Lessons learned from dialogue workshop

 Friday, 24 June 2016

Recently, I wrote about some workshops regarding how to have constructive conversations on the issue of abortion. I had the privilege of attending one of these workshops. The organization that provided the workshops was Justice for All (JFA). JFA’s goal is to foster “conversations in which the contentious debate about abortion is transformed into a dialogue.”

JFA seeks to “train thousands to make abortion unthinkable for millions, one person at a time.” JFA accomplishes this mission by having trained staff travel the country to mentor anybody interested in nurturing life-changing conversations. JFA helps people—like you and me—understand the basics of discussing the abortion issue.

The trainings were led by JFA staff member, Rebecca Haschke (a Nebraska native!). Rebecca blessed us with innumerable insights. In this article and my next, I want to share some of these insights.

The training began by outlining three essential skills:
1) Ask Questions with an Open Heart;
2) Listen to Understand; and
3) Find Common Ground when Possible.

While these skills seem obvious, they are easily lost in the passion of defending life. Thus, it is critical they are intentionally practiced.

Asking questions with an open heart, and listening to understand, require a stance of humility and openness toward the other. We must put away all assumptions about what we think the other person might believe. Instead of assuming we know what it is for the other person to be “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” we are invited to learn what this particular person believes. This requires gathering information, asking for clarification, and asking for reasons or evidences for their belief.

Listening to understand also requires certain attention. We must remain attentive to the present moment. We give our devotion to what is actually being said by the other person, demonstrating that we comprehend their position. Listening builds trust and, thereby, relationship.

These first two skills are perhaps the most important skills, not only for their persuasive effect but chiefly because they respect the dignity of the human person. They provide the means to meet others in their current circumstances which is also the work of the Church. As Blessed Pope Paul VI once stated: “[T]he Church of the [Second Vatican] Council has been concerned, not just with herself and with her relationship of union with God, but with man—man as he really is today[.]”

In meeting the other person in their circumstances, we practice what Father Antonio Sicari calls “a paradoxical patience.” It is ‘paradoxical’ because we permit the other to have their experience, regardless of its ultimate moral value. This respects the freedom of their use of intellect and will. This paradoxical patience is, as Father Luigi Giussani states, “how God acts with man.” Only from this ‘paradoxical patience’ of asking questions and listening to understand can we do the further work of asking deeper, more challenging (life-changing) questions.

The third skill—finding common ground when possible—is perhaps the most difficult skill. In our world infected by political bickering, argumentation is often illustrated by contrasting polar opposite positions. There never appears to be common interest. Finding common ground involves rejecting this mentality and building bridges. For example, we might find ourselves agreeing with an adamant pro-choicer that certain forms of abortion or abortion under certain circumstances are wrong and should be legally prohibited. These points of agreement should be acknowledged.

Ultimately, these three essential skills provide us with a “method” for substantive and—God willing—fruitful conversations. These skills are worth practicing in our daily conversations (on any number of topics). JFA has found these three essential skills to be life-changing and life-saving, and I think you will, too. If you are interested in learning more about this method and watching a video of Rebecca putting these skills in action, visit www.jfaweb.org/learn-at-home.