Can We Talk?
As we begin a new year, what are the deep desires of your heart for our world? For your children and grandchildren? For yourselves? One of my yearnings is for real peace in the world among people who are incredibly different from one another. Another is that the Christian church will actively and consistently work to equip people to live peacefully with one another. I believe that those of us who facilitate classes and small groups can make our world a safer, healthier place when we learn together to talk about important issues that have no clear resolution. Meg Wheatley says, “Conversation is the way we discover how to transform our world, together” (Turning to One Another, p. 31).
Complex issues evoke strong emotions, and we often disagree with one another about what approach we should take in addressing the issues. Some of us will do almost anything to avoid talking about a “sensitive” subject. We quickly change the subject or withdraw from the conversation. Others of us are quick to share our opinions and can engage in name-calling, stereotyping, or threats when confronted with an opposing viewpoint. Both of these responses emerge when people feel unsafe or disrespected.
So how can we structure learning opportunities for people to feel safe enough and respected enough to struggle with the issues that divide us? Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Establish a group covenant. Determine the guidelines you will use for keeping conversation civil and respectful. Post the guidelines where everyone can see them. At the end of each conversation, ask group members to evaluate how well they followed the guidelines. If needed, talk about ways to improve.
- Clarify the purpose of the conversation. We can confuse our strategies with our purpose. Often people want the same things; they just don’t agree on how to achieve what they want. Be clear that the conversation is about understanding different perspectives, exploring options, and perhaps experimenting with alternatives to address an issue.
- Encourage curiosity about different perspectives. Often when we disagree with one another, our primary strategy is to argue our point, hoping to convince the other person that we are “right.” It’s possible to truly wonder what others are thinking, how they reached their conclusions, and why something matters to them. You can continue holding a different viewpoint while coming to understand someone else’s thoughts.
- Slow down. When we feel threatened, our brains put our bodies on “high alert,” triggering a “fight or flight” response. We can practice noticing our emotions and how they are affecting our behavior (withdrawal or aggression, for example). We can ask ourselves why we are reacting the way we are. We can question our assumptions about the topic or our conversation partners. These actions move us from a purely emotional response to one based on reflective thinking.
Questions for Reflection:
- What issues affecting the peace and well-being of the world’s people need to be addressed by your congregation?
- What opportunities can you create in your congregation for facilitating conversations about complex issues?
- What resources do you need for engaging in meaningful conversation that leads to transforming our families, workplaces, communities, and the world?
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