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Posts Tagged ‘win rhetoric

What about those hard conversations? (DGtC #27)

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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

Verbatim: “Pursue truth behind our differences,” Wayne C. Booth

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Who will you argue with today?

The late Wayne C. Booth was Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Chicago. Among the many books he wrote was The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, which I reviewed here. In that book he talked about three kinds of conversations: win-rhetoric where the point of the conversation is to bash your conversation partner into submission. Bargain-rhetoric is where we dialogue toward the goal of finally getting to common ground that benefits both of us. In the business world we called this “win-win” because everybody benefits, though deep concessions were often made. But Booth favored this final type: listening-rhetoric, which had the goal of “pursuing the truth behind our differences” by listening with the intent of understanding what the other is saying. There are many benefits to that way of holding a conversation.

Listening-rhetoric sounds pretty obvious as the way forward, right? I agree. Yet when I check my intent in the middle of a conversation (hard to do), I find I am more often trying to listen strategically to counter whatever obstacle my conversation partner places between us. Or I am not even listening. Instead I’m thinking some far away thought (but maybe that’s just me—I’ve always had a problem staying anchored in the present).

I propose a fourth kind of conversation: reconciliation-rhetoric. I see it as Listening-Rhetoric Plus. Pursuing the truth behind our differences can often lead to a very fertile place—a place as uncomfortable as it is fecund. But leaving the conversation as just touching the two of us does not reveal the whole truth. In reconciliation-rhetoric, me and my conversation partner invite God into our discussion. This isn’t churchy stuff. It isn’t religious stuff. It is a human connection that recognizes the bigger stuff going on around us. It is actively asking and talking about how (if?) God’s plans enter our discussion. Maybe it looks like a silent prayer. Maybe it looks like an out-loud prayer. Maybe it is the recognition that larger plans may be in motion, subsuming our own. I’m taking my cue from a pivotal ancient text written by Paul the apostle in his second letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 5).

Just who is involved in our discussion, anyway?


Photo credit: Niklaus Ruegg

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