The message and the messenger

May 2017    

In days of old, when messages were carried by persons rather than transmitted through mass media or the Internet, there was a common understanding that one should refrain from “killing the messenger”, especially when the message was unwelcome.

These days, a common response to unwelcome news would be to categorise it as “fake news”. This has the effect of discrediting the information and its source while being somewhat kinder to the hapless messenger.

The topic of differentiating the message from its messenger came up recently in one of my counselling sessions. A woman who came in for individual consultation requested that I speak to her husband to share my observations about their marriage. She agreed with my thoughts about her situation and had previously repeated them to her husband, to no avail. She felt that whatever came from her seemed to be heavily discredited by her husband. But if the same message were to come from a counsellor or even a trusted friend, the result could be more favourable.

It is sad that her husband had grown to be so dismissive of his wife. However, I suspect she is not alone in her experience. My wife recently remarked that I was more accepting of health warnings about using microwave ovens after reading an article about them, instead of listening to the same advice she had given for many years.

In general, people are increasingly questioning the trustworthiness of information and its sources. Is this a product of the postmodernist view that demands us to question all of our past ‘absolutes’, or a symptom of growing scepticism about the motives of others?

As recent as a few years ago, whenever the famous American news anchor, Walter Cronkite, appeared in the evening news, few would question what he said.

But today, with so many news sources and the rise of ‘citizen journalism’, we are not always sure about what we hear or even see. Recently, pictures were posted on social media purporting to show a fire in Tuas. There had been a fire in Tuas, but the pictures posted were not of that particular mishap, or even of a fire in Singapore.

In this day and age, to have a trusted messenger or to be a trusted messenger is no small thing. Are you a trusted messenger? How does one earn this position that is not just a special privilege, but also carries a heavy responsibility?

Firstly, we must be truthful. It also helps to be tactful and to speak the truth with love. Some of us like to deliver the truth or our views in as forthright a manner as possible, but “being direct” is not an excuse to be hurtful.

To be a trusted messenger, one must listen carefully, discern deeply the meaning of the message, and repeat it faithfully. Listening is a powerful and needed skill, but it would not be complete without the process of understanding what was heard.

Our comprehension is sometimes coloured by our assumptions, stereotypes, and personal biases. If we learn to place ourselves in others’ shoes and take their perspectives, our understanding of their troubles can improve.

Lastly, being a trusted messenger also means we must be open to take a stand no matter how unpopular it might be, and to do so without fear or prejudice.

Once, an old acquaintance of almost 30 years asked if I could counsel him about his marital problems. I asked him to give me some time to consider, as it is inadvisable for counsellors to work with someone with whom they have an existing relationship. After much consideration, I agreed, but told him my decision was based on a readiness to lose him as a friend in order to do my job as his counsellor. Such a resolve must be present in order to be a trusted and objective listener and messenger.

In these days, when unfounded rumours and gross misinformation abound, may we all be bearers of news that is not only good, but accurate as well.

Benny Bong –

has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.


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