“I already know what I think. They already are convinced of their opinion. What’s the point? Why should we risk the relationship, risk hurt feelings to discuss our opinions?” 

It is easy to be seduced away from engaging in difficult conversations even in or especially in a congregational setting. While some people are willing and even desire to engage difficult social issues such as human sexuality, gun control, or racism within their church, many are reticent or resistant. And in such an anxious and partisan culture as ours is currently, who can blame them?

To see a better way forward, imagine the following scenario: You, a white person, walk into a small room with several chairs. On one side of the room, two black people are engaged in an animated conversation, sharing their experiences of being racially profiled. Faced with the option of two open chairs to sit in and suddenly quite self-conscious of your race, where do you sit? Do you sit in the chair nearest the two people locked in conversation, or do you sit as far away as possible? Perhaps you are an experienced conflict avoider like me and choose the chair farthest away simply because your conflict radar is flashing red. Or perhaps the awareness of your skin color is enough to have you ready to flee the room, afraid that if you say something, it will inadvertently be racially charged. Would your choice of chair change at all if the two were talking about sports or relationships?

That last question is part of an experiment conducted by Claude M. Steele that he relates in his book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). To test how much racial awareness factors into relational dynamics, Steele and fellow researches set up the following experiment. White students were shown the pictures of their dialogue partners (black students). They were then told their topic of conversation: half were assigned the topic of racial profiling, and the other half were to talk about love and relationships. The students were then taken to a room with three chairs. They were asked to set up the room for the dialogue and sit in one of the chairs. Steele and his team then measured the distance between the chair of the white student to the other chairs. Which group do think pushed the chairs closer together and which farther apart? My guess is you can predict that the group discussing love and relationships had chairs closer together than those who were supposed to talk about racial profiling. Not surprising, right? But what if all the participants were white? Would the obviously more difficult conversation also result in a stark difference in the distance of the chairs? Nope.

Steele and his group added on a layer to this experiment to prove what he terms the “stereotype threat,” which much of the book covers and is worth your time to read. This additional layer of the experiment jumped out to me, however, that proves why I believe Courageous Conversations are needed in local churches as a method of learning. In this version of the experiment, Steele and his researchers gave the students one final piece of instruction before setting up the chairs. They were told that the topic they would discuss is sensitive and that they should use the conversation as an opportunity for learning about the issue and about how to talk with people who might have different perspectives. What do you think happened this time? You probably guessed right again. The chairs were as close as the closest from their other experiments

Here are Steele’s conclusions: “When interactions between people from different backgrounds have learning from each other as a goal, it eases the potential tension between them, giving missteps less significance. Trust is fostered” (209, emphasis mine).

When interactions between people from different backgrounds have learning from each other as a goal, it eases the potential tension between them, giving missteps less significance. Trust is fostered.

One of the lessons we can learn from Steele’s experiments is in how framing an upcoming difficult discussion can be the key to a more productive dialogue. If many in our congregation are stuck thinking fatalistically about a difficult discussion – “I already know what I/they think…,” then advertising a conversation or dialogue about a messy social issue is not likely to attract many participants. However, if, as Steele’s experiments prove, we frame our conversations as opportunities of learning, perhaps some of the fears and fatalism can be put aside.

It does need to be added that by “framing,” I do not mean merely announcing our studies or conversations in a different way. Framing, at least the way I intend it, speaks also to the structure of our studies.

My entry into beginning the Courageous Conversations project was the question, “How do adults learn?” (I am Director of Adult Discipleship, so I figured this is a foundational question.) With the political tensions so high in our society and with the tensions so tight within our UMC, the dynamic we are most starved for is…trust. And trust has its foundation in relationship. Courageous Conversations that are structured for learning take seriously the need to build in time for relationship building. While there will be people ready to “get-it-on” in terms of a winner-take-all debate, framing Courageous Conversations appropriately will mean a slower format that makes intentional time for relationship building and sharing experiences.

While there will be people ready to “get-it-on” in terms of a winner-take-all debate, framing Courageous Conversations appropriately will mean a slower format that makes intentional time for relationship building and sharing experiences.

Another dynamic needed for proper framing of a Courageous Conversation would include intentionality, silence, and moderated discussion. One of my fears about churches wading into the murky waters of a discussion on any difficult issue is that “just having the discussion” is not a guaranteed win. In fact, there is always the potential that more harm than good is done. Thus, a properly framed Courageous Conversation would take steps to foster an environment that brings dignity for listening and learning. So, for example, having a design team to help bring appropriate structure to the conversations and to send invitations helps participants feel the environment is more dignified than a regular study. Additionally, building in structures that allow participants an opportunity to give voice to their experiences and knowledge as well as limiting the time each participant has keeps some from dominating the discussion.

What we need are more learning opportunities with atmospheres designed for brave questioning that will allow adults the freedom to question assumptions in ways that won’t make them feel foolish (which adults easily do). I don’t pretend Courageous Conversations are the Band-Aids that will heal the deep divides in the church. They are not designed to do that kind of work. However, if local churches can make spaces for interactions among the diverse perspectives that are usually already present and make learning from one another a goal, perhaps it will at least be a step in the right direction. What do you say we pull some chairs together?

Reflection Questions

What is your church doing to create space for dialogue among those with differing perspectives?

Are there established groups (Sunday school classes, small groups, etc.) that offer learning opportunities where brave questioning can happen?