Not Just Talk: Conversations that Work
One of the books I read this spring while I was on study leave with my learning cohort was Conversational Intelligence by Judith Glaser. I didn’t suggest it; one of my colleagues did.
I thought to myself, “Sheesh, if we are not good at conversations by now, I think we should find another profession!” But, as often is the case when we think we know it all, I discovered that there was so much more to learn.
For example, I learned that whenever we engage in conversations we are actually serving each other neurochemical cocktails. I’m putting this in plain language, of course; if you’d like to know more details about the neuroscience of conversations, the physiology involved, the book explains them well. Bottom line, the tone of our voices, our facial expressions, and the words we use literally activate neurochemicals and hormones in our brain that cause us to feel safe and open—or threatened and closed.
If we achieve the former, we can do far more together than transact information or advance our ideas. We can actually enter into each other’s mental and emotional worlds, and while we are there—in that new space together—we can co-create something beautiful and different and transformative, something that would not have emerged had we not ventured there together.
This, of course, is the most advanced level of communication where instead of relying on one set of eyes, one brain, and one heart, suddenly you have two, or even more, if you are in a group.
Glaser calls this type of conversation “we-conversations,” where people communicate in such a way that they become able to transform and re-shape reality together. She even goes so far to claim that when we reach this level of communication, we are “actually creating new ‘DNA’ that can be passed along to the next generation.”
Needless to say, finding ways to travel with people into the depths of their hearts, into the depths of their realities, is critical in “a theologically flattened world” (we also read Diana Butler Bass’ Grounded).
People today are asking by the millions, “Where is God?” and they are finding God in all sorts of places they haven’t looked in centuries, certainly outside the walls of the institutional church. Just ask your children or grandchildren who are still very much “Christ-centered,” and even immensely grateful for what they received from church, but finding God in other places.
To enter into this journey with others and co-create with them new ways to “Glorify God and enjoy him forever” will take excellent communication skills and empathy, not to mention more than a little courage.
The good news is that we Presbyterians are uniquely impassioned and positioned to go on this journey with them; at least I believe we are. If there is any tribe that believes “God is always already redemptively at work in the world before we show up” it is ours (quote from Talking about Evangelism by our presbytery’s own Mark Davis).
Even our Book of Order claims right up front, “Christ has given the Church all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (F-10202). Therefore, we can have uncommon confidence that Christ will be present with us as we listen to the stories of others and join them along life’s way.
The trick—and it’s no small one—is to practice a way of communicating that reflects God’s love and compassion. When we achieve this, we create spaces in which we can dream together, discover new insights, and tap into that part of our brains that are most imaginative and wise.
Glaser writes that these skills can be learned, and are as simple on the surface—but not in practice—as building rapport, listening without judgment, staying curious, and articulating clearly what we are hearing and learning together. The danger, of course, is falling short on any of these efforts.
She states, “Human beings have hardwired systems exquisitely designed to let us know where we stand with others; based on our quick read of a situation, our brains know whether we should operate in a protective mode or be open to sharing, discovery, and influence.” When we succeed in communicating genuine and self-giving love to others, we open the window to endless possibilities of the world we can create together. When we fail, we run the risk of building walls between ourselves and others that cannot easily be scaled.
As I was writing this column, I was reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, “As Good as it Gets,” with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. They are having dinner together at an elegant restaurant and Jack’s character, Melvin, who suffers from extreme obsessive compulsive disorder, wants to pay Carol, Helen Hunt’s character, a “great compliment.”
Carol braces herself for what Melvin is about to reveal and says, “I’m so afraid you are about to say something awful.” He replies, “Don’t be pessimistic. It’s not your style.” Then, he goes on to describe how getting to know her has motivated him to overcome his hatred of taking pills and how he has begun to take the ones his psychiatrist has prescribed for him.
She looks at him with a bewildered expression and says, “I don’t quite get how that is a compliment for me.” Then, looking down at the table, he searches for the right words to explain himself as romantic piano music plays softly in the background. Finally, he looks directly into her eyes and says as sincerely as he’s ever spoken, “You make me want to be a better man.”
An eternity seems to go by as Melvin stares across the table and waits for her response. From her expression, he can see that she is deeply moved. Her face is filled with surprise and openness, and then it turns to appreciation for the humility and beauty of Melvin’s confession. Finally, she responds, “That’s maybe the best compliment of my life.”
For me, this scene represents the transformative power of “we-relationships” and “we-conversations.” As we co-create our world together, by God’s grace, “we-conversations” have the power to motivate us to be the best versions of ourselves. But even more powerfully, they can move us to new places with others where we have never been before, changing not only the way we experience the world together but magnifying our contribution to its redemption.
As ambassadors of the Risen Lord, my prayer is that we will strive to become the best “co-conversationalists” on the planet. Our presbytery’s vision is “to be a community of flourishing congregations that joyfully participate in God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ in the world.”
If Glaser’s neuroscience is true, we are the people the world has been waiting for. Because of God’s own humility toward us, bending toward us in Jesus Christ, and giving us his Spirit, we have the wherewithal to engage those around us with the humility of Christ and consider together where God is leading us in the future.
With you on the journey,