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Conversation Guidelines

Hold you fast to that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same.
John Wesley, Sermon 39: The Catholic Spirit

The following conversation guidelines were developed by NASCUMC to assist Member Institutions in developing or refining campus conversations. NASCUMC is grateful to Boston University School of Theology PhD student Christopher P. Ney, who has worked with NASCUMC’s mission committee, staff, and campus partners to develop these guidelines.

Are There Conversation Partners in the Community?

Depending upon the context, students may not feel comfortable representing “the unheard voice” and it may be necessary to reach out to community partners to ensure diversity and authenticity. For example, a gay or lesbian student might not wish to be “out” in such a public way but a local gay and lesbian center may be able to provide a speaker or conversation participants.

Are Different Kinds of Conversation Necessary?

Campus leaders who wish to support initiatives at cross-cultural understanding will also recognize that some of these conversations have to take place among people of a similar background. There are times when women need to meet only with other women; African-American students need their own space; LGBT students need to discuss the concerns of their community without the presence of others. Although it is rarely discussed, members of culturally dominant groups also find value in these kinds of discussions. When facilitated properly, these culturally-homogenous discussions provide an opportunity to recognize that “whiteness” is not normative, but culturally-defined or that there are many ways to express masculinity. Ironically, developing a deeper appreciation of one’s own heritage can be an important step toward understanding the culture of other people and learning how to be allies with each other to overcome misunderstanding and oppression.

How Do We Include Everyone in Speaking and Listening?

There are many good and simple techniques to ensure participation in a discussion. One of the simplest and best-known techniques involves the use of a talking piece. An item—often a small stick or a stone—is used to indicate who in the group has the opportunity to speak. The person holding the talking piece can speak for as long as he or she likes, and the responsibility of the other members of the group is to listen carefully. When the speaker is finished, the talking piece is passed to another person in the circle. It can move around the circle in any fashion, but everyone must have the opportunity to hold the talking piece and to speak or to pass.

A similar technique involves the use of pennies or other small objects. Everyone in the group is given the same number of pennies—typically one to three—at the beginning of the conversation. People can speak at any time, but must throw one penny into the center of the circle after speaking. When you run out of pennies, you cannot speak again until everyone has been given the opportunity to speak and the pennies are redistributed.

The Rev. Eric H. F. Laws, an Episcopal priest and founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute, has created resources to support inclusive and sustainable churches and communities. One of the techniques that he recommends is a discussion process of mutual invitation. The leader identifies a question and who will be the first person to respond to that question. When that person is finished talking, he or she pauses for a few moments of silence. The silence allows the group to listen more deeply to the speaker, rather than focusing on what they want to say. Then the speaker invites the next person to speak. It does not need to be the person seated next to the speaker. The next person can speak or pass. The one who is invited can speak or pass. When the second person is finished, he or she invites the next person after a brief silence. The process continues until everyone has been invited to speak and those who said, “Pass” are asked again if they have anything to share.

How Do We Talk and Listen Together? Guidelines for Discussion

Conversation guidelines or ground rules will help create an environment in which conversation participants will feel safe and supported. Investing in the process of building trust among the participants at the beginning will lead to a more honest and robust conversation. Hopefully, it will also help everyone feel good when the conversation is over. Because ownership of the process is an important part of building trust, gaining the consent of the group is essential.

As a first step in the conversation process, establishing consensus on some simple rules to govern the conversation will help the group establish a sense of its own identity, build mutual trust, and invite people to invest in the process. One of the most important jobs of the conversation facilitator is helping the group come to an agreement about how these rules work and gently reminding them of their commitment to an open discussion. While there are many different ways to develop conversation rules, the underlying principle remains constant: the group must give its consent to the proposed rules.

For a large group, it may be easiest to present a list of rules and ask for questions or comments. These might include

  • Respect the dignity of all conversation partners in your words and your tone.
  • Seek to recognize mutual goodwill, even in disagreement.
  • Speak for yourself and your own experience—use I language.
  • Avoid personal attacks and blaming even when discussing hard issues.
  • Commit to taking the risk of speaking honestly and recognize the risk that others are taking.
  • Allow others to finish their remarks before you begin yours—don’t interrupt.
  • Allow time between comments to let people think about and process what has been said.
  • Ask questions—don’t assume you know what others are thinking.

If time allows, asking people to discuss the rules in groups of two or three gives everyone an opportunity to talk about these rules. A question like, “What is missing or what should be taken away?” is a good way to move the conversation. A question like, “How will we enforce these rules or what are the consequences for breaking these rules?” will help the participants take them seriously. A question like, “Can we agree as a group to abide by these rules?” is necessary to ensure consent.

With a smaller group, it may be possible to use a more participatory process. Rather than presenting a list of rules for conversation and consent, the facilitator can invite the group to develop their own rules. After outlining the purpose of the conversation rules, the facilitator can ask group members to articulate the rules they want to govern their discussion. In a group of 15 or less, this exercise could be done with the entire group. In a larger group, it would be helpful to divide into group of 3-4 and ask each group to write rules and then present them to the large group. The large group then works to achieve consensus on which rules to adopt.

Isn’t Consensus a Complicated and Time-Consuming Process?

Consensus decision making is often associated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and some grassroots advocacy groups. People who are unfamiliar with consensus may consider that it is an unwieldy or impractical process. But consensus is the decision-making process that we use every day with people we care about. Here’s a simple example: if a group of five people wants to get pizza to share and one person in the group loves anchovies, that person will not insist that all the pizza have anchovies as a topping. Rather, the group will find a way to ensure that everyone in the group has pizza to eat.

Although no decision-making process is perfect, the problem with a simple vote is that it produces winners and losers. Members of the group focus on winning, rather than finding the solution that is best for the entire group. Sometimes consensus means agreeing to a least common denominator of what everyone can live with (pizza with no toppings at all). But sometimes it leads to a creative solution or result that no one considered at the beginning of the conversation (dividing the pizzas in half to ensure a variety of toppings).

Because these conversations touch on sensitive issues and building a sense of group identity and trust is essential to their success, unanimous consent or consensus is important. If a segment of people—even a small minority—in your group is unhappy with the conversation guidelines, it will be difficult for them to participate fully and an opportunity to learn from them may be missed.

How Can an Institution’s Leadership Use Conversation to Transform Campus Culture?

The Presidents of Andover-Newton Theological Seminary and Hebrew College recognized that interfaith dialogue and understanding were essential skills for the graduates of both institutions. They met regularly for a period of time, formed a friendship and devised a simple plan to share these concerns with their respective campuses. Each President offered a small amount of grant money to faculty members to sponsor joint student-faculty initiatives on interfaith dialogue. The grant guidelines were broadly defined and after awarding the funds, the Presidents allowed the creativity of faculty and students to drive the initiatives. Administrators, faculty and students recognized the role that each can play and within a short period of time, the culture of both campuses has changed. Incoming students simply accept that these interfaith projects are a tradition at their school. The institutions have continued to grow together and have formed the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE).

Where Do these Conversations Lead Us?

Conversations that matter provide an opportunity for students, faculty and administrators to engage in some of the most challenging issues facing our communities today. More than a civic obligation, they contribute to a learning process that helps prepare students for a world of diverse experiences and backgrounds. They help prepare individuals and institutions for the future and equip them to address some of the most urgent social issues facing our world today. In short, these conversations offer an opportunity for growth and discovery as we hold fast to that which we believe and allow others to do the same.

How Can I Learn More?

A comprehensive bibliography for work related to conversations about race, sexuality and interfaith engagement would extend for dozens of pages and include hundreds of volumes. This resource list is intended as a starting point for those who wish to do further reading and reflection.

Start Talking includes a chapter on establishing ground rules, including the process for creating your own guidelines. The entire book is about 280 pages and is available for free download (by chapter or complete) at http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/cafe/difficultdialogues/handbook.cfm

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt has a short guide called Difficult Dialogues. It includes guidelines and a variety of techniques for engaging in difficult material and for defusing or de-escalating tension when “hot moments” erupt. It is available at http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues/

The Public Conversations Project (Publicconversations.org) has a resource titled Constructive Conversations about Challenging Times: A Guide to Community Dialogue (It is also available in Spanish)

http://www.publicconversations.org/sites/default/files/PCP_Guide%20to%20...

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources (http://welcomingresources.org) has two resources with relevant material. Both are written primarily for religious congregations and may require some changes to the language. The first is called Building an Inclusive Church (http://welcomingresources.org/welcomingtoolkit.pdf). The second resource is directed to people who wish to be allies and supporters of gay and lesbian people and is titled All In God’s Family (http://welcomingresources.org/AllinGodsFamily.pdf).

JustPeace is a United Methodist center that prepares and assists leaders and faith communities to engage conflict constructively in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation and restoration of community. It offers services including mediation, training, and resources on conflict resolution. More information is available at http://justpeaceumc.org/.

Recently the Bishops of the United Methodist Church have spoken on issues of race. Their statements can be found at these links. They also suggest several resources on race and racism.

http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishops-work-to-end-racism-and-welcome...

http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/preview/council-of-bishops-issues-past...

“A New Dawn in Beloved Community: Stories with the Power to Transform Us,” Linda Lee, ed., Abingdon Press, 2012

Pan-Methodist Statement on Racism from the 72nd Consultation of Methodist Bishops

“Understanding and Dismantling Racism: the Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America,” Joseph Barndt, Fortress Press, 2007

The Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary and Hebrew College offers extensive resources on interfaith conversation. Their website provides access to many of these materials at http://www.antshc-circle.org/

The mission of the Kaleidoscope Institute is to create inclusive and sustainable churches and communities and competent leadership for a diverse and changing world. They offer leadership training in many cities and their website contains resources in both English and Spanish, http://www.kscopeinstitute.org/

The Boston University Religion and Conflict Transformation Program prepares religious leaders to become a resource for peace in a multicultural, multifaith world. The program sponsors events and provides resources at: http://www.bu.edu/rct/

Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation: Creating a Culture of JustPeace, by Tom Porter: This book gives practical guidelines and stories for engaging with conflictual issues in challenging situations.

Dr. Wesley J. Wildman, Professor of Philosophy, Theology and Ethics at Boston University School of Theology, discusses conflict and the brain at Drew University's Clergy Health Day on March 9, 2015. This is a shortened version of Dr. Wildman's presentation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2YYl9f3YgI

Wesleyan Legacy

John Wesley’s 1750 sermon, quoted above, articulates a non-dogmatic approach to faith and to life. The founder of Methodism recognizes that when conflicts arise over different opinions, the first casualty is usually the essential Christian truth: love of God and love of neighbor. Consequently, Wesley embraces an open-minded approach to diversity. At the same time, he rejects “speculative or practical latituidinarianism,” what we might today call indifference to cultural differences. Rather, Wesley promotes the practice of engaging diversity through love as expressed in mutual prayer, shared good works, and the common pursuit of truth. As the colleges and universities of the NASCUMC seek to engage in “Conversations that Matter about Matters that Matter” on their campuses, the spirit of Wesley’s sermon is a useful guide.

Methodists have a long and proud history of support for intellectual inquiry, freedom of expression, and inclusive communities of learning. Today, 119 educational institutions in the U.S. carry forward these traditions. Conversations That Matter About Matters That Matter is a natural extension of long-standing traditions and practices.

Today’s conversations about race, human sexuality and religious diversity would have been inconceivable to the founders of the Methodist tradition and its institutions, but they would have understood and appreciated the commitment to embrace humanity with all of its marvelous diversity. These topics are often viewed with fear and anxiety because of their potential for divisiveness, misunderstanding, and harm. But conversations about these topics, when carefully facilitated in an environment which engenders honesty and respect, can be sources of growth and transformation.

How Were These Guidelines Developed?

These guidelines were developed in consultation with individuals and organizations that have been involved in conversations like these for many years. They include The Public Conversations Project, CIRCLE at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary and Hebrew College, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, and the book, Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. Within the United Methodist tradition, the work of JustPeace provides many resources on issues of justice and reconciliation. The founder of that effort, Tom Porter, has written a book, The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation: Creating a Culture of JustPeace which includes practical advice and theological reflection that would inform and enhance these campus conversations.

NASCUMC is grateful to Boston University School of Theology PhD student Christopher P. Ney, who has worked with NASCUMC’s mission committee, staff, and campus partners to develop these guidelines.

Who Do We Invite?

Think carefully about how the invitation to this discussion is framed. The group or individual who convenes the discussion may have a significant impact on who participates. More importantly, consider the language of the invitation. “Come to a meeting to argue about hot button issues” won’t attract many people. No one would ever use those words, but that sentiment can be communicated in different ways that might leave members of one group or another feeling unwelcome. An invitation “to discuss strategies to build a more inclusive and diverse campus community” might attract more participants. In general, awareness of the culture of your campus and community and the relationships between individuals and groups will guide the invitation process.

In crafting the invitation, here are some items to consider:

  • Be clear about who is invited
    • Build an invitation list that reflects your understanding of the groups on campus
    • Reach out to particular groups and individuals to assure their participation
    • Welcome all who are invited
  • Be clear about the purpose and context of the conversation
    • Some are part of on-going conversations
    • Some are not designed to bring resolution
    • Think about the place of this event within the larger campus conversation
  • Be clear about the focus and expectations of the conversation
    • Some are focused on a particular moment and some are general
    • Some conversation may lead to discussions about policies and procedures
    • Some conversations are not for the purpose of making decisions
Why is the Invitation so Important?

To have an effective conversation about issues related to diversity, it’s important to have people representing diverse backgrounds in the room. It’s much more difficult to speak in generalities or even stereotypes when people are face-to-face. For example, a conversation about interfaith relations is different when it includes Christians, Jews and Muslims rather than a homogenous group speculating about the beliefs and practices of other faiths. Working to ensure that many different experiences are present in the room will produce a more robust conversation and outcome, but there are a few caveats.

Members of groups that have been marginalized or misunderstood should not have to bear the burden of interpreting the experience of everyone in their group. Indeed, no one can do that. We can only speak from our own experience. A skilled facilitator will invite people to speak out of their own experience but avoid putting pressure on anyone to speak or to represent larger groups of people. It is probably worth stating that the atmosphere for the conversation should allow everyone to speak without placing burdens or expectations on any individual to represent a group.