Whether you are brand new to dialogue, or a veteran, we all have moments where we might feel a bit, well, stuck. We might find ourselves triggered, suddenly feeling filled with emotion or scurrying to be defensive. Or we might simply not understand a person’s response to something we have shared. We might notice the tone of the room suddenly tanks and you simply don’t know what caused it or how to get back to solid ground.
Be assured; it is common -if not inevitable- to find a moment where building bridges gets bumpy! Part I of this blog is about what may be at play when a dialogue gets stuck.
Part II will further outline possible actions to get out of stuck-ness.
Part I: What Just Happened?
“I am pro-life because my faith teaches me that all forms of life are sacred.” “No you aren’t. You believe it because you think the government should force everyone to conform to your beliefs.”
When someone asserts something about their own convictions, feelings or reasons for actions, and another dialoguer contradicts it, the dialogue is dismantled. Why? Because building bridges necessitates trust in each person telling the truth about their own experiences better than you can do for them. If one person is permitted to undercut someone’s feelings or convictions, than we lose the vital dialogical commitment of seeking to understand before being understood. Here a dialogue will do well to pause, back up, and work toward collectively re-committing to the legitimacy of each dialoguer’s experiences.
“My political party represents those that have been swept aside, that live unheard and unseen. The other side is reprehensible and they overlook the wrongdoings of their candidate.”
It is striking that I have heard voters from multiple political parties across multiple elections describe themselves and others just like this. Strongly held within us are narratives that we subconsciously affirm and perpetuate. When we have new experiences, what stands out to us are the pieces that endorse already-held beliefs. We are often entrenched in like-minded communities, not to mention the reinforcing efforts of niche marketing and media outlets, we easily get lost in our own biases. Over time, this narrative can solidify into our very core.
Our most distancing disagreements are often about underlying narratives in our lives that we don’t think about much, but that steer the ship of our decisions and actions. We follow a script that is hard to change, and it is bewildering when we encounter someone that doesn’t follow a script very similar to our own. In fact, it is so challenging that we are often left to either a) deconstruct, then reconstruct our whole life narrative, which is no piece of cake or b) save energy by deciding that people with other narratives are either miseducated or just plain loco.
As such, needed in dialogue is humility. Specifically needed is a willingness to change, question our own biases, and to take a step back and wonder what else might be at play when we are tempted to make the world simpler by pointing a finger at someone else.
We are often so buried in like-mindedness that we don’t even know “those people” that think like that, vote like that, or believe that crazy stuff. Rest assured, someone out there is thinking the same about you.
Sometimes we mistake being “open-minded” for being around like-minded people. For example, you may be good friends with people from 7 different faith traditions, but it is entirely possible that if you all self-identify as liberal, you may agree on more than more conservative intra-faith counterparts. I have seen conservative Christians get along more easily with conservative Jewish folks than liberal Christian folks. Take note that embracing diversity and trying to understand people you don’t already understand are at times different things. We have good work to do, and to do it, it takes intentionally placing ourselves in less comfortable, less like-minded environments. It may not be comfortable, but it is fruitful over time!
There is such a thing as someone who has been talked into a dialogue, attends, and is not ready. For instance, I often say if someone “needs to win,” they are not ready for the dialogue and would do better to wait to attend until a different season of life.
There is also such a thing as a dialoguer being well-meaning and not ready for certain topics, rather than an entire dialogue. I have seen a dialoguer respond to a question I’ve asked by expressing that they are overwhelmed by the question and cannot answer it. This is a very legitimate - even considerate - response! A dialogue’s success in part depends on the honesty and vulnerability of its participants. In this situation, I validated the good reasons why someone might not be ready to hear the question, much less answer it. I invited those that felt comfortable enough to try to do so before we moved on to a question more palatable for the entire group.
5. Work-in-progress with self-awareness (all of us)!
Sometimes we can confuse ourselves more than we can confuse others! That is ok. We may encounter a feeling or response to something someone shares that we simply didn’t expect, or that we do not understand. This is an opportunity to grow, to reflect beyond the dialogue, and perhaps to seek pastoral care or the care of your worshipping community. Have grace and compassion for yourself if you find yourself feeling or responding in a way that takes you off guard. In the same way, please extend grace and compassion toward others for the same reason. In the most effective dialogue, the members are not nearly worried about the specific words shared so much as the heart of what they are trying to get across.
Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to respond when a moment of stuckness strikes!
[mockingbird argument image from Creative Commons]