rhetoric is most effective when contrasted and regularly interspersed. Jesus, for example, could employ folksy parables about sheep and seeds that served to garner listeners’ interest, and as Craddock puts it, “break up the encrusted soil of the religious community’s assumptions, illusions, and calculations about the kingdom.” But he could also yell, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?!”

Sometimes people need to be directly confronted and shaken out of their apathy and excuses; sometimes they need their heart gently stirred by a breeze carrying the promise of a different path. Sometimes people need a searing jeremiad that’s directed right at them to have their come-to-Jesus moment (literally or metaphorically); sometimes they simply need to overhear a conversation that brings them back to a truth they’ve long known, and simply forgotten.

It’s takes wisdom, discernment, and love for your listener to know what approach someone needs, and when. To know, as Craddock writes, when to open your mouth and “when it is better to simply to touch the arm and say, ‘Over there is Arlington Cemetery.’”



Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue by Mark A. Tietjen

Overhearing the Gospel by Fred Craddock

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