Tips from the saints
So there is tension on your catechetical team? Don’t worry. Tension has been part of church life since Jesus walked the earth, and it doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong. All of the research that has been done on healthy church life indicates that communities reporting no conflict are far more likely to be comatose than vital. People only argue about what they care about. If no one is arguing about anything, it is often a sign that they’ve lost steam. Read tension as a sign that your team cares!
At the same time, the world hardly needs the example of more groups in conflict. What is lacking is the witness of communities that manage well the natural tensions that exist among caring people. We need the example of teams that don’t allow conflict to fragment their parish or school, but rather deepen their relationships and strengthen their ministries.
Here are three “saintly” tips to incorporate into your team’s practice of healthy conflict
Tip 1 – Seek to understand before seeking to be understood
The peace prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi did not originate with him, but it certainly captures his spirit. Francis was known to reach out in humility to others to try to understand their perspective — once traveling as far as North Africa to talk with a Muslim sultan while the sultan’s own kingdom was under attack by crusaders. Talk about gutsy! His very presence on the scene was likely to be misunderstood and could easily have led to his death. But Francis believed in the power of dialogue to heal rifts.
In the middle of a tough conversation, everything within us wants to be understood. There is a story we have in our heads about the situation at hand, and we want the other person to listen and be won over. How often we resort to phrases such as “You just have to understand” or “I need you to see …” And yet we don’t control whether others understand or see. The only person we have the capacity to “make listen” is ourselves.
Effective conflict management begins by getting ourselves into a space of curiosity about the other person’s story. Why would they say they are doing what they are doing? We don’t need to agree that their perspective makes sense, but we can try to understand why it makes sense for them. Do they have different information than we have? Are they interpreting the information in a different way? Chances are they will be more willing to
hear our perspective if they first feel their perspective has been heard and understood.
Tip 2 – Be willing to touch the heart
St. John Baptist de la Salle was a remarkable educator. He and his brothers certainly engaged the intellect of their students. But, significantly, he also encouraged the brothers not to be afraid to “touch the heart.” As humans, he’d remind them, we are not disconnected minds. We have feelings, too.
As catechists, we know the power of feelings. Like de la Salle, we try to create lesson plans that touch both mind and heart because we realize that learning “sticks” best when it engages emotion. Yet, strangely, when we are in a tough situation with our catechetical team, we suddenly wish to the leave the heart out of it. We’ll say things like “Let’s just focus on the facts here” or “No need to get emotional about this.” We forget that feelings matter. Indeed, if we didn’t have feelings about what was going on, the conversation
wouldn’t be “sticky” in the first place.
Effective conflict management leaves room for feelings to be part of the conversation. Feelings don’t need to determine the decisions that are made, but they can still be honored as present. When we name our feelings and invite others to name theirs, we defuse the conversation and make listening easier.
Tip 3 – Make Augustine’s wisdom your own
St. Augustine of Hippo had an aspiration that he was known to pray over and over: Noverim me; noverim te (Let me know myself; let me know you). Augustine was, of course, speaking to God, but imagine how the world would be different if this little prayer were in our minds and hearts in the midst of every difficult conversation. Each of us has a way that we want to show up in the world — compassionate, competent, flexible. Much of the tension we experience in teams is rooted in the realization that the other person isn’t seeing us in the way that we value being seen. That’s hard to accept! But the more we come know ourselves honestly, as persons who are compassionate (for example) yet not perfectly so, and the more we come to know the values others are trying to embody, even when we wish they weren’t so sensitive about them, the less we will be thrown off balance in tough conversations, and the gentler we will be with others. Humble self-knowledge gives us the grounding to handle tensions with greater grace. We recognize that a particular tension does not represent the whole of who we are or who the other person is, and there is some consolation in that.
May the saints be with you as you work to remain curious, attentive to feelings, and humbly honest in your work with others.
Ann Garrido is the author of Redeeming Conflict: 12 Habits for Christian Leaders (Ave Maria Press). She works with the Triad Group, a consulting firm founded by the authors of the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Learn more at DiffCon.com
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February 2020.
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