First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire

January 29, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

This morning our conversation about being a community of prophecy continues. I want to focus on our interpersonal communications with the people we encounter in our daily lives – our family, friends, coworkers, fellow church members, and individuals encountered in line at the grocery store or post office.

When disagreements arise in our daily lives, how can we be prophets of love and truth?

The truth is, when disagreements arise, it often seems there is no good path to having a conversation much less being a prophet of love and truth. When ending a relationship, voicing a minority viewpoint, talking about racism or sexism, letting someone know they have said something hurtful, or when talking about any of the other things that matter most to us with people who don’t see things our way, we often find ourselves in turbulent waters.

The current anxiety and disappointment many of us are feeling about the direction our country is moving in makes many of our interpersonal interactions more difficult than ever. That anxiety and disappointment can become personal. Some of us are discovering that there are people in our lives we no longer know how to talk to – about anything but the most innocuous of topics.

I have heard so many stories about friendships and family ties that are being stretched to their limit by radically divergent stances on social issues. So while I am speaking today about how to have a range of difficult interpersonal conversations, I recognize that looming over our nation and our lives is a pervasive disharmony.

And right now it seems so urgent to set the record straight. You know what I mean. You are certain you are right and the other person is wrong. And you need to let them know it – right now!

Just yesterday after being here at church, I got briefly onto Facebook. A friend had posted a message, and I did not breathe. I reacted. With frustration, I let him know that I did not understand what he was saying. But what I really meant is: “How could anyone on the face of the earth believe that, much less you, my friend?!” Another friend referred to him as “being a jerk.” He used a different word than jerk. So at least I did not say that. But I might as well have.

There is a lot of that sort of name calling and righteousness going on. And it is going on in the name of truth-telling and justice-making. Deep breaths.

On the polar opposite side, there is avoidance. The fear there is no good way forward leads to the conclusion that it is not worth bothering to have a difficult conversation at all. We may think to ourselves “What difference will it make anyway?”

The idea of having a difficult conversation can also make us feel vulnerable. There is the worry of being rejected or attacked. There is the concern of hurting the other person or doing damage to the relationship. More anger may result. In reality, some situations are too intense. Sometimes people are too angry or too emotionally distressed to have a difficult conversation. Everyone has their limits. I have been in highly charged situations where people stormed out or the police needed to be called. If the other person is emotionally troubled or violence is present or a real threat, special care, most likely professional help, is needed. These are highly-charged times.

But avoiding difficult conversations has its pitfalls. Resentment builds. Self-esteem erodes. A person’s voice gets silenced. By avoiding the difficult conversations, the human community and we as individuals lose the opportunity to heal wounds and divisions and move closer to a unity of spirit guided by love. These are lost chances for prophetic witness. They are lost chances for change and growth.

If individuals do not find ways to talk to each other honestly and kindly about what matters most to us, our lives will be lived at the most shallow level. We will be consigned to having feel-good conversations with people who affirm our existing ways of seeing the world and dodging deeper conversations in the places where we have disagreements. That is a recipe for separation rather than reconciliation. It fails to build the beloved community we long for.

Difficult conversations allow relationships to deepen. Positive change can happen. Something healing and holy can happen. Individuals can learn how to reestablish trust and goodwill. They gain insight into their own motivations. They can learn to listen better and ask better questions.

So how can we approach a difficult conversation? As with most things, we begin with ourselves. If you are having difficulty communicating with someone in your life, give yourself time and space to get clear with yourself. Talk it over with a confidante. Talk it over with your minister. Take deep breaths. Meditate. Pray. Dream on it.

Consider what you hope to accomplish by having the conversation. Do you hope to convince the other person you are right and they are wrong? If so, take more deep breaths. Meditate. Pray. Dream on it. Believe me, I like to be right just as much as the next person. Even if it is something silly or insignificant. But my need to be right in a difficult conversation rarely ends well.

Carl Sagan talks about the polarization of “us versus them.” According to Sagan, we can remain grounded in our own moral convictions and also have a “humane and compassionate intention.” He says:

The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive… (Brain Pickings, “Carl Sagan on moving beyond us vs. them”)

He was talking about superstitious beliefs, but he could have been talking about climate change denial or misogyny or racism.

Having a conversation with another person is not the same as going to a rally or a protest or articulating a political position or a policy statement. A rally or protest is often designed to promote a specific message or position to garner media attention and influence decision-makers, or to inspire people in their work.

Conversations are different. They are not message-centered. They aren’t memes or protest slogans. According to the book Difficult Conversations, the way to discuss what matters most is to move from a message-centered conversation to a learning conversation.

The message-centered conversation is the one we know so well. Most of us can have this one in our sleep. That is the one in which individuals are determined to make or prove a point or unleash anger on the other. This one invariably puts people at odds. Both parties feel shamed, belittled, or judged. Trying to persuade someone to change or insist they are wrong rarely if ever works, hard as we may try. The authors of Difficult Conversations say, “This is because people almost never change without first feeling understood.”

The learning conversation lets someone know they are understood. Understanding isn’t agreeing. The learning conversation opens the door to hearing another person’s perspective. It makes it possible for both people to explain their thoughts, to share their feelings, and to try to collaborate on a way forward in the relationship. The learning conversation prioritizes the bonds among humans and is hopeful about those connections. It focuses less on the disagreement and more on hearing each other’s stories. This one is actually a conversation.

The conversation is steered by the practice of curiosity. To be curious is to be open in new ways. It is a deeply respectful attitude toward life. Curiosity creates possibility, the possibility for insight and connection and growth and the possibility for greater consciousness. I sometimes practice curiosity even in situations where I agree with someone or think I do. Because I am not always sure how another person is processing things. I like to hear how other people who do agree with me articulate their understanding.

Curiosity leads to open-ended questions. Curiosity questions sound like this: “Tell me how you see this?” Or “How do you see this differently?” Or “How are you feeling about all of this?” Or “Can you tell me more about why this is important to you.” Sometimes I might even say, “I am struggling with this. Can you help me understand?”

After being this congregation’s minister for over a year, I had someone come to me and ask me when I was going to preach a sermon. In my head, I was thinking, “I thought I just did.” That is not exactly the kind of thing a minister is hoping to hear. So that was my first internal defensive reaction. I was also genuinely confused, which was a gift. It made being curious easier. After a long pause, I asked a few questions. I learned that for this individual I was not preaching if I was not exegeting a Bible text. I could see then that from his perspective I had not preached a sermon.

For those who like to know how these situations turn out, I shared with him that I might not meet his expectation, or at least not very often. My sermons draw from a wide range of sources, not only Bible texts.

This curiosity piece only truly works when it is sincere. You have to be authentic. People can spot when it is not. The important thing is the effort to understand where the other person is coming from and the willingness to hear their story. Beneath it all, there has to be respect and the fundamental belief that every person has worth and dignity. Even if I vehemently disagree with another person, I can still choose to treat that person with dignity and respect. I can still choose to be curious about who that person is and how that person came to see the world the way they do. And I can forgive myself when I fall short.

It is a hard time to have difficult conversations about what matters most to us. But every attempt to have a holy learning conversation is worthwhile. Even if the conversation does not go well. Because it so often does.

This being human is not easy. Having a conversation about what matters most to us is not easy. This trying to live our values is not easy. But every moment spent trying is worthwhile. Every effort to connect with another person is worthwhile. Every time we speak with bravest fire and have love, there is the possibility for our spirits to be made whole.

Carl Sagan refers to our common human quest. He says we need to practice “compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest.” (qtd in Brain Pickings)

There is the possibility to build the beloved community when we practice compassion, when we remain curious, when we hold open our hearts with hope. This is our true calling.

Amen. Blessed be.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. April 2000. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher.