by Lawrence Peers
“I’m a little verklempt.”
When some topics come up in congregations, we know we should have a conversation. Instead, like Linda Richman, Mike Myers’s character on Saturday Night Live, we get all “verklempt” and change the subject. Like Linda, we toss out random topics and say, “Talk amongst yourselves.”
Certain topics—in our congregations, neighborhoods, and workplaces—lead us into polarization. Differences sometimes become divisions. Positions become postures. The result is that we become isolated and entrenched. How can we help the conversation to stop spiraling downward into contention and rise up instead toward deeper understanding?
“To Collaborate More”
Sometimes, we try to stir ourselves to move beyond this polarization and isolation by urging ourselves to collaborate more. Yet some buzzwords, like “collaboration,” have lost much of their meaning by overuse. At its best, collaboration means discovering and working together toward some common aims. In practice, it can become something quite different.
One staff team in a religious organization that I once worked with said their main goal was “to collaborate more.” For them, I’m sure that it seemed like the right thing to say. But their expressed hope did not ring true to me. As we explored this more—it was clear that what they meant by collaboration was “to do what I want to do without much interference from anyone else.” Their practices fit this meaning more than their expressed intention to collaborate.
One dictionary definition of “collaboration,” interestingly, is “to cooperate traitorously with an enemy.” At times, it does seem that to collaborate we must work with someone we see as an “enemy” to our point of view. Working together to accomplish common aims, whether as a staff team or a congregation, requires more of us than working alone. Collaboration requires that we raise the level of our conversations. To work together well, we need to bring what is unspoken to the forefront, and through conversation to use differences rather than avoiding them.
We do need to “Talk amongst ourselves”—but not by being thrown a topic as in the sketches with Linda Richman. Instead, we need to carefully hone how we talk to one another.
Making distinctions about the kind of conversations available to us allows us to achieve different levels of collaboration. I have been learning from organizational anthropologist, Judith Glaser, these three levels of conversation which she also describes in her work, Conversational Intelligence:
- Level I: Confirm what you already know. This is often characterized by “telling and asking” one another what you already know. Usually there is more telling and less asking. One way to shift this pattern is to do more asking than telling—with the intention to listen to and learn from the perspectives of others—with genuine curiosity.
- Level II: Defend what you already believe. This is often characterized by advocating for our own point of view. Usually, when others have a different point of view we seek to persuade them to ours and are often not open to being influenced. This requires moving from what Glaser calls being “addicted to being right” to listening without judgment and to being open to being influenced by what we learn.
- Level III: Discover what you don’t know. In this level, we are more open to being influenced, “we listen to connect,” and we “ask questions for which we don’t already have the answers.” This allows us to often move toward the capacity to co-create as we discover our common aspirations.
We invest time and our effort in our congregations, hoping they will make a difference in people’s lives and in the world. We imagine they can become models of understanding across divisions and engage in healing and empowering practices that help us bring forth tikkun olam (repair of the world) or the Reign of God. We live with the reality that this work is arduous and challenging, with frequent disappointments.
But we can become more mindful of the level of the conversation and find ways to shift our conversations toward opportunities for deeper understanding and learning. Deeper understanding leads us to collaborate and to find ways to co-create our congregational futures.
One of the parables in the Gospels states that “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13:33) One yeast-like ingredient that is always available to us is our capacity to intentionally shift the level of our conversations.
Interested in more? Join Rev. Ken Reeves and Lawrence Peers for this CRG free webinar that is co-sponsored by the Center for Career Development and Ministry.