The Art of Conversation

I think a lot about communication. It comes naturally to me. But communication is important to all of us. Our lives revolve around how we communicate, with ourselves and others. Most recently, however, I’ve been focused on what I’ll call compassionate communication: how to effectively communicate in a way that shows compassion for all involved.

I have lots of opinions. We all do. We all have our own life experiences which shape these opinions. And, as if that’s not messy enough, we’re all imperfect. So how do we effectively communicate with each other — not at each other or around each other or past each other, but with each other?

We have to be quiet and listen.

We can’t communicate effectively or compassionately if we don’t make an effort to understand each other, which happens by listening. This is why social media communication sometimes fails so miserably. We are complicated people discussing complicated issues that tend to be far more nuanced than we sometimes like to admit. Many times, we need to be able to actually hear each other. Even better, we need to see each other. We need to remember that the person on the other side of the conversation is a human just like us. In many cases, the people we are communicating with are our friends and family. If we have any chance of communicating effectively, especially via social media, we must be willing to be quiet and listen to each other.

We have to start from a place of mutual respect.

Can I just admit this is extraordinarily difficult to do sometimes? And if you’re honest with yourself, I bet you’d agree. I live in a world in which my very equality is regularly questioned in my own community. In fact, I don’t even have the same rights as others in my community and there are still people, most of them who say they’re Christians just like me, actively trying to deny me this equality. It is incredibly difficult to think of these people as anything other than mean, fearful, ignorant people. It’s messy. And even when I do remember that these people are also beloved Children of God (regardless of their faith or lack of it), and that we should strive to love everyone, it’s not something I can permanently sustain. It’s something I must regularly work to do. But if I’m asking them to respect me, I must be willing to offer them the same respect, which leads me to my next point.

We must be willing to treat others as we would like to be treated.

I know — what a cliche. But this one is true. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. It helps stop us from being hypocritical. And let’s be honest: we all love to call someone out for hypocrisy, don’t we? And we’re all hypocrites at times, aren’t we? But beyond it being the right thing to do, you’re never going to get your point across to someone who disagrees with you or doesn’t understand you if you don’t even treat them the way you expect them to treat you.

We must be prepared to show grace.

As a gay man, especially one who now (again) identifies as a Christian — a word that understandably tends to carry a boatload of assumptions, I would get absolutely nowhere with many people if I just shut down a conversation every time someone asked me something that was inappropriate or offensive.

I am not saying that one should endure a continued barrage of angry, fear-filled hate speech and continue to be around the person spewing it. I’m also not saying the marginalized bear the full burden of explaining ourselves to others. What I am saying is that when we’re engaging in thoughtful conversations with folks, we should try our best to extend grace to one another.

I’ve been asked so many uncomfortable, insensitive questions about my sexual orientation. If you’re in a minority group or a group that’s very often misunderstood, chances are you know what I’m talking about. 

Perhaps you’ve even asked someone these sorts of questions. If I’m honest, in my effort to learn more about others and learn how I can advocate on their behalf, I think I have. And anytime anyone has ever patiently pointed it out to me, I’ve been so thankful to them for doing so, so that I can learn from the experience. One’s motives behind the questions make a difference, at least to me. If you’re asking to truly better understand me and people like me, I’m much more likely to patiently answer your questions. Regardless, we need to have more grace in our conversations.

We have to hold each other accountable.

Once we establish that we are willing to listen, respect one another, treat each other as we’d like to be treated, and prepare ourselves to extend grace to one another — once we do all that, we are better equipped to effectively hold each other accountable.

I can’t say this enough: humans are not perfect. Often, we slip up. When we do, we need help from friends who will hold us accountable. But more than that, we also need to call out things like racism, bigotry, and homophobia when we see them. We can do this while still listening, showing respect, following the Golden Rule, and showing grace. It’s a challenge — trust me, I struggle with it regularly — but it’s optimal.

So why don’t we do all of this? Why is it so difficult? Well, that’s a loaded question with many reasons. But let me explain why I think it’s sometimes difficult for me.

I want to avoid unnecessary stress and controversy.

I can handle stress. Successfully handling stressful situations has always been part of my job, regardless of the industry. I have even frequently enjoyed these moments. But a key to effectively handling stress, for me at least, is minimizing unnecessary stress as much as possible. Sometimes, stress is good and needed. But sometimes, it’s definitely not. It’s all about balance.

So when I’m faced with a decision about whether or not to engage in communication with someone on some issue, I factor in how much stress it may cause and if it’s worth it. That’s a reasonable thing to do, but more often I’m realizing that it’s important to have important conversations, regardless of the stress it may cause.

I want to avoid tension and being in uncomfortable situations.

This is especially true for me in person. But tension can be good. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued for the benefits and importance of tension in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Did you catch that? Tension isn’t only important, it’s necessary for growth. Dang.

We find similar themes in Christianity, with tension and complexity in the Bible itself and in issues people struggle with. As Christopher L. Webber puts it:

“Uniformity of opinion and vision might be more comfortable to some, but unity is made up of diversity. It is precisely in this clash of opinions and the debating of different visions that the mission of the church is clarified. A church without controversy would be a dead church.”

Dang.

In order to have effective conversations, we must be willing to embrace tension and get out of our comfort zones. Honestly, you and I probably both know some of our most meaningful learning experiences have been in trying, tense, and uncomfortable times, yet we sometimes still fear them. But the more we do it, the easier and more comfortable it becomes.

I fear imperfection.

Yep. The guy who talks about how imperfect we all are is the same guy who has this nagging need to try to be perfect, even though he realizes this is unrealistic. Welcome to my mind.

The reason this sometimes holds me back from conversations is that I worry what I’ll say will hurt more than help. I worry that I won’t have the right words or will have the wrong tone. Also, the idea of people thinking I speak on behalf of an entire group, regardless of the group, adds enormous pressure. And while maybe I tend to thrive under pressure, my mind doesn’t seem to care. But hey — realizing this is the first step to moving past it, right?

I like to be liked.

There. I said it. If you know me, you’re probably all like, “Um, duh. That’s obvious.” But here’s the thing: when I think about why I like to be liked, my mind almost immediately goes back to the things I listed above — I want to avoid unnecessary stress and controversy and I want to avoid tense, uncomfortable situations.

But I also want to be approachable, especially for friends and family. I want to be a resource — someone who they know will listen to them. While I’m certainly unafraid to take positions and have opinions, I do often try to find common ground. And that’s not a bad thing as long as I’m not denying myself, denying others, and avoiding what’s right in an unrealistic effort to make all people feel comfortable. And I know I do that, especially in person.

For example, if I’m around family or even in public with my boyfriend, I’m less likely to show him any form of overt affection. I’ll tell myself that I’m not a huge fan of PDA and wouldn’t be if I were straight either. But is that true? How do I know that’s true when I’ve been conditioned for literally my entire life to think that being gay and showing any form of romantic affection to someone of the same sex is wrong? Two things drive this thought process: fear and wanting to make others comfortable.

This is also something I’m working on — not just the PDA thing — all of it. While certain times may call for neutrality, in many cases it’s better in the long run to stand firm in who and how you are, letting the chips fall where they may. But I think you must also keep the Golden Rule in mind, as well as the idea that we should strive to show love and kindness to one another. 

So what’s the answer here? How do we communicate effectively while staying true to who we are and not condoning dangerous, damaging rhetoric? How do we have conversations with people who are not playing by the same “rules,” so-to-speak? Why should we have to play by those rules if they aren’t? Should we even try?

As usual, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle — in a gray area. And I think it depends on the situation. Like most things in life, it’s complex. And if I had one perfect answer, I think I’d be a much more popular person, probably with a few extra bucks in my bank account, too.

Most of life’s big questions don’t have definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. It’s messier than that. But there can be beauty in  difficult answers. To reference Christopher L. Webber again, a “middle way” can “achieve a comprehensiveness or breadth of approach that could draw wisdom from every side and include the insights of others.”

While Webber is talking about Christianity, particularly Episcopalianism here, I think it holds true in general, as well. For so many issues, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle — in a gray area. Why? Well, people are diverse and complex. Many issues are, too.

Certainly, there are issues that are either just right or wrong, and we must not be silent when we hear things like hate speech. That’s when holding each other accountable comes in. But how do we know what’s right and wrong?

Jesus tells us we can judge a tree by the fruit it bears — a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. If one’s actions and rhetoric are bearing bad fruit — leading to negative outcomes — it is not good. If one’s actions and rhetoric are bearing good fruit — leading to positive outcomes — it is good. Using this method, we can better understand when it’s time to speak up. And when we do so, we must be prepared to be bold while also being mindful of the things that make a conversation most productive.

If we want to affect any change, if we want to learn and grow, if we want others to learn and grow, and if we want to fully live life, we must be willing to engage in difficult, messy, conversations. And we must be willing to do so with compassion, understanding, respect and grace. It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot.

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