In my last post, I referenced a poem by Joy Harjo in which she likens conflict resolution to the performing and literary arts. Lest you think Harjo—or I, for that matter—are absurd to suggest such a turn in thinking about conflict, she is not alone.
Four decades ago, the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote an article called “Metaphors We Live By” in which they begin to explore such a turn in thinking. In the article, Lakoff and Johnson explain how the metaphors we use to describe our world shade our view of the world. Fortunately for us, they used the example of argument to demonstrate their point.
If you’ve ever noticed, in the English language—or at least in North America—we are prone to speak in military terms when talking about argument and conflict. We shoot down the other person’s argument. We build up our defenses. Our argument was right on target—you get the drift. And this way of talking about conflict shapes how we think and feel about conflict which is often fraught with the whole gamut of negative vibes—from fear to frustration.
Lakoff and Johnson then pose the question of how our perspective of conflict would shift if instead, we used metaphors from the world of dance. Unfortunately, my dance skills and knowledge are on par with my musical talent when it comes to ineptness. The little I do know, though, let me imagine how our perception could shift if we used words like rhythm, timing, improvisation, partner, in-step, and so forth to describe our engagement with conflict. Rather than entering a win-or-lose situation with an opponent, you would instead be entering into the possibility of bringing something creative about with a partner.
I know that is a lot to ask and may seem far-fetched for those of us steeped in Western society. However, this is exactly the point Harjo makes in her poem. The way you win an argument does not rely on your ability to destroy your opponent but on your ability to enter into a creative engagement with a partner, much you as would when dancing, playing jazz, “or anything else that matters in this world.”
What would happen if we began to think of dealing with conflict using metaphors from the dance world or the music world? How would it change our attitude when encountering differences in our churches?
What other metaphors might be considered that would alleviate our anxiety when we learn there is conflict in our midst? How might those metaphors help us arrive at a “fierce understanding of each other” rather than tearing each other apart?
–Devon MillerRecognizing the Prophetic Voice Through Community
The New Year is often a time of turning pages in life, between reflecting on past chapters and finding meaning to guide writing the next. As Christians, we seek guidance from Scripture and prayer. But seeking inspiration is not just a solitary activity. In the context of a church congregation, it is a community job.
When we think about the life of a congregation and the experiences that bond its members, the highlights might come to mind: the moving sermon, the effective outreach, and the festive gathering. There are also the comforting aspects of participating in history, sharing in sacraments like 2,000 years of Christians before us. Ease comes from sharing in the service with the members of one’s community for so many years that you know the identity of the person in front of you without seeing their face, as their form and gait are so familiar. Yet there may be other experiences that bond a congregation: witnessing traumatic events; experiencing loss or injustice; maybe even just growing old together.
Each person in that church, whether ordained or not, impacts the community’s life. That may be by getting involved or walking away. It may be by showing up ready to welcome all, or by bearing hurts from the world. One may come for succor, and another to support. All are children of God and bear gifts to be nurtured and shared. During times of stability, one set of people’s gifts may come to the fore. Times of change can be stressful to the status quo but may also be an opportunity to develop the gifts of others. When things are calm sometimes the practice of listening stagnates. Change invites us to re-open our ears and hearts to those around us. Each person can offer insights into the prophetic voice of the community as the fresh pages of tomorrow are considered and words weighed.
Sometimes, hearing the truth from others is hard, especially where there is hurt or guilt. Sometimes, those normally involved in leadership are too close to the challenge, and for healing to happen a consultant must be brought in. This is the forte of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. We are not here to tell you what you should do but to create a safe space where substance and inspiration can be discerned to write new chapters that are not hampered by unfinished storylines of the past. Peace in community settings is a gift we give each other by listening to, respecting, understanding, and seeing the potential in each other as we face new situations in life. Meaning develops between members until the suitable words flow, speaking for the community from its prophetic heart. If you seek a coach to support hearing your community voice, we are here.
—Dorren Gertsen-BriandThe Art of Asking Questions
I recently attended a remote one-hour workshop on Facilitated Dialogue led by Rachel Viscomi from the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. One piece of guidance she shared was that when facilitating dialogue among a group of people it’s important to slow things down. One way to slow things down and enhance understanding is to ask more questions. And then she shared a slide with this heading on it:
“Keep Calm and Ask More Questions”
This piece of wisdom can be used in many circumstances and conversations, not just in facilitated dialogue. When we are involved in mediation work with churches it is imperative that we ask many questions. When we are assisting/coaching clergy in understanding Bowen Family Systems Theory and they share about their family of origin, we use questions as a tool for them to explain the patterns of behaving/functioning that they developed as they grew up. And as they share, we ask more questions that may lead them to see the bigger picture of their family’s (parents, grandparents, ancestors) challenges and strengths.
As I was participating in Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process led by Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, I recognized that my relationship with my father was emotionally distant. Yet, I didn’t know how to go about bridging some of that distance. I started to understand that some of this distance was simply because I did not know my father very well. It was then that I explored the idea of interviewing my dad to get to know him better. But interviews involve questions. And what questions would I even know to ask my father?
Fortunately, a friend suggested I use Grandpa, Tell Me Your Memories which is a resource that provides hundreds of questions to ask and can easily be used for interviewing other people than just your grandfather.
And it worked! Conducting an interview with my dad helped to bridge some of the distance that had existed between him and me. Since that interview, I have been able to ask my dad more and more questions which has helped our relationship deepen.
When facilitating mediation with churches we often will introduce our time by reading a passage from Philippians 2, focusing on verse 4, “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” And a primary way we look to the interests of others is by asking them questions. We become curious and allow open-ended questions to deepen our understanding of one another.
I think of Jesus who was a master at asking questions. In the book Jesus is the Question, the author Martin Copenhaver shares this fascinating detail of Jesus’ ministry: “According to the Gospels, Jesus asks 307 different questions, is asked only 183 questions, and answers fewer than 10 of those he is asked.” Jesus’ use of questions helped to deepen relationships, disarm tensions, and help people define themselves better.
Going into the holiday season, maybe this phrase “Keep Calm and Ask More Questions” could be a way for us to deepen our relationships with family and friends as we gather. It’s another tool in our peacemaker toolkit. We just have to remember to use it. Holiday Blessings,