on having conversations

a cross post from our new work website

David Pargeter and I participated in some professional development a few months ago, around how we have conversations across the work environment. Fierce Conversations takes some basic principles about how healthy relationships are maintained, and applies them across a raft of conversational contexts: a coaching conversation, team conversations, delegation conversations and confrontational conversations.

It was amazing training – quite transformative – and I’ve thought about it every day since. I’m so grateful for how it’s changing the way I work.

One of the key ideas behind the model is the saying ‘All conversations are with yourself – and sometimes they are with other people’. Basically, every conversation is filtered through our belief systems, and we will only hear the parts of a conversation that match our beliefs. We forget to stay listening to what’s actually being said. And mostly, almost always, it happens unconsciously. Physiologically, it makes sense. It takes great physical energy to learn something new. Our brains are looking for shortcuts all the time, for the things that fit the patterns we are familiar with.

It makes sense of why, in a meeting this morning, I heard three entirely different accounts of a presentation, each from people who were there, each of whom swore they heard what they heard. The best truth we heard in this morning’s meeting, was from the person who said ‘I know I was hearing the presentation through the lens of what I already knew. That means I could well have heard it wrong.’

For pure practical reasons, we can’t live and work in environments where we are, in every conversation, reconstructing our knowledge base. We can’t operate in hypotheticals. We don’t have the time – or energy – it takes to unearth our beliefs and filters at every turn. But in our minds we need to hold the knowledge that our [often untested] beliefs will be the filter through which we are interpreting what is being said, and that they will inevitably distort what we hear.

In Fierce Conversations, the challenge was to measure the effectiveness of a conversation by whether I come away from it knowing more, not from our traditional measure of whether I’ve been able to convince others of what I already know. In other words, it’s a good conversation if I make space for the other person – and their beliefs – to be equal partners in the conversation. Hence, ‘all conversations are with yourself – and sometimes they are with other people’.

We’re facing tricky times in the church. We all know that. And we’re going to have to be good at conversations to get through it. We’re going to have to be ready to be wrong, because we will be. We’re going to have to remember that sometimes we’ll be in the same place, and we’ll swear we weren’t part of the same conversation. We’re going to have to give grace and curiosity a chance before giving judgement. Or else we’ll be committing a great injustice ourselves.

Be kind, Phyllo of Alexandria said, for we are all fighting a great battle. I just pray we’ll work out a way to fight it from the same side.