Dialogue, like any other skill, can be improved by formal instruction and intentional practice.
Pope Francis, like most of us, laments the growing division and polarization that is in our local and global communities. In Fratelli Tutti he exhorts, “If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. Unlike disagreement and conflict, persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines, but quietly helps the world to live much better than we imagine.”
Nancy, a Methodist minister, received formation in dialogue practices and shares the power that it had for transforming a troubling encounter that she had with another minister who saw the world very differently. Nancy poignantly recalls the moment when she finally came to feel safe in her childhood home. After she, her sister, and her mother endured years of emotional and physical violence at the hands of her father, her mother finally shut the door on her marriage, permanently. The restraining order and civil divorce represented closure and peace for Nancy, and she described the relief that came with finally being able to rest in her home without fear. Two years later, she was gifted with a loving, thoughtful, and present father after her mother civilly remarried, which was a profound gift.
Nancy ran an urban immersion program where Michael, a Pentecostal youth minister, brought a group of youth for a service trip. When she heard Michael emphasize to the children that God wills people to stay in a civil marriage “no matter what,” she found herself stunned, angered, and shaken, as traumatic memories of her early childhood experience rushed to the surface.
Nancy’s initial impulse was to emotionally and physically withdraw, and wash her hands of this “buffoon.” However, she felt called to engage Michael about this. She prayed and talked with a friend about her strong reaction. She recalled a key skill from her dialogue training to “seek to understand,” not just Michael’s belief about civil divorce, but also the stories and values from his life that give rise to his belief. Michael surprised her with his level of vulnerability. He revealed that he grew up with a great love for his mother. At the age of six, Michael saw his father kissing another woman. Michael’s confusion turned to rage as he saw this pattern repeat with other women, which finally led Michael’s father to seek a civil divorce from his mother so that he could continue on with his preferred lifestyle unencumbered by a wife.
Far from a “buffoon,” Nancy found Michael to be incredibly compassionate as she, in turn, shared her story about how she grew up, and the liberation and peace that the civil divorce meant for her family. Both of them discovered that they had never thought about the issue of civil divorce from the lens that the other had shown them. They realized that their perspectives on the meaning and purpose of marriage were actually fairly aligned.
Effective dialogue often requires a great deal of skill, and self-awareness. Others in Nancy’s position could have chosen to (1) withdraw and cut Michael off from relationship, (2) engage in a self-righteous judgment of Michael and regard him from a passive-aggressive standpoint, or (3) verbally berate Michael and insult him for his insensitivity to the plight of those in broken families. Nancy’s ability to respond from curiosity, and seeking to understand, are skills that can be taught, practiced, and honed. Nancy’s capacity to respond in this more contemplative way was honed by her formation in the Healing Divisions™ process, which is facilitated by Franciscan, Jesuit, Mercy, and other institutions throughout the country.
If you or the communities that you are a part of are seeking to encounter the science and spirituality of dialogue, more information is available at Healing Divisions.