Difficult Conversations

Oh no … it’s happening again. You were at a perfectly civilised family dinner, enjoying the mostly vacuous yet pleasant small talk that inevitably occurs at such occasions, and seemingly out of nowhere the topic of Brexit comes up. Almost instantaneously, you can feel the tension levels in the room get cranked up several notches, as shoulders are set, teeth are ground and any notion of ‘indoor voices’ is thrown out the window. After a seemingly endless back and forth, where many points are stated (often repeatedly) and yet very few actually listened to, the discussion finally dies down in an atmosphere of annoyance and frustration. Nobody has changed their opinion about anything, but nevertheless everyone feels as though they have lost. What had the potential to be a fun family get-together has now been soured by disagreement and disunity, and, no matter how hard you may try, the evening seems unable to recover after that.

Although this is a fairly extreme and dramatized example, I have no doubt that everyone reading this would have been in conversations before where at least some of this tension and conflict rings true: whether with friends, colleagues or, indeed, with relatives. Every time we come closer in conversation, whether voluntarily or not, to issues like these that are so emotionally charged, the risk of the dialogue becoming unconstructive and hurtful increases dramatically. So great is this risk, in fact, that one would very much be forgiven for thinking that constructive dialogue is not at all possible for some of the most controversial justice-related issues of our time. Particularly at the moment, the prevalence of vitriol and political intolerance in our national discourse only serves to reinforce this fear, and thus the feelings of hopelessness in our current predicament can’t help but intensify: not only does change seem to be impossible, but even the possibility of talking about change seems to be a no-go area as well.

What do we, as Christians, do in the face of such disharmony? How can we even begin to approach issues where there are such fundamental, seemingly irresolvable, disagreements, in tandem with such passionate views from all sides of a discussion? How can we go about achieving any good, when the possibility for harm is so high? Thankfully, we know that we are not alone in our search for the answers to these questions: we can look to the Bible for guidance. When writing to God’s holy people in Colossae, Paul says the following when speaking on ‘living as those made alive in Christ’…

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” – Colossians 3:12

It is my sincere hope that, through contemplation of these virtues and of some of their potential practical applications, we might be able to move further in our journey towards answering some of these difficult questions. In doing so, I believe we can help change the dialogue in this country from one of hate into one of love, from injustice to justice, both in our everyday conversations and, through the small every day, in the large as well.

Before beginning, it is worth emphasising, as Paul does, two important points: God has chosen you, and you are holy and dearly loved. The last thing I want this blog to turn into is a series of do’s and don’ts, that end up making you feel inadequate or guilty. We all fall short of the glory of God: being a student of philosophy, I know that I am all too eager to get caught up in my own ideas and am as guilty as any of the sin of intellectual pride. I have no authority to speak on this topic but the long record of my failures; my enjoyment of a good debate, and my bumbling attempts at engaging in them, mean I’ve all too often caused the harm that results from ignoring God’s lessons.

We know, however, that it is by God’s love and grace that we are saved, and so we have nothing to fear from our shortcomings. Nevertheless, my prayer for you is that anything I say that is unhelpful, or not of God, would be immediately ignored and forgotten; my last wish is to lead anyone astray (bear in mind Colossians 2:8). That being said, I hope there is something of the character and love of God that comes through in this blog, so let’s speak no more of it and crack on with ‘Matt’s Top Five (Hopefully Biblical) Tips for Approaching Difficult Conversations!’

Humility – Learning from Everybody

When deciding how to structure this blog, I was initially hesitant to break the order Paul uses, worried that there may be some significance to it that I was missing; nevertheless, I have decided to start with humility. I did this because I believe the Bible, taken as a whole, seems to place a special emphasis on humility as an integral virtue. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which I’ve heard described as ‘Jesus’ big manifesto statement’ at the start of his ministry, Jesus says in his first sentence…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

As far as I understand it, we can take “poor” in this context to mean something very much like “humble,” demonstrating the importance of having a humble posture right from the start. Moreover, there are many more instances in the Bible of humility being raised up as incredibly desirable; Philippians 2:5-8, 1 Peter 5:5-6 and Psalm 149:4 provide some fine examples of this. Given the foundational status of this virtue, then, it seems only proper to address it first.

By far and away the most helpful bit of advice I ever received about practising humility in my conversations was this: realise that, no matter who you are talking to, you always have something to learn. Every person has a different and unique story to their lives, and every person is an expert in being themselves. By valuing and honouring each individual’s unique insights and experiences, we are necessarily raising them up and lowering ourselves down in our own estimation; not in too dissimilar a fashion to the way a dutiful student comes with humility before their teacher. Thus, adopting this mindset can give us a really tangible way of practising humility, rather than grasping in vain at a rather ethereal abstract notion.

Of course, I am not suggesting that we imitate this student-teacher relationship in every regard: whereas we should respect the intellectual or moral authority of a good teacher, we should not respect that authority in a person who does not in fact possess such authority. I am suggesting, however, that we should respect the unique viewpoint and experiences every person can bring to the table. For example, when I talk to a fellow child of God on homeless outreach, I am often taught lessons about hardship, perseverance and wrongdoing that are completely alien to the life of comfort and convenience that is my reality; it is a privilege to listen, and in acknowledging this fact I have found the quality of my interactions to have increased significantly.

Gentleness – Non-Judgementality

A fairly obvious point, granted, but I believe an essential one. In my experience, the fastest way to shut down any conversation is to let the other person know that you think badly of them, or their opinions. That is not to say that one should never disagree with anyone about anything: rather, I believe there is immense value in framing that disagreement carefully, by affirming your love and respect for the person you are talking to. This can be done both through body language and explicit dialogue, and I have found that the best results tend to occur when both of these are used together, as they are complimentary by nature.

If I find a person or viewpoint particularly difficult to approach lovingly, it helps me to remember how God views them. Behind every confused conceptual framework, every prejudiced opinion and every false belief, there is a real person, with real emotions and real hurts that they carry with them. This person, this broken and lost traveller, this beloved child of God: this should be our focus. I have found that keeping this focus has helped me muster up much more gentle responses than I would otherwise have been able to muster, which in turn allows for more grace with other mistakes; people are less likely to take you to task if you are gentle.

Patience – Non-Directionality

Out of all of the tools I’ve presented in this blog, I believe this one requires the most wisdom in its application. It may not be appropriate for all situations, but I would highly recommend giving it a try. Essentially, the idea at play here is to patiently wait on the other person to bring up ideas, rather than introducing them yourself. That way, you can be sure you are discussing the issues that matter to them, and thus might be able to more easily find common ground. To return to the Brexit example, it doesn’t matter if you know all the intricate arguments about immigration and economics if all your conversational partner cares about is issues regarding sovereignty; by letting them lead the conversation, you can ensure the dialogue stays relevant to them.

One outworking of this would be to try to go into a conversation without an agenda; or, in other words, without a desire to expound upon your own beliefs. When we rid ourselves of the need for our opinions to be listened to and understood, we are free to focus on the things that really matter, like, primarily, loving the person that is in front of us. Part of loving them may indeed be constituted by gently challenging some of their ideas, so that together you can hopefully journey further towards the truth of the matter; when we focus on loving the individual, however, it is easier to make sure we put their needs first, rather than just speaking in order to satisfy our own needs.

To add a brief but important side point here (learned through my own numerous mistakes), although non-directionality can be a useful tool, it is vital not to use it all the time and with all people. Everybody needs to be listened to: it is just good to make sure the listener is trustworthy, willing and capable of taking the load.

Compassion – Underlying Emotions

Unlike the other virtues, the meaning of ‘compassion’ took me a little longer to understand properly, but as far as I can tell it basically means ‘to suffer alongside.’ Thus, when applied to tricky conversations, one way we could be compassionate is by trying to identify and discuss the underlying issues and motivations that drive a person’s beliefs, rather than simply addressing the conceptual position being presented. Quite often, I have found that conversations that present outwardly as political, or ethical, are actually underpinned by very personal experiences of genuine hurt and wrongdoing. Fundamentally, these emotions are what need to be addressed, rather than the intellectual frameworks we put up to rationalise them.

Kindness – Approach with Caution

Lastly, I wish to put forward my most tentative point, that could potentially have an effect on how we view our contribution as Christians to the larger debates on difficult topics. Being one with God and perfect in virtue, Jesus knew everything he needed to know about a person, thus allowing him to speak directly to their needs. Although I believe, as followers of Christ, we can be divinely inspired, I do not think that it would be right to assume that our ways, like Jesus’, are always in tune with God’s Will and perfect in virtue like His were.

Therefore, I am not convinced that we, like Jesus, have the right or the ability to know when and how to speak absolute truth in all situations. Hence, the importance of kindness. Although we should never lie, it does not follow from this that we should always prioritise expounding the truth at the expense of the welfare of others. In this context, then, to be kind is to know when to prioritise the truth, and when to instead focus on meeting the needs of those you are attending to. I know that I am as guilty as anyone for lacking kindness, and indeed truthfulness, and I do not think that I will ever stop learning lessons from God about how to become more kind and more honest. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly convinced of the value of both of these ends, and it is a dream of mine that one day, even if they may not agree with us, the entire world would be able to truthfully say ‘what a kind and loving group of people those odd Christian folks are.’

As I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear, we’ve come at last to the end of our voyage into the dark and dangerous realms of ‘conversing’. If I have said anything that has overstepped the line or missed the mark in any way, I humbly ask both your and God’s forgiveness. I hope, however, that I have given you some food for thought. I shall leave you with a quote that I believe elegantly summarises the sentiments I’ve been trying to get at, in a much more succinct and concise manner than mere mortals such as I could ever achieve. In the words of William “Bill” S. Preston Esq. and Theodore “Ted” Logan…

“Be excellent to each other.”

God bless you all.

Matthew Rimmer | 3rd year @ st Catz