By Alice Price who is a member of the Dialogue Resource Team and on the leadership team for Anabaptist Fellowship of Alamosa.
I recently led a workshop for a group of folks who are facilitating community dialogue processes in the San Luis Valley. Their goal is to bring diverse residents together to discern key concerns and opportunities related to community health. Below are some ideas shared in that setting that complement the theme of “change” addressed in this column over the past few months. Perhaps they will also provide a balm for the divisive rhetoric so pervasive this election season.
Talk is an essential point of connection for humans. Marge Wheatley, a favorite author on the power of talk, captures this quite profoundly in her book, Turning to One Another: “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Parker Palmer shares similar wisdom in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. But how is it that we discover what we care about and move those discoveries towards change for the greater good? These authors maintain that it is through talk. But not just any talk. Rather, it is what Wheatley calls the practice of conversation. “Practice” denotes something we work at over time, gaining skills and experience that help to perfect our performance. A common measurement these days is whether some activity meets “best practice” standards.
Similarly, when someone’s actions raise concerns, we say their practices are “questionable.” The same may be said of the practice of conversation. The media are full of shocking examples. Closer to home, we all know or have been people talking about, rather than with, others. We witness the loud voice drowning diversity within a gathering. We know there are voices that decline to share in common discourse, but chatter afterwards by our parked cars.
So what are some “best practices” of life-changing conversation? Like other important human activities, they are both simple and complex and ever unfolding. Wheatley sums them up this way: “The practice of conversation takes courage, faith and time. We may not get it right the first time, and we don’t have to. We settle into conversation, we don’t just do it.” Foremost, it is the willingness to risk talking to others about something we really care about. Upon taking that risk, we then must practice those things that open up true dialogue. Again, Wheatley expresses it beautifully: “As we become curious about each other, as we slow things down, our rushed and thoughtless behaviors fade away, and we sit quietly in the gift of being together.” This too gets better with practice. The more effectively we communicate about the simple and the uncontroversial, the more skilled we will be when tension grows.
Wheatley’s title image of “turning to one another” is a powerful one, as each person becomes truly visible to the other. In these turbulent times, may we be intentional about creating both time and space to settle into such holy conversations in our families, congregations and broader communities. And in so doing, may we discover together what we most care about.