“I may just have to hold my nose and vote ‘yes.'” The comment was made by a U.S. congressperson in anticipation of a vote on a contentious issue. This troubling statement is indicative of a broad problem that has infected our society.
You may think the issue is people who won’t stand for their convictions, but I think there is a much deeper problem. The mindset of “hold your nose and vote” implies that the speaker knows the right answer. It precludes the possibility that other people’s perspectives are also legitimate. When you follow this logic, dialogue goes out the window. And I believe that dialogue is the only way to resolve difficult matters.
Dialogue means that different parties enter a conversation believing that a better decision will emerge when their ideas create a new, shared understanding. It requires deep listening to each other. It requires a genuine search for the solution that is best for everyone, not the answer that most benefits me or my constituents.
In Christian settings, we should be better at dialogue than in the broader society. And yet faced with difficult issues, churches and ministries often divide in bitter debate just like legislatures, school boards, and civic organizations. If you are looking for more robust solutions through dialogue …
- Choose issues that are worthy of dialogue. Dialogue takes time and energy. If we subject every decision, large or small, to extensive dialogue, the organization will become stuck. Wise leaders identify the questions where dialogue is needed.
- Listen well. Listening is central to dialogue, but it’s not easy. Sometimes we listen just enough to rebut what we’ve heard. Sometimes we only half-listen because we’re distracted by the devices we bring to the meeting. Leaders who are committed to dialogue set a high bar for listening. This might include practices such as paraphrasing what has been said, setting ground rules for the use of devices, or even calling out someone who isn’t listening. Ultimately, listening well means listening for God’s voice in the midst of the human voices.
- Take risks and be vulnerable. In typical church cultures, we are so committed to keeping everyone “happy” that we’re reluctant to take a chance with true dialogue. After all, dialogue means that our ideas will be challenged. It means that we will hear things that we don’t like and end up with solutions different than our own. Effective ministry leaders don’t make happiness their ultimate goal. They want to make Spirit-led decisions, and they coach people to get there through the risky process of dialogue.
In a recent editorial, David Brooks wrote, “If you want to know why we have such a polarized, angry and bitter society, one reason is we take every disagreement that could be addressed in conversation and community and we turn it into a lawsuit.” Shouldn’t churches and Christian ministries model the way for handling difficult disagreements and decisions through prayerful, God-honoring dialogue?
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