Can We Talk?

 In Articles, Research

A number of blog posts in this space have emphasized the importance of listening and being heard. Not only do those in the midst of religious and spiritual questioning need gracious places and people with whom to talk. Each of us has a deep human need to have our stories heard.

As Sidewalk Talk founder and director Traci Ruble observes in a recent blog post (“The Ministry of Two Chairs and a Listening Heart”), people are “yearning for space to be seen and to be heard.” In response to that need, Ruble founded Sidewalk Talk, a volunteer effort that sets up facing chairs in public spaces, where passersby can sit a moment with a trained and skilled listener and simply talk, without any expectations to “have it all together, all sorted out.”

But there’s more to communication than just listening and being heard, of course.

There’s the talking part.

Effective, meaningful, productive dialogue—interpersonal, interreligious, civil and political—requires a capacity to have deep conversations. Developing that capacity is the goal of efforts on a number of college campuses, where effective dialogue is recognized as a key ingredient in student learning, health, and the overall civility of campus life.

Jill DeTemple, associate professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, says college classes are ideal settings to build effective dialogue skills.

“College classes are, ideally, spaces of curiosity and exploration,” she said in an interview with Essential Partners, an organization devoted to fostering constructive dialogue in areas often characterized by conflict due to differences in identity, beliefs, and values. DeTemple is one of a team of faculty across the United States working with Essential Partners to identify effective dialogue techniques, design classroom exercises, and build model syllabi in a variety of disciplines (“Dialogue in the Classroom,” Sept. 6, 2018).

“Really great classes start with intriguing questions, and dialogue is a way of exploring those questions with curiosity,” DeTemple said.

DeTemple, who received the American Academy of Religion 2018 Excellence in Teaching Award, quoted a student from her upper-level seminar on Religion, Gender, and Development to demonstrate the impact of effective dialogue—including on matters of religious conviction.

“Before this class, especially in college,” the student wrote, “I wouldn’t really let anyone around me know what religion I was or what viewpoints I believed because I was scared. But I’ve learned that no matter what viewpoint or religion everyone is insecure and that became clear to me. Learning what different philosophers perceived about religion, gender, and development helped me firm my base even more.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a number of professors and student- and faculty-led organizations and initiatives work to foster the art of conversation. In a recent article in OnWisconsin, UW-Madison alumni magazine ( “Room for Debate,” Spring 2019), freelance writer Luisa Kamps surveyed some of those efforts.

“Our society is highly subdivided” in many areas such as politics, race, and religion, Kamps observes. As a result, “people often end up congregating almost exclusively—in real life and through online communities—with others who share the same racial, religious, and demographic profiles.”

Young people in the midst of trying to discern their religious beliefs, many of whom are wrestling with questions of belief and doubt, need spaces to be able to do that. Spaces such as the small conference table provided by UW associate dean for the social sciences Greg Downey. Among Downey’s requirements, students must develop a “two-minute career story” and practice delivering it with classmates.

Young people in the midst of trying to discern their religious beliefs, many of whom are wrestling with questions of belief and doubt, need spaces to be able to do that.

Downey said some struggle with the assignment, but similar to DeTemple’s seminar student discussing religious belief, they become more comfortable when they hear they aren’t alone in still exploring options.

Kamps writes that conversations not only are a means of self-discovery, but promote understanding of others as well. “More and more, students and faculty are seeking out and welcoming conversations where they can feel not only free, but encouraged to unfurl—working through difficult thoughts together with others in an unhurried way, saying things they’ve never said (or thought) before, opening up new doors of understanding to combat distrust.”

Self-understanding and a broadened perspective can also lift persons—young and old—through those inevitable dark nights of the soul, when all feels thrown into confusion and doubt. UW professor of Afro-American Studies Christy Clark-Pujara described for Kamps the discomfort and indignation students inevitably feel as they learn more deeply about the history and legacy of slavery in America.

Students shared with Clark-Pujara that the class had changed their minds and their lives. “They reminded me why talk is so vital to staying alive and engaged: our world is never going to be perfect, and individuals and systems will inevitably let us down. But we should by no means withdraw and give up,” Clark-Pujara said.

Conversations about faith, church, and God can be equally challenging—and every bit as important.

All the more reason to provide space and occasion to hold them, and to develop the capacity to participate.

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