Jesus and the art of difficult conversations

By Julianne Stanz | Special to The Compass | November 8, 2016

juliannestanz_web-graphicPicture the following scene: You are sitting at the Thanksgiving table with your family and the conversation is lively and spirited. Suddenly, one of your family members makes a disparaging and unkind remark about faith in general and specifically the Catholic Church. Your heart lurches and you get that “uh-oh” feeling in the pit of your stomach because you care deeply about your faith and also your relationship with your family member.

We have all experienced a scenario like this at one time or another. So, what do you do? Usually people react in two different ways. Some choose to ignore the remark — filing away the conversation in the recesses of their mind and making a mental note not to speak to that particular person about faith again. Others tackle it right away and get into what can become a heated exchange.

There is another way which Jesus himself gives us: the art of conversation through questioning — usually one-on-one.

When Jesus encountered difficult situations, the conversations often happened in private — such as with the “Woman at the Well,” who was living with a man who was not her husband, or with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night. Consider that “in the New Testament, Jesus asked 183 questions, gave three answers, and answered 307 questions with a question in return like a true rabbi” (“Forming Intentional Disciples,” Sherry Weddell, p. 147). We can learn how to handle these awkward situations using Jesus’ example.

Back to the Thanksgiving table. Your Uncle Tom states, “The church is all about money, always asking people for money and yet it is the wealthiest organization on the planet.” Three options are now before you: ignore Uncle Tom, engage him in conversation publicly, or invite Uncle Tom to a private conversation. Reflecting on Jesus’ example, you may say, “That’s really interesting Uncle Tom. I would love to hear your thoughts. How about in the sitting room after dinner?” It is moments such as these that hold powerful potential for evangelization.

Later, when you can give Uncle Tom your full, undivided attention, revisit the conversation. Once again, you can turn to Jesus’ example by focusing on listening — not simply listening in order to respond, but listening to understand. Some helpful questions to ask here include:

  • Can you share with me why you think this way?
  • How have you experienced this in your life?
  • How do you feel, Uncle Tom, about your faith and how you perceive Jesus?  How has this affected your position on the church?

Listen intently, with the goal of understanding Uncle Tom’s perspective. With the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus teaches us that others are most open to new insights only after they have been heard, respected and honored. The same is true with Uncle Tom.

Take time to affirm his experience and continue to ask questions.  After you have heard and understood him, Uncle Tom may be ready to hear your perspective. The principle of fraternal correction demands that you charitably share your perspective. But remember you can only correct someone fraternally if you are fraternal with them! This may happen during your first conversation or at a later time.

Respect your relationship with the person and gently and patiently lead them to the truth in love. Like Jesus, we can navigate these difficult conversations if we keep Jesus’ example in mind and pray for His help before, during and after these conversations.

Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization and co-author of “The Catechist’s Backpack.”

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