conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

What about those hard conversations? (DGtC #27)

with 5 comments

Are explosive words better from an authority or friend?

I am convinced that where people gather: a classroom, a department, a congregation, discussion is a more effective use of time than all of us listening to monologue. Many teachers explore the flipped classroom, where their time together is in discussion and the preachy monologues and lectures slide to a different time, place and pace. In general I am attracted to collaboration and many voices speaking. I keep hoping coherence will show up.

We may want to collaborate, but obstacles arise. We may want to be walking catalysts, but something stands in the way. Unsaid obstacles can block collaboration. And sometimes we need to have hard conversations, the kind where we not only disagree, but our different positions are emotionally charged. To assert my position will cut at my conversation partner’s position and vice versa. There may be anger. There may be tears. There may be power-plays. This conversation could be explosive.

Demonstrating the explosive past for Minneapolis flour mills.

Demonstrating the explosive past for Minneapolis flour mills.

The late Wayne Booth advocated a kind of listening-rhetoric: listen intently enough to your conversation partner to faithfully tell their position (without denigration) while still holding to your own. This would not be the place for win-rhetoric, where your goal is to beat your message into someone else. Emmanuel Levinas might say we have an obligation to watch out for the person before us—this conversation partner. In fact, he might advocate that this person before us is our first priority. Martin Buber might say we continue to hold that person in high regard as a person, inviting them to consider this different perspective rather than trying to force our viewpoint. Even Jesus modified the law with love and compassion (he actually said love was the fulfillment of the law).


  • Say we take the listening seriously as we approach the hard conversation.
  • Say we take seriously our commitment to the growth and personhood of this conversation partner (stay with me here). And we recognize this person as a person (versus an employee or student or lesser-being).

Given a kind of love for the person before us, we say the hard thing. And the explosion happens. No guarantees, but that blow up can be a worthwhile communication event. Good things can come from that, hard as they are.

Personally, I shy away from these explosive conversations.

But is shying away from a potentially explosive conversation doing a disservice to the thing that needs to happen between us?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. It is a very useful blogpost. We who may be products of the Christian tradition find ourselves immersed in a very ‘talky-wordy’ community, which is also housed within a nation more used to defining all that happens by way of language and the spoken/written word than by those ancient traditions steeped in activity which involves speaking little and contemplating much. There are the Orthodox Christian traditions of wordless prayer — sitting in The Divine Presence — where simply being at One with the Creator transcends the need for the ‘Lord-we-just-want-to etc etc etc’ prayers of our N. American upbringing, and fits within the Jesus stories of His needing to go off to be alone with God. One might think of contemplation as a forerunner to any ‘hard conversation’ or a requisite of both parties before opening their mouths. Alternatively, it is useful for two people of rather opposite makeups to have a mutually chosen third person come join them, who may begin by reading a meaning-laden story of some relevance to their situation. After the reading, all sit and ‘listen’ to their deeper selves before offering verbal insight on what was just read–or, perhaps of more value, discover that the story has become the event. In other words, we might find it helpful to consider that generally in life we not speak until led to do so, or speak only when it is the best way for helping something along. Very often, not saying anything at all is the most healing, most considerate, most generous thing a person can do with another/others. In that, it reminds me of my second grade teacher who used to say to me “Lance, do you have anything useful to add to what is going on? No? Then maybe you’d just like to sit and listen to what Janie is telling the class right now.” (smile)


    May 21, 2015 at 2:16 pm

  2. Hey–thanks for the terrific comment! I am really attracted to this notion of contemplation as a forerunner to any hard conversation. I think our best hard conversations work that.way (and perhaps are worst are more off the cuff–but I’m not sure about that. Your notion of a third peacemaking person is really, really interesting. Have you ever been involved in something like that. Really useful comments! Thanks. for stopping by, Lance.


    May 21, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    • you are always very supportive and so exceedingly positive, which is a tonic to many I am sure–thank you for your acknowledgement and always visiting my pages


      May 22, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      • Thank you! And thanks for reading a few of my pieces.


        May 22, 2015 at 12:24 pm

  3. […] toying with the notion of starting conversations people won’t like. I’ve advocated and agitated for having the difficult […]

But wait--what do you think? Tell me:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: