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How to engage one another in difficult or potentially divisive conversations

We find ourselves in a country divided. Divided over issues, political ideology, expression of values.

At our General Chapter last summer, the Sisters of Providence committed ourselves to try to move from the “I” to “We” to “One.” As people of Providence, perhaps our call is to do all we can to move the country along that continuum. A good place to start might be in potentially difficult or divisive conversations about issues important to all.

Recently, our sponsored ministry, 8th Day Center for Justice in Chicago, published an article from Essential Partners entitled “The Six C’s of Convening Constructive Conversation.” These points offer a practical guide to engaging one another.

Ladder of inference

Organizational psychologist Chris Argyris created a concept called the ladder of inference, on which we often climb as we move from thought or fact to action. According to Argyris, our beliefs and actions are the product of reality and our interpretation of it. Argyris noted that we start with reality and facts as we know them, but even those are experienced selectively, based on our beliefs and prior experiences. Our personal beliefs and experiences are significant in interpreting what those facts mean to us. To those facts we bring other assumptions. And then, based on all of that, we draw conclusions, adopt other beliefs and/or take action.

As we engage in difficult conversations, it seems Argyris would advise us to ask ourselves why we have made the assumptions we have and whether they are valid. What beliefs do we hold that have influenced our thinking? Have we really considered all the facts? Is the data we have named as facts indeed factual or, in our selective process, have we omitted or colored essential data? Why have we drawn the conclusions we have and are those conclusions sound? Why have we chosen our stance/decision/action and are there other possibilities we should consider?

In a spirit of moving from “I” to “We” to “One” when engaging in a potentially divisive conversation with someone we know, it can be helpful to try to “walk in the shoes of the other.” To be genuinely curious about what has led the other to the stance taken, both can work to understand the assumptions the other is making. What beliefs does the person hold that may be influencing his or her thinking? Why is the other person interpreting data/reality as s/he is? And so on. In so doing there is a better chance that the ensuing conversation will be less defensive and more productive. Such empathetic thinking/listening may also open us to re-evaluate our own thinking and ideas.

Seeing as scientists

What if we were to come to difficult conversations as scientists come to their work? Certainly, scientists try to be clear about the assumptions they are making as they explore a new idea. They bring abundant previous knowledge on which they base their assumptions and hypotheses. As they work through their processes, they try to remain open-minded, believing it is as important to find out that what they thought was “truth” might, in fact, not be so at all. They are curious from the get-go about what they will learn along the way. If their hypotheses are not found, they are open to alternative interpretations and explanations. Finally, after much exploration, thought and study, they draw conclusions that may or may not be what they originally hypothesized.

As we meet others and engage in potentially difficult conversations that matter deeply, such openness toward genuine inquiry and deep understanding as this could truly be grace.

Rumi offers sound advice as we work to move from the “I” to “We” to “One.” There is, indeed, a field “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing.” There is a field out beyond my ideas and your ideas; beyond my beliefs and your beliefs. Let us talk our way through that field. Then we will truly meet as one.

(Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. She currently serves on the Congregation leadership team. Previously she ministered as a teacher and administrator at the secondary and university levels.

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