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Difficult Conversations Part 1

Do not answer before you listen, and do not interrupt when another is speaking” (Sirach 11:8).

How do we navigate difficult conversations?  I recognize that my mindset and attitude walking into a conversation significantly impacts how I hear the other person and respond.  When training hospice volunteers I encouraged people to simply pause before stepping into a person’s room (or home) and centre themselves, stilling all those inner voices and competing calls for our attention.  After listening to Malcom Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers,[1] I am beginning to incorporate some of his insights as I frame my approach to these conversations.

Malcom Gladwell articulates three basic insights in the book (along with innumerable glimpses into human nature and our relationships with one another). 

1)     We generally assume people are telling the truth.  We are abysmally poor at discerning when people are lying and when they are telling the truth.

2)     We think we can discern individuals’ sincerity or duplicity based on their facial and body language, but fail to consider that our cultural norms of expression may not be the same as those with whom we are interacting.  Interpreting posture and expression can be complicated when we are talking to people whose orientation is based on a set of cultural norms different than our own. 

3)     We need to consider the context of the relationship and the situation when interpreting another person’s response

Despite sometimes getting deceived or failing to read each other correctly, the social cost of not operating on the twin assumptions — that we can trust people and that we can discern a person’s emotions through face or body language — is prohibitive.  Imagine assuming that everyone was deceiving you and that you could never trust what anyone said.  Living in that state of paranoia would bring all social interaction and commerce to a standstill.

In regard to context, we must consider the specifics of people’s life experience and the situations in which we encounter each other.  In addition, part of context involves how people have previously interacted with people like us, or individuals in our position.  The same applies to us. This reality can throw any conversation off the rails in a hurry.

The difficulty is that on an issue like Covid, where battle lines have been drawn with indelible ink, we often reverse the assumptions of truth and transparency.  We may assume that the other person is listening to lies and is spreading them recklessly.  We may assume that their primary agenda in any conversation is to convert us to their point of view.  And we might assume we share the same context, have the same access to information, and that the logic which we see so clearly has persuasive strength in the other person’s perspective.  Those assumptions have us talking past each other and being stuck in a position which hinders our ability to hear each other, let alone appreciate one another’s position on an issue.

  What will shape the kind of conversations that take place as the church re-opens? To regain trust in mutual honesty we first need to rebuild the relational context in which helpful conversation can take place.  We need to create space to re-connect with people on a casual or informal basis which doesn’t focus on differences about Covid, masking, or vaccines.

Watch for Part 2 to be posted on July 27th, 2021.


[1] I recommend listening to Gladwell’s audiobook.  He has included recorded interviews with many of his sources.  It’s a fascinating journey.  Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers, Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown & Company, 9 Sep 2019.

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