“If we who call ourselves part of the one body of Christ are to be agents of healing and unity, then we must be skilled at engaging in dialogue that heals.“
This week, we feature a blog by Steve Tumolo of Quincy. Steve is the principal of the Center for Receptive Communication and Executive Director of Heart to Heart. Through these two organizations, he helps people to heal, thrive and lead, cultivating vital communication and leadership skills for diverse learners, including church leaders, male survivors of sexual abuse, incarcerated adults, parents, and teachers.
While many forms of communication result in division and polarization, Steve shares four keys to dialogue that can lead to greater reconciliation and healing, a crucial practice if Christ-followers are to learn and embody the reconciling power of the gospel.
“As IRON sharpens IRON,
so a friend sharpens a friend.”
The times in which we live reveal a growing polarization in the United States. Red vs. Blue, All Lives Matter vs. Black Lives Matter, Conservative vs. Liberal, Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice are just some of the camps upon which Christians find themselves also divided. If we who call ourselves part of the one body of Christ are to be agents of healing and unity, then we must be skilled at engaging in dialogue that heals.
Dialogue, authentic engagement with another in which we are willing to be changed by the encounter, is essential to healing the divisions in our country. I see, through the help of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication and other sources, four keys to dialogue that are foundational. The acronym IRON can introduce these keys, named as Intention, Reflection, Observation, and Need. We can sharpen each other and strengthen one another through practicing these keys to healing dialogue.
It is important to enter dialogue with a leading intention to connect, appreciate and understand. These intentions suggest that we value relationship more than proving ourselves right and someone else wrong. Prioritizing relationship is God’s Trinitarian template. It is the Trinity’s relationship that creates. The Trinity, I suggest, does not relate for utilitarian motives, but out of love. Through loving, through Trinitarian relating, a universe was born. If God’s priority is relationship, why not make it ours as well?
This does not mean questions of what is good or what is just are not raised. It simply suggests that we start by listening and learning. This helps us to meet people where they are, not where we may want them to be. As Marshall puts it, “people often need empathy before they are able to hear what is being said,” (p. 171). The intention to connect, listen, and empathize, especially with people who have different experiences and perspectives, those who we may see as “other,” makes true encounter possible.
The second key flows directly out of the intention to encounter and connect with another. It is the ability to distinguish reflecting from responding. Reflecting involves communicating back to the speaker the heart of what you hear them saying. This one action has multiple gifts. It can help the speaker experience being valued and heard. It can help the listener get clarity and understanding. This is especially true when what is reflected is not the speaker’s intent. This gives the speaker the chance to say, “well, that’s not exactly what I meant. It’s more like this…” The act of reflection can build a bridge of understanding, so that the heart of what is expressed is heard and experienced.
Responding has its place in dialogue. It is simply different than reflecting. Responding involves communicating what is stirred in me as I listen to you. Most of the conversations I hear sound like this: expression-response-response-response-response-response-reponse. We seem to be hooked on getting across our point. With two people, each trying their best to make their point, neither may experience being heard. Reflecting, however, slows down the conversation, creating opportunities to live into our intention, opportunities to experience connection and understanding.
The third key in healing dialogue is to distinguish observable facts from our interpretations and evaluations. Many of us have been brought up in the language of judgment. Yet judge not, Jesus commands, for the judgments you make upon others will turn back onto you. (Matthew 7: 1-2)
Mixing our judgments and evaluations with our observations contributes to the great confusion that divides Christians and our country. Keeping communication simple and focusing on what is pierces through the confusion and builds bridges of shared understanding. Learning to communicate in clear observations is key to dialogue across difference.
Presenting the raw facts has a power all its own. George Floyd was killed after a police officer kept his knee on his neck for close to 8 minutes. This is an undeniable fact. Two people can disagree on their evaluations but beginning with the same observable fact can be a vital starting point. From there, feelings can be communicated without evaluation as well. When I think of what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin and so many more of my Black brothers and sisters, I get choked up. I feel a mix of grief and shock and outrage. Sharing my raw truth, without judgment, can help me be heard and understood by another person who may have a different perspective than me. When people with different life journeys can share their experiences and perspectives, a shared understanding can emerge.
The heart of what is being said goes deeper than feelings. Underneath every feeling is a need. Needs, Marshall Rosenberg suggests, are what motivates all of us to speak or act (pp. 52-55). When a need is met, we have a feeling we often enjoy. When a need is not met, we have a feeling we often do not enjoy. Feelings have this essential purpose of indicating the state of our needs.
When I think about George Floyd’s death, a deep need for justice arises. This need I believe is widely held and that all humans desire justice. Marshall considers core needs as universal and an expression of the divine (p. 130). We might say they are God-given. God created humans to long for and be motivated by the same core needs and desires of the heart. For example, to survive, we all need air, water, food, and safety. To thrive we need love, belonging, acceptance, freedom, respect, justice, and more.
If our dialogues are to connect us and bring about the unity for which we have been created, then we must get to the heart of what is being expressed. This means getting to the need, the heart’s desire. When I speak and name my core needs, when I listen and hear the needs of others, then we can see that we all long for the same things. We who say, “Black lives matter” want every Black woman, man and child to experience mattering, safety, respect, and justice. And perhaps those who say all lives matter have a need to experience mattering themselves. This need of mattering is something we all share.
Taking the time to listen and hear the need underneath what is being said is the fourth foundational key to dialogue that heals. Hearing and connecting around commonly held needs is a unifying practice. Together, these four keys, our intention to connect first, distinguishing reflecting from responding and observing from evaluating, and hearing and speaking to the need, lay the foundation for healing dialogue. If we Christians are to be agents of healing and unity, then, I believe, it is our call to engage in such dialogue with our families, our churches, and our world.
The Center for Receptive Communication helps people and organizations heal, thrive and lead. They facilitate transformative learning for faith communities and schools and their leaders. The Center for Receptive Communication’s newest project is Sobrevivir, accompanying men who survived childhood sexual trauma in their journey through healing to thriving and leading. .
Heart to Heart helps people affected by violence to hear and follow Life’s calling, transforming people and systems . Heart to Heart is building on its 30 years experience working in prisons to support incarcerated people, returning citizens, children affected by a household member’s incarceration, and their parents, caregivers and teachers. It’s newest project is Heart to Heart Families and Heart to Heart Schools.
For more on Nonviolent Communication, see Rosenberg, Marshall B. 2015. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd Edition. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press or go to www.cnvc.org