Crucial conversations

March 25, 2015 | Viewpoints | Volume 19 Issue 7

My ears perked up at a recent seminar when a leader began to speak about crucial conversations. He defined such conversations as ones whose stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. I was even more eager to hear how he successfully led his extended family in a process related to his aging father. The material the leader used came from a book by Kerry Patterson and others—Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High—which explains why such interactions so often go awry and offers specific skills to improve our capacity to navigate our way to a satisfying outcome.

Patterson and colleagues speak helpfully about fear and safety in these intense encounters. They note that when people feel unsafe or afraid, they tend to resort either to silence, withholding meaningful participation, or with violence. Common forms of silence include sarcasm, sugar-coating and avoidance. Violence occurs when one or more persons turn to coercive, stereotyping or attacking behaviours. Fortunately, the authors offer strategies for how to address the safety factors to steer the conversation back towards healthy resolution.

Taking in this information, I thought of other descriptions of critical moments: between a rock and a hard place; between a sword and a stone; at the foot of the cross (this from my spiritual director). The last phrase seems especially fitting since “crucial” derives from the Latin word for “cross,” and includes definitions of “extremely trying,” “severe” and “difficult.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in precarious places in our relationships. We care deeply about the outcome. There is more than one opinion about how to proceed. The emotions are turbulent and overwhelming. We feel the terrain shifting under our feet, and it’s scary. To cope, we may resort to avoidance or violence.

Perhaps you find yourself in such a place today. Like the seminar leader’s example, it may involve aging parents. Who of us hasn’t witnessed seniors and their adult children tied up in knots about a thorny situation? Grandpa’s vision and hearing limitations mean he shouldn’t be driving, but it’s so hard for him to give it up. Mom looks at the effects of cancer treatment and concludes she will let the illness take its course untreated. Aunt Mary’s dementia has gotten to the point that she needs to move into assisted living, but she is still conscious enough to protest and to grieve.

Or perhaps you are wrestling with a spirited child or teenager. Who of us hasn’t agonized over a young person’s determination to choose the opposite of what we think is best? Sam’s passion for medieval weapons puts his parents’ pacifism to the test. Emily’s going to the guy-girl sleepover next weekend “because everyone else is going to be there.” Kai is sliding down a slippery slope that appears to be full of risky dangers.

Not to mention the crucial conversations taking place in our churches, only one or two of which relate to sexuality. What about who gets to come to the communion table? Or how does baptism relate to church membership in an increasingly individualized context? And has mutual accountability lost any relevance in church practice?

Getting back to my spiritual director’s understanding of being “at the foot of the cross,” she adds that it is a place of deep love and deep pain. (Somehow that sounds better.) And she reminds me that God can always be found in such a place. And so we take heart. Difficult as such conversations are, we are not without resources, like the presence of God, who honours our willingness to be present to each other in times of deep love and deep pain.

Melissa Miller has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.

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