Dialogue for Difficult Subjects

I’m currently in a cross-racial pastoral appointment. It’s more than cross-racial. There exists differences in culture, geography, politics, and in some instances, theology.  

These differences sometimes complicate for me (and I’m sure for some parishioners) what seem to be quite easy and obvious decisions. Should we gather in person while COVID-19 numbers are rising in the area? Do we need an online presence? Should the pastor participate in a local #BLM rally?

We all have unique experiences that shape and inform our biases. And we all have had and will have tension-filled conversations that are loaded with opportunities to misunderstand and be misunderstood. 

I’ve had the advantage of referencing a helpful book from The Little Book of Justice & Peace Building series, entitled Dialogue for Difficult Subjects: A practical, hands-on guide. 

Lisa Schirch and David Campt begin by distinguishing dialogue from other processes as a method for social change and then detail how to organize, shape and facilitate. 

To help define dialogue, the authors start by contrasting it with other more common practices (pgs. 6-7).

Conversation: information and ideas flow

Discussion: information and ideas are exchanged to accomplish a specific task or to problem-solve.

Training: knowledge is transferred

Debate: winners and losers are declared

“Dialogue is a communication process that aims to build relationships between people as they share experiences, ideas, and information about a common concern (pg. 6).” It invites participants to engage in a transformative process. 

“The intention behind dialogue is the most definite characteristic (pg. 10).” Participants bring curiosity and a sense of wonder about others.

Dialogues can be facilitated around a coffee table or on a large scale with 100’s or 1,000’s of people organized into synchronous small groups.  In contrast to a town hall where a few stand at the microphone and shout down attendees, each person is heard. Well planned dialogues have at least 3 roles (pg. 30): 

The organizer manages the event logistics. 

The dialogue designer is a critical role. She plans the interactions, sets the (agreed upon) ground rules, and determines the questions for leading the group through a transformative process.  The design should include: establishing common interests and norms, sharing experiences and perceptions, exploring diversities and commonalities, exploring possibilities for action towards a new imaginative vision. (pg. 36).

The dialogue facilitator is a process expert not an expert on the subject matter. They foster dialogue, insure that ground rules are followed, and monitor group dynamics (pgs. 58-59).

The process of dialogue outlined by Lisa Schirch and David Campt can be transformative. A well planned dialogue can provide the space for participants to do the internal work that results in personal and societal change. The principles and processes have certainly worked in my context.  

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