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Engaging Difficult Conversations

8 years ago written by

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people … religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin,” said Linus in a 1961 “Peanuts” comic strip and a 1966 cartoon. With the exception of the mysterious Great Pumpkin, Linus took his cues from a popular rule of etiquette still in effect today on subjects not to discuss publicly.

The idea of never talking about politics or religion was popularized throughout the 20th century as conflict arose over tension-filled topics when sharing personal beliefs. Although we still find ourselves struggling for ways to approach important subjects with grace and humility when we feel a strong sense of conviction, our etiquette is changing. People want to talk about the presidential election and how they believe God engages the world. Yet we often have ill-defined ways of going about sharing our convictions with others in ways that build up rather than cause debate. Thus, it is often easier to avoid a potentially dramatic exchange, opting for lighter conversations about weather, weekend activities and our latest TV series.

I am definitely a fan of hearing about people’s weekend adventures and how they engage with pop culture. I also love being able to hear why people think and feel the way they do even when nearing unknown territory. As a pastor and the director for the Leadership Center in Oregon, I get to spend much time with people, mostly college students, who thrive on unearthing their beliefs through exploring the unknown.

Through the Leadership Center, we recruit and send students to ministry sites for a semester or summer to help them discern their call while practicing servant leadership in an internship context. In addition to mentoring these students, I have the opportunity to teach at their colleges. Mentoring and teaching over the last several years has taught me much about future generations and the evolving etiquette of not just what we talk about but how we talk about what we believe. I have learned no topic is off-limits when encouraging another person’s growth. Students want to learn, and whether the topic is religion, politics, economics or ranking their cafeteria’s food choices, they want to engage in the conversation. They want to know why things are the way they are, what their place is in healing the world and what role God plays in it all. They do not want to have the conversations in a vacuum. They want to learn from people who have thought, prayed, studied and experienced the subject firsthand.

I don’t think college students are much different than many of us in wanting to discover what we actually think and feel about specific subjects and how to live our convictions well. The advantage of the classroom is that it offers a proper space to have dialogue with ground rules and expectations of respect and civility to prompt learning. However, the college classroom is liminal. It is a beginning place from which to launch into the world to live out our ideals.

My motivation for beginning the internship program sprang out of the need to give young people firsthand “taste and see” experiences to develop as leaders while trying on their beliefs with those who could create a safe space where success and failure are both OK. The internship guides students from the classroom to a live context that can enrich their perspective. For example, matching an intern with a supervisor who has spent years actively caring for the poor of their city and has learned how to connect with their community in appropriate and life-giving ways, the student then is shaped in a way the student never would have been through classroom dialogue. By walking alongside the supervisor, the intern learns firsthand the difference between charity and hospitality.

Whether we are in college or not, we all have a common need to find mentors and teachers who offer wisdom and share their life experiences in helping us engage well in difficult conversations toward discovering what we believe.

But finding a mentor can be the real challenge. Let me clarify. Finding a person who can handle subjects such as transgender or holy war without becoming dominant, shutting you down or telling you what to believe and why is difficult.

I have found the best mentors to others and myself are able to maintain the following three qualities: they create a safe space for dialogue; they possess a non-anxious presence when confronted with challenge; and they offer their wisdom or advice as it is welcomed. I would call each quality a posture: an attitude and a way that those who possess them present themselves to others. To better understand these postures, I find no better model than Jesus.

Posture 1: Creating and maintaining safety in difficult conversations

“People only risk to the degree they feel safe” (“Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler). What does it mean to feel safe? We feel safe when we are not concerned about injury or harm being done to us. People won’t share what they really think or ask the questions on their mind if they sense they will be judged, viewed as insignificant or shut down. But when we feel valued and respected by another for who we are, including our ignorance and imperfections, we are much more willing to reveal ourselves, thus creating space for meaningful dialogue.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 reveals how He diffused the cultural tension between Himself and her and helps her feel safe. Although the conversation begins with Jesus stepping over cultural boundaries to talk with a Samaritan, He invites her into dialogue about salvation and eternal life through utilizing familiar topics such as the water in the well. The woman’s tone changes throughout their exchange and she opens up, sharing her knowledge and asking questions of Jesus. By the end of their conversation, she has not served Him. Instead He has served her, revealing to her that He indeed is the Messiah. The woman was not condemned for who she was or her lack of understanding. She was valued and welcomed to engage with the Christ.

When we mimic Jesus in setting aside the boundaries that make us different from another and unable to meet them where they are, we begin to make space for safety in dialogue. Jesus respected the woman for who she was. We have to begin with valuing people for who they are, made in the imago Dei, without seeing all the potential differences that divide us from one another.

In valuing others, even in the midst of discussing politics, it is helpful to consider the idea of “the drowning man” (“Crucial Conversations”). If you were to see a person drowning in a river while you were on the shore nearby, you would do what it took to help them. Why? Not simply because they are drowning. The more important reason is that you value human life. Respecting human life should be enough of a reason to dialogue with a person while keeping them from harm. We want to keep others from trauma and help them feel safe enough to try swimming with us in the subjects and life experience we have to share.

The reality is that this may take us checking in with them. If we notice they stop responding or are silent for a time, we are able to ask simple clarifying questions such as, “I notice you are quiet. Is everything all right?” or “I am really interested in hearing your thoughts. Would you like to share what you think?” Stepping out of the topic at hand to take a pulse on the situation will lessen tension and help you both gauge the level of safety in the conversation.

Posture 2: Keeping a non-anxious presence when confronted with challenge

Why don’t we want to engage in difficult conversations? Is it because the path of least resistance is easier? Maybe. I think there is something greater at stake when we avoid potential conflict — a fear of loss. No one wants to lose, especially when the potential loss could be a relationship. When we talk about subjects we know can be controversial, there is often the perspective of “one of us is right and one is wrong,” meaning there will be a winner and a loser in this conversation. Once we have determined we are on opposing teams, the challenge shifts from having a meaningful conversation to winning the day with little consideration to the damage done to our opponent. So, to avoid hurting others or being hurt, we are socialized in “peacemaking” etiquette to leave difficult dialogue altogether.

Instead of fight or flight, a third way of being is needed — a non-anxious presence, being present to a situation without being reactive. This is the road less traveled. As Edwin Friedman explains in “A Failure of Nerve,” a non-anxious or well-differentiated person “has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. … No one does this easily, and most leaders, I have learned, can improve their capacity.”

Jesus had an epic non-anxious response to the Pharisees and Herodians when they sought to trap him by asking whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13–17). He does not rage against the religious leaders for their manipulation or avoid them out of fear. He chooses to directly engage the dialogue and asks for a coin. His response is to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It was not about being in control or avoiding conflict for Jesus but rather redirecting to focus on the kingdom. The coin may have been of Caesar’s creation, but all of creation belongs to God.

The challenge in being non-anxious can be that we are afraid to lose control or be proven wrong. The reality is we don’t have to prove right and wrong. We are called to follow the Lord, being filled with the Spirit— a self-controlled, patient, kind and loving Spirit. Being self-controlled and non-anxious with others takes dependence upon the Lord — asking for forgiveness from others when we mess up and then graciously entering the conversation again.

Posture 3: Offering wisdom or advice when welcomed

I am a recovering fixer. I like to see people whole. In fact, my calling is to empower others to be all God made them to be. Sometimes (well, many times actually) I have attempted to jump in and help the Lord out with a person, letting the person know what the best way is — whether that is asserting my opinions about a young person’s future or telling my husband just how to cook dinner. Even though I have insight to share and I may be right, if my advice is not welcomed, I have ceased to be helpful.

This is the most difficult part to mentoring in my opinion. We love to tell people what we think, and holding our words back is hard. This is especially true when we can identify with someone. If we share our wisdom at a time or in a way that another person is unable to benefit, we have actually caused them harm and moved out of the posture of being a safe person for them.

When we feel we have something important to offer someone, whether from the Bible, the Holy Spirit or personal experience (or all three), it is vital that we get his or her permission first. Simply asking if we can share our thoughts will do, but we must be mindful of not overdoing it. Listening to the Spirit and watching for signs of disengagement or facial queues that tell me I can wrap up my sentence are important pieces to our sharing.

Jesus was masterful at asking questions. When He sees the handicapped man at the pool of Bethesda, He does not immediately tell the man what to do. Instead, realizing the man has been there for some years, He asks a simple question, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). The man gives his response, letting Jesus know he has tried many times but someone else always cuts ahead of him. With the man’s affirmation, Jesus shares his insight — insight that leads to the man’s healing (v.8–9).

Simple questions can create an open door to sharing our lives with others. We can offer some of what we know and we can make space for others to respond to our advice.

I would like to change the rule of etiquette to be “engage in risky conversations on every topic with grace and humility.” Our primary role as Christ followers is to receive and share redemption in Jesus’ name to all generations. This does not mean we avoid or try to control difficult conversations, but rather embrace them with the posture of Christ. When we truly seek to value the other as Jesus does, we will give them space to be who they are, even if it is not our best choice for them, and we will continue to offer the love, truth and hope of God to them in gentle and generous ways.

Trisha Welstad is a Free Methodist elder in the Oregon Conference and the director of the Leadership Center, which provide scholarships, training, mentoring and internships to grow the ministries and leaders of Oregon.

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[Feature] · Culture · L + L March 2016 · Magazine

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