Please allow me to start with a bit of self-disclosure. I can talk – a lot, no – quite a lot. Here is a for instance: Amy and I went on our first date in October of 1987 to get a chocolate chip milkshake at Rax on Atlanta Hwy in Montgomery. She listened to me talk the entire evening. I must have spoken 25 words to her 1 the whole evening. I am that person who could talk to the proverbial fence post.
But I learned, sometime ago, that even though I was talking, I was not always in a conversation. As a preacher, I still do a lot of talking, but am I always conversing? As a minister sitting in hospitals or in people’s homes, am I talking or having a conversation? When I am studying with an individual about Christ and the Church am I talking down to them or having a conversation about the story of Good News?
I recently purchased a book “Better Conversations” by Jim Knight, Ph.D. He writes to instructional coaches, school principles, and teachers about their conversations in coaching sessions, staff meetings, and classrooms. I am reading it to help me improve my conversations with other Christians, ministers, church leaders, those who want to “talk to the preacher,” and every conversation I have. I want to be a better conversationalist.
I recently read a chapter that . . . well . . . convicted me. Chapter 4 is about Fostering Dialogue. Dialogue is more than talking and listening. Dialogue is to have a conversation that leads to all people involved to understanding each other, hearing each other, and shaping each other by each participant’s ideas and input. Dialogue then is a conversation where learning occurs. Dialogue is an open conversation that encourages people to say what they are thinking. Dialogue involves listening with empathy and respect. When you approach the person you are conversing with while having an attitude of “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves . . . (looking) not only to (your) own interests, but also the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4 – bold:BSMc) you foster dialogue. Dialogue is a to and fro conversation where we each hear, and learn what the other(s) are communicating and everyone shares their thoughts and ideas.
In his book, Dr. Knight identifies two parts to fostering better dialogue: Advocacy and Inquiry. As I read this chapter, I realized how understanding the principles of advocacy and inquiry would not only help my writing, my preaching, the way I answer questions, my studies with searchers, but also my day to day conversations. Take a few moments to reflect on these two parts to dialogue with me.
Dr. Knight lists five strategies to articulating (advocating) our ideas:
- Consider the thoughts and feelings of others. Try to understand, as best you can, the needs and emotions of the person(s) as they relate to the topic at hand. As a minister, if I am teaching, preaching, or talking with someone about a sinful action, I need to consider what people who are joining me in the conversation might know and feel about the topic. How can I make my thoughts known to them while remaining respectful of their understanding?
- Clarify the Meaning of Words and Concepts. Words are not perfect. Language changes and meanings evolve. Miscommunication occurs when we do not work from the same definition or meaning. The language of theology and certain “church words” are misunderstood by many and completely foreign to others. I might be able to talk all morning about the efficacy and the atoning nature of the blood of Christ and the concept of propitiation, but If I do not clarify the meaning of efficacy, atonement, Christ, or propitiation we may not make progress.
- Provide Contextual Information. Context is additional information that fosters our understanding of the topic at hand. Context might be societal setting, the experience that brought you to your understanding, or even your childhood. Context is the schema (understanding derived from experience) from which you work, think, and learn. The person(s) you are talking with may have a different schema. You may have grown up in a faith rich family, they may have grown up without any encouragement to faith.
- Identify Your False Assumptions. Do not assume you have a perfect and deep understanding of a topic or that you have perfectly communicated what you do know. Do not assume that the other person knows exactly what you know or has the same depth of knowledge you have on the topic. As a Christian, we may have learned a Biblical truth such a long time ago that we forgot that we never knew it and what it was like not to know. We cannot assume that those we talk with are where we are. They may have more knowledge than we do.
- Use Stories and Analogies. Jesus was the Master Teacher. His knowledge base and His understanding of God, the Father, will never be surpassed. But the people – the common people – would say He taught like no one else. He used stories and analogies that we call parables to communicate deep truths in a way that they could understand. Stories connect to our lives and our emotions and help us make application to our own walk of life.
That brings us to inquiry. Whereas advocacy is speaking what you think and articulates where you are coming from, inquiry invites others to share so that you can learn and understand their possibly different point of view.
Knight lists four strategies to inquiry:
- Be Humble. Keep your pride and your ego in check. Enter the dialogue looking to learn. Listen for what others have to share that will help you.
- Listen with Empathy. Take time to pause and to consider what the other person is really saying, reflect back what you think you hear in order to fully understand. Listen deeply. Try not to think about your response until you fully understand what they are communicating.
- Open Yourself to Knew Ideas. You do not have the corner on wisdom, knowledge, ideas, or talents. Have a mind ready to learn something new. Consider the possibility that you might enter the conversation being incorrect or misinformed.
- Surface and Suspend Assumptions. Deeply held convictions can turn dialogue and learning into a closed argument. A true dialogue will help you to become aware of your assumptions so you can evaluate your opinions as valid or invalid. Accept that you might be right or you might be wrong. Instead of arguing, listen and ask questions for your own growth in understanding.
I am beginning to see where the strategies of both advocacy and inquiry will improve my conversations, my sermons, Bible classes, and my Bible studies with others. But only if I start putting them into practice.
Where do you see these principles helping you?
How will you apply them to you conversations?
How can I apply them to my public speaking?