By Eddie Pipkin

June 16, 2017

In a world with lots of options, one of the things that sets local faith communities apart is the opportunity they provide for the creation of authentic community.  People hunger for deep connections.  And one of the primary sources for the forging of those connections is one-to-one, attentive, in-depth conversation.  Yet, too often, even as ministry shepherds whose very mission is to build connections with seekers and servants, we are terrible conversationalists.

We either talk “at” people, focusing on our own agenda and not really paying attention to their needs, or we listen half-heartedly, clearly communicating with our body language and our lack of follow-through that we have other priorities at hand.  (This is in marked contrast with the biblical examples from Jesus, in which he consistently practiced “presence” for a wide cast of characters.)

It’s worthwhile to take some conversational lessons from people whose professional reputations have grown out of their gift for communicating well.  I’m a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has become in many ways our science-communicator-in-chief.  His passion for his topic, ability to make complex ideas relatable, and his down home good humor were recently recognized when he received the Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication.  In a recent interview, he discusses the sacred calling he feels to honor those thirsty for knowledge: “I’m a servant of their curiosity, and when I’m asked, I task myself to be as good at it as I can be, because why not? Given how much thought I give to the universe, the least I can do is think about how to communicate.”  It might change our personal conversational dynamic if we looked at every interchange from this perspective, viewing our conversational partners as pilgrims, eager to explore the journey of faith, rather than cumbersome interruptions to be checked off a task list so we can get to the important stuff.

In the linked interview, Tyson also shares the importance of tweaking his message to fit each audience (and he deals with a lot of different audiences):

A real educator will try to understand what the receptors look like in every individual, in every person they’re tasked with teaching. For many people, there are some common receptors so you can get halfway there. But if you want to get all the way there, that means [understanding] what are the receptors in a 12-year-old versus a 20-year-old versus a 50- or 80-year old. If the person grew up in a city versus the suburbs or in the countryside, if they’re foreign, if they grew up wealthy or struggling—all of this will feed the demographics of your audience.

He concludes with this straightforward analysis: “If you don’t care [about the demographic], then you’re not in a position to complain that not everyone understood your message.”  If you have been in many ministry meetings, you know that such complaints are commonplace (that people aren’t responding to the messages that seem vital to us).  Tyson suggests that we should consider the possibility that it’s us and not them.

Once you’ve committed to the value of getting conversations right, public radio broadcaster and professional interviewer Celeste Headlee offers some practical tips.  None of these are what you might expect, such as advice in physically indicating that you’re paying attention. As Headlee says, “There is no reason to show how you are paying attention, if you are, in fact, paying attention.”  Here are her 10 ways to have a better conversation:

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

You can listen to her explain each of these 10 tips more in more detail as part of her full 10-minute TED Talk (it’s worth a listen).  Some of these suggestions are particular points of struggle for ministry folk—we frequently wrestle with numbers one and five, for instance.  I used to routinely say the following phrase to people who were attempting to engage me in conversation on Sunday mornings: “If you want to talk with me, you’re going to have to walk with me,” as we moved towards my next task or destination.  At the time, this felt like a clever survival skill, but in retrospect, it clearly communicated that my priority in the moment was more important than theirs.

Also, this may come as a shock, but many of you clergy folk reading this struggle with number two on this list.  There’s a time and place for pontification, but conversations and sermons are two different venues.

All of these tips are useful, and their thoughtful practice has the potential to change the value people experience in their interactions with us.  The key is to be intentional and attentive, and—maybe you picked up on this as a theme—humble.  To quote Headlee again, “Assume that in every conversation you have something to learn.”

What have your own experiences been in one-to-one ministry conversations?  Is this something that is difficult for you, or does it come naturally?  Has the way you approach talking to people changed for you over the years?   Share your own stories in the comments section, and check out the emc3 web site for resources that can help you with these and many more practical ministry and leadership skills.