If you read my previous post, this may seem humorous or ironic. Regardless, here it is.
This is an assignment from my Sundance "Engaging Independent Film" course that has asked us to comment on our method of public discourse--how do we engage others in conversation.
I try to keep a few things in mind when engaging with anyone, especially because most of the time I am quickly identified as a Christian, chaplain or seminary student and this starts a conversation off very differently. Different because it means that there are about a million assumptions that the other person has about me, Christians, the Church or religion, all of which I am totally unaware.
First of all I try to work with as few assumptions about the other person as is necessary—unfortunately being a fairly intuitive person makes this challenging. This helps to keep the conversation on an even field where both members can lead and contribute freely.
Secondly I work hard at being an active listener. It may come across sometimes as a little “psychoanalytical” but it is a very helpful listening tool. When someone says something confusing or different you ask them if they meant to say… or if they wanted to say… etc. Listening offers respect and dignity to the conversation partner. It shows that you know you don’t know everything and you’re interested in learning something new.
Finally I try to keep the conversation on track. If I get too distracted or side rail on a “soap-box” I realize I am bringing into the conversation unrelated, uninteresting and possibly hurtful “baggage.” This can also be a tool to notice when the other person is getting frustrated, angry, offended or just bored. If you notice this kind of shift it’s time to simplify, reassess and/or move on. This is an opportunity to find what was good about the conversation before it became too heated. This is also a chance for you to end the conversation before anyone becomes more hurt—we all have been part of hurtful conversations about our own personal lives, beliefs and hopes.
All in all I try, though not always successfully, to meet each person on level ground, show them the kind of respect and dignity I would request from another and try to leave this person better off than when we started. I say “better off” in the sense that education, conversation and being heard are some of the most intimate and life-giving activities any human being can engage in and if we take the opportunity to share a moment with another we can offer them the respect and dignity they were created for.
(Hint, much of this was developed and continues to be developed through my work as a hospital chaplain and the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program).