Best Practices Conference: Transforming conversations, enriching relationships

What is a fierce conversation and why would I participate in one?

Every day it seems I have at least five conversations with someone about an important matter. The problem with these conversations is that I rarely share them with anyone. Instead, I fuss over hurting their feelings. I avoid the conversation because things between us will have to change. Thus, I talk myself out of what could be a potentially challenging but purposeful interaction. I instead keep having the same conversation over and over again with myself. Nothing actually changes, and my frustration increases.

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Fortunately, I’m working on changing my thinking about such “fierce conversations.” I recently traveled with three other members of the Commission on Congregational Life (COCL) to a “Fierce Conversation” training program. I learned more about transforming conversations in those four days than I thought possible. Fierce is sort of an offputting word, especially for church people who prefer being nice rather than confrontational. But the bottom line is that being nice with one another isn’t usually the best solution for the problems our parishes face. We need to be interrogating reality, provoking learning, tackling tough challenges and enriching relationships. Becoming engaged in a well thought out, real fierce conversation drills down into what is really going on and what people should do to improve their current situation. Getting out from behind ourselves through purposeful conversations, here and now, is how we will tackle today’s greatest congregational challenges.

Let me give you a quick example. I returned from Fierce training and led a vestry meeting just a few days later. The vestry had a difficult issue to resolve. I was very aware that conflict existed in the group, nonetheless they needed to make a decision. I used the Fierce “beach ball” model to facilitate that difficult conversation. I stated the issue that was on the table, and then listened to each vestry member’s perspective. I ensured everybody got a chance to speak, and framed the question by asking each person what decision they would make if they were sitting in my seat. Each of them wrote down their opinion, and then I had them say it out loud. After receiving their feedback, I asked if we had missed anything essential and thanked them for their contribution. They were now ready to act on the issue. The outcome was that we actually got a conversation out of our heads and onto the table where we could do something with it, something good for us and for our Christian mission. I’m now using the beach ball model in all kinds of scenarios.

The awesome news is that you can learn how to transform your community of faith. How? Simply by attending this year’s COCL Best Practices Conference on March 21. Our presenters are here to get people throughout the diocese engaging one another in more productive relationships with one another. We will transform our diocese one conversation at a time if we are willing to take some risks and tackle our toughest challenges, fiercely. This process will begin with some bold steps at Procter in March. You should definitely go out of your way to attend this year’s Best Practices Training!

Jim Strader serves as rector of St. James, Westwood, and is a member of the diocesan Commission on Congregational Life.