Conversing with courage

Last week I ‘enjoyed’ a conversation with someone I like and trust; it was a highly challenging conversation, for the potential was there for an acrimonious outcome.

The conversation was later carried on by e mail. In the course of our e mail exchange the other party reflected that they felt that they had been part of a ‘courageous conversation.’ ‘Courageous conversations’, he suggested, are capable of leading to creative and new solutions because, they involve all parties to the conversation being prepared to take risks. He also implied that passion is a prerequisite for the truly ‘courageous conversation,’ adding that passion is by definition relational. All parties in the ‘courageous conversation’  are required to care deeply about the issue being discussed. At the initial stage passivity is regarded as a negative, or a vice.   There does come a time when passivity is indeed a virtue, but perhaps, this should not be during the initial conversations.

Perhaps the journey from Gethsemane, to Golgotha and, into the resurrection can illustrate how ‘courageous conversations’ work.

In Gethsemane Jesus is initially highly passionate (hence the phrase the passion), he pleads with His father, ‘‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,’ we are then told that ‘in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground,’ (Luke 22, 42-45).

It is interesting to note that although Jesus’ overriding desire is for the cup to be taken away from him, he also recognizes where power and authority are located; ‘father if you are willing.’  Furthermore Jesus is prepared, in spite of his own fever pitch emotions (he was sweating blood) to trust in the the Father, the one with real power and authority.

For ‘courageous conversations’ to be effective we must also presumably recognize where power an authority lie, and trust in those with power and authority to have our best interests at heart, even though we may feel, like Jesus, ‘in anguish.’

In today’s world most  (C of E) clergy resist being called ‘father.’  the modern tendency is to prefer terms like pastor, minister, church leader etc. I am not arguing that clergy, or any other categories of leader, should refer to themselves as father, simply that we should remember that leaders always ask people to take a risk on their  judgement.

Judgement is, of course, theologically speaking the preserve of the Father. So when leaders  make judgments they are acting, hopefully, like a good father (very counter cultural, I know). Good fathers know that their offspring are capable of transformation beyond their initial vulnerabilities but, not without help.

Good fathers are also persuadable. They listen and take on board the passions and vulnerabilities brought to them. In the Old Testament, in particular, God is frequently shown to change his mind following the courageous protestations of Godly people.  But, he also asks His people to submit to the decision eventually made and, there is no guarantee that He will acquiesce; after all he didn’t to His own son in Gethsemane.

Good followers give leaders their vulnerabilities. Let’s hope they bless them. It is such trust in the use of his Father’s  authority and power that allows Jesus to move from passion to passivity; ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done,’ (Matthew, 26, 42). Notice the intimacy of the language, ‘my Father,’ implies total unconditional trust. It is this level of total trust that permits Jesus to risk the cross. It is Jesus submission that permits the Father to make the most creative of all solutions, to the biggest of all problems, the resurrection. This solution would not have been possible if the outcome of the Gethsemane conversation had been some form of tepid compromise.

So far I have suggested that the following are essential requirements for a  ‘courageous conversation:’

  • the willingness to take risks
  • an understanding of where power and authority are located
  • the trustworthiness of those holding power and authority
  • the willingness to move from passion to passivity
  • an openness to a truly creative outcome
  • an ability to contain feelings of discomfort or anguish
  • a belief that good leaders bless and transform our vulnerabilities
  • a willingness by leaders to regard vulnerabilities as gifts (of course vulnerability should be sincerely offered and not offered as a form of manipulation)
  • faith that unexpected or unforeseen outcomes may arise later on (such as the resurrection, the ascension and Pentecost)

‘Courageous conversations’ also, I think, have porous boundaries, for, although, as in the case of my conversation, they appear to be focused on a single issue, they in reality provide an opportunity for ongoing reflection. ‘Courageous conversations’ are essential to what management theorists refer to as ‘open systems thinking.’

The discussion that I was part of last week was about a specific situation (one which was causing me plenty of anguish), the real fruit of the conversation turned out to be ongoing reflection on how Christians (or at least this Christian ) might be use two stories from scripture (the Road to Emmaus and Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch) to discern their speed of response to pastoral situations.

To engage in ‘courageous conversations,’ involves transcending the ‘culture of nice’ which is so prevalent in ‘Godly communities.’  As Simon Walker (in The Undefended Life) points out in some Christian communities ‘to confront, or upset the apple cart is a cardinal sin. This ‘virtue’ has often been enshrined in norms of church behaviour. The church becomes a place where people are endlessly nice to each other.’ 

We should not, of course, escalate every single issues into one worthy of a ‘courageous conversation,’ but, we should be prepared for such conversations when the stakes are high. The recent synod debate in the Church of England over women bishops provides an unfortunate, and depressing, example of a high stake issue where the ‘debate’ on the floor was in reality a depressing exchange of rehearsed monologues, clothed in ‘niceness.’ No real courage was shown, no real conversation took place. As a result a truly creative outcome seems beyond reach.

Entering into a ‘courageous conversation,’ is in many ways to enter into a paradox; one where an initial view may be held with much conviction but, where all parties to the conversation must also continually ask themselves ‘what if I am wrong about this?’  This is, if you like, the ‘process ethic’ that sits at the heart of ‘courageous conversation.’ Participants also need to reflect on their conversational behaviour, whilst recognizing that whatever the outcome, at some stage all parties need to ‘let go and let God.’

The Rule of Benedict  provides a template for the management of ‘courageous conversations.’ Leaders are challenged to listen to the views of the entire community ‘because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger (junior) members of the community,’  (Chapter 3, Rule of Benedict) whilst (Chapter 63) ‘juniors in the community should show due respect for their seniors.’ Benedict also warns that the  ability of  ‘courageous conversations’ to produce high quality outcomes is contingent on the absence of politicking prior to the conversation: ‘Great care must be taken to avoid any tendency for one of the community to take the side of, or try to protect another………….such a thing must not happen in the monastery because it would provide a very serious scandal. Anyone who acts against this principle must be sharply deterred,’ (Chapter 69). For Benedict peers should be involved in all but the most insignificant decisions (the only type of the decision that should be the conversational preserve of the senior management team is the insignificant decision, i.e. those decisions which require little courage).

Finally Benedict understands that ultimately a decision must be made by those  possessing the power and authority to act in the communities best interests (and Benedict implies this means every member of the community should be benefit from the outcome of the conversation), ‘it is for the abbot or abbess in the end to make the decision and everyone else should obey what the superior judges to be best,’ (Chapter 3).

Ever the realist Benedict understands that any high stake decision is likely to leave some of those affected with adverse feelings. He urges those who feel hard done by to cease ‘murmuring’ for he regards constant low level descent as the most malignant form of cancer that a community can suffer from: ‘obedience must be given with good will, because God loves a cheerful giver. If obedience is given with a bad will and with murmuring not only in words but with bitterness of heart, then, even though the command may be externally fulfilled, it will not be accepted by God, for he can see the resentful murmuring of the heart. One who behaves in such as way not only fails to receive the reward of grace but actually incurs the punishment deserved by murmurers. Only repentance and reparation can save such a one from this punishment,’ (Chapter 5).

Last week, in reality, I fell below the standards required by those seeking to enter into ‘courageous conversations.’

Are you willing and equipped for courageous conversations?

To what extent do organisational processes and structures (truly, really) permit ‘courageous conversations’?

As a leader are you a loving judge?

As a follower do you offer leaders your trust, vulnerability and obedience?

Are you a murmur free zone?


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