Laity Session: Breaking through gridlock

June 22, 2021

By: Karla Hovde

How do you break through gridlock and have conversations in a new way? That’s the question that presenters Victor Thompson and Mary Kay DuChene from nonprofit LeaderWise explored during the Laity Session on Tuesday afternoon.
“It isn’t just big society-level issues and conversations that get stuck,” said DuChene. “In most of our personal relationships, there are conversations we have over and over again that just go nowhere.”
LeaderWise serves clergy, lay leaders, and congregations. The organization provides therapy, vocational assessment work, coaching, spiritual direction, and congregational consulting.
Thompson and DuChene shared three ways to move difficult conversations forward and deepen relationships:
1. Identify the moral convictions and the scope we bring to the conversation.
Not all stuck conversations are based on moral convictions, but many are. When we start to believe our own convictions are universally true, we don’t leave room for any other way to look at particular issues. It’s what we do with our convictions that determines whether we can hold fruitful conversations that solve problems and deepen relationships.
To move forward, we have to start with ourselves, not the other person. We need to identify our values and priorities, and where those values compete or contradict.

When people come at an issue with a different idea of the scope to fix the problem, it can cause conversations to become stuck.
Even when our values line up with another person’s, we might not use the same lens or scope to explore the topic. One person may approach the issue at an organizational or community level and another person may take a nation-wide or humanity-wide angle. These differences can also cause conflict. But both people’s approaches on the issue are components of the whole solution.
2. Connect to our motivations.

Do we understand the core purpose that causes us to want to have deep conversation? If not, why does the conversation even matter?
There are both external and internal motivations. Anyone can find data and talking points that back up their position on any given issue.
Many stuck conversations are caused by discussing data or talking points rather than uncovering the internal motivations driving our perspectives. We might not even know our internal motivations if we haven’t contemplated them enough.
“We use the data and facts to justify our own moral convictions,” said Thompson. “We’re hiding behind these external motivations.”
Once we choose to reflect on our internal motivations and are vulnerable enough to share them, the conversation changes from an argument to genuinely sharing our hearts--and there becomes nothing to debate. It brings refreshing honesty to the conversation, and offers the other person an opportunity to share their own vulnerable personal motivations. 
3. Understand which types of “bait” you fall for.
Conversations also get stuck because of the “bait” we fall for. Types of bait fall into four categories:
  • Right: We are taught from a young age that being right is good. But if I think I’m right, then I probably also assume I also know what’s wrong, and I might express that in a conversation. If the other person gets the sense that I believe them to be wrong, the conversation might get stuck.
  • Righteous: This happens when we adopt an attitude of being a saint talking to a sinner. If the other person gets the sense that I think I’m righteous or better than them, that often shuts the conversation down.
  • Certain: Being certain keeps us from needing to face alternative views or examine deeply the things we feel certain about. But if I’m certain about the topic we’re discussing, that often closes the door to a deeper exchange.
  • Safe: This is the desire to avoid a conversation because I think I know how it will go. We give up our values and the chance for a deeper relationship by not speaking up. If both parties play it safe and avoid the conversation, nothing will ever get resolved.
Knowing which types of bait you typically fall for in the stuck conversations in your life will help you be more aware and not take that bait in the future.
Healthy conflict is aimed at ideas, not people. Unhealthy conflict devolves into focusing on what is wrong with the other person, rather than the issue at hand. If we can separate the conflict from the person, we can make progress. No significant change happens without conflict. We need people who can engage in conflict in a healthy way to solve the pressing issues we face.

 Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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