NASHVILLE — United Methodists need to learn how to talk about divisive issues in constructive ways that bring people together, says the director of the church’s JustPeace ministry.
For the last few years, United Methodists have been seeking ways to have debates on difficult issues without stopping dialogue on them. As the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly prepares to meet in Fort Worth, Texas, in April, bishops and other church leaders have called for a civil gathering that places more emphasis on common ministry rather than on issues such as homosexuality, which have divided previous General Conferences.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could experience holy conferencing in Fort Worth, if we could name the real issues in our church and talk about them, learn from each other and come to a better place together?” asked the Rev. Tom Porter, executive director of JustPeace.
The Washington D.C.-based ministry seeks to help United Methodists “engage conflict constructively.” Members of JustPeace gathered Feb. 6 to learn about best practices in having difficult conversations, as identified in the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. “If you want to understand a difficult conversation, you must understand what people are thinking and feeling,” said Douglas Stone, one of three co-authors of the book.
Stone, who is also a senior negotiator and instructor in conflict resolution for the Triad Consulting Group, Cambridge, Mass., defined a difficult conversation as one in which a person finds a topic or issue challenging or hard to talk about.
Conflicts arise over scarce resources and how to divide them and also involve matters of perception that lead to people not getting along with one another, he said. “The question is about trying to understand in a deeper way how we see things.”
Ted Crass, a JustPeace member from the Florida Annual Conference and senior consultant with CMPartners, Cambridge,Mass., called conflict “a natural part of life and a natural part of who we are as individuals.” He has been involved in programming and conflict initiatives in the Florida Conference.
Sexuality, abortion, immigration and other issues “are difficult to talk about in the church because they get to the heart of peoples’ personal experience, their identity and perspective on faith,” he said. Often, a person has reactions to what someone is saying that make it difficult to understand the perspective of the other person. “All of those issues strike people at the core of their identity or faith,” he said.
Porter said people need to engage one another with a sense of wonder and awe, have “appreciative inquiry” and draw on people’s strengths and assets, and “realize that there are a lot of sharp edges in this life.”
Living together, working together and talking together are issues of deep concern in the church, he said.
“We know that we (the church) like to wait to have difficult conversations, and sometimes we wait until it all explodes, and it is not pretty what happens when we don’t deal with the issues, we don’t name them, don’t engage them and don’t go on to the table to talk about them,”Porter said.
Creating listening space
Stone advised that delegates to General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, deal with hot-button issues by creating space for listening and inquiry, to take the role of understanding how others view issues instead of being purely an advocate.
Inquiry, he said, “is helping me understand not just what you see but why you see it that way. What goes into your point of view? What values and experiences, what assumptions, what fears, your predictions about the future, what do you care about?”
People fear or avoid difficult conversations because they fear the consequences, but all difficult conversations have a common structure, Stone said. Each difficult conversation is really three conversations – involving facts, feelings, and identity – that can make it difficult to talk with one another, he said.
“Difficult conversations involve strong emotions or issues about how I see myself in the world,” Stone said. Strong emotions may come from the values a person has and also may be the result of how “people feel treated in the relationship,” he added. “How we talk to each other may influence emotion.”
Porter and others at the JustPeace gathering lamented that Robert’s Rules of Order, the recognized guide that organizations use to run meetings, can sometimes impede conversation, listening and learning.
According to Stone, the valuable conversations that people need may occur as side conversations or be on a parallel track from the primary plenary sessions. “It also may be that it is time to take a look at Robert’s Rules in terms of whether that is the best way to use all of the time or if time can be designated for other conversations.”
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is about more than civil discourse, he said. It is about how to communicate well, clearly and openly. “It is not just about how to be nice to each other or how to be civil to each other.
It is about how to really talk and understand each other.”
Understanding one another is a first step toward conflict resolution, he said. But, even if one does not overcome the conflict, “it is an independent and good thing to understand one another.”
A necessary topic
The Rev. Stephanie Hixon, the director of resources and administration for JustPeace, said the gathering’s topic was necessary because the denomination is grappling with difficult conversations about critical, yet divisive issues.
While the gathering was not programmed to impact General Conference, Hixon said the hope is that the participants, in their various contexts, would interact with delegates and others affiliated with General Conference to share the tools and skills learned from the difficult conversations book and other conflict resolution resources.
“What we are trying to do and help people to do and invite people to do is engage conflict well and constructively,” she said. “We believe that goes even deeper than civil discourse.”
General Conference, which meets every four years, is a time in the life of the denomination when the mission and ministry of the church are outlined but the difficult issues tend to get the attention. The 2008 gathering will be April 23-May 2.
“Our hope is that folks will prepare themselves for engagement, that they will be open to others, and that they will draw on a source that not only includes best practices and skills (for conflict resolution) but the prompting of the Holy Spirit to help them to know when to use these kinds of skills,” Hixon said.
She acknowledged that it is human nature to want to avoid those conversations that are not comfortable. But, she said, “Christians and United Methodists are called to bear witness not only in the resolution of our decision or the decision that we make but also in the manner in which we carry out that decision making.”