I recently began a new job as the Associate Director of Admissions for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one of the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This week was orientation for our new and returning students and much of the time has been focused on getting to know one another as well as getting to know the corner of Chicago in which we are located. There have been so many life giving conversations as well as so many questions!
Our mornings featured speakers who helped us to engage one another in conversation as well as to start thinking about the unique reality of our place within not only the LSTC community but also within the rest of the Chicago community and the larger world. Throughout these presentations and getting to know you activities my thoughts continued to be pulled back to the question of how to have life-giving conversations in a time when so many of us feel emotionally and spiritually drained by the world around us.
It seems to me that often when we are meeting people for the first time we rely on telling pieces of our own stories as a way to build relationship with one another. But how do we handle it when the situation or the people involved in the conversation don’t feel “safe.” How do we set parameters for our conversations and interactions that allow all voices to be present and included? One of the ways in which our orientation speakers sought to speak to questions like these was through the use of the Kaleidoscope Institute Respectful Communication guidelines:
R – take RESPONSIBILITY for what you say and feel without blaming others
E – use EMPATHETIC listening
S – be SENSITIVE to differences in communication style
P – PONDER what you hear and feel before you speak
E – EXAMINE your own assumptions and perceptions
C – keep CONFIDENTIALITY
T – TRUST ambiguity because we are not here to debate who is right or wrong
While these suggestions may be somewhat difficult to work with in every situation (engaging with comments on blog posts for example!), they did seem to be quite helpful in guiding the conversation for new students. As I watched new students begin to get to know one another while being intentional about these guidelines I was powerfully reminded of why we engage with one another in the first place. When we engage one another in conversation we are (hopefully) seeking not only some form of genuine relationship or relatedness but also expressing a true desire to engage in continued dialogue, conversation, and growth.
It seems that so many of my own conversations over the last few months have been concerned with trying to convince people to see things in a different way, or challenging them to truly and openly consider new viewpoints and opinions on a variety of issues. But within these conversations I have tried to really hear what the other person is saying as well as to try to learn from their lived experience. This of course hasn’t always been easy and there have been many conversations where I have walked away feeling drained, hurt, confused, or concerned that I may not have listened as openly or as well as I could have. How can we come together when we have vastly different views, but still be able to hear and respect the words and experiences of the other person? Is this type of communication and connection even possible?
Obviously this is not possible, safe, or healthy in every situation or with every topic. If for example, our conversation partners are unwilling to abide by respectful approaches to conversations or refuse to recognize all members of the conversation as having agency and authority over their voice and lived experience then perhaps the conversation cannot happen. Over the course of the last few months I have found myself needing to be much more intentional about “picking my battles” sometime deliberately choosing not to engage in conversations that will be emotionally and spiritually draining for me while making no headway toward openness or understanding for the other person. But even though I know that sometimes saying no to these conversations is the best choice for me from a self-care perspective I also worry that in doing so I sometimes miss opportunities to use the privileges I have to help move people toward openness toward more genuine engagement with one another.
For so long oppressed groups and individuals have fought to have our voices heard but in a political and cultural climate where we all are bombarded by intensely charged and personal headlines each and every day we can only push back against a brick wall for so long before becoming entirely exhausted and depressed! I believe that the feeling of continuing to run into a brick wall is exactly why I so enjoined the conversations that occurred within the parameters of the above RESPECT guidelines. It finally felt like our conversations were doing something. We were finally starting to talk to each other instead of through each other. These conversations made me feel that multiple voices were heard and that the words were respectfully held in an effort to work toward genuinely understanding the other person even though we may not have agreed on everything. Of course, these conversations were not perfect and I can guarantee there were others in the room who did not feel the positive surge of energy from this exercise that I did. Personally, I am grateful that this one small part of orientation was able to rejuvenate me enough to hold these conversations again tomorrow, and if necessary, each day after that as well.
Dr. Katie M. Deaver, earned her Ph.D. in Feminist Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Deaver holds a B.A. in Religion and Music from Luther College in Decorah, IA, as well as MATS and Th.M. degrees from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explored the connections between the Christian understanding of atonement theology and the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States. Her other areas of interest include the connection between power and violence, sexual ethics, and working toward the elimination of the oppression and exploitation of women and girls around the world.