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Preparing for difficult conversations

By Fr Donald Chambers

If the synod journey consists of conversations among the diversity of individuals and groups of the People of God, to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit, then we must be prepared for difficult conversations.

The difficulty lies in the reality that individuals come to conversations with different perspectives on Church life and human experience. There are also differing levels of maturity, personalities, spiritualities, biases and prejudices.

The narrative of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) gives a glimpse into the reality of difficult conversations.

The Council was convened due to opposing views on the circumcision of Gentile converts to Christianity. Acts 15:2 states,

“. . . after Paul and Barnabas had had a long argument with these men, it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas and others of the church should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the problem with the apostles and elders.”

At the Council, there was a group of Jewish converts from the Pharisees party who insisted that the Gentiles should be circumcised (Acts 15:5). Then Peter testified how the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit and insisted that there should be no imposition of a heavy burden on them (Acts 15:7–11). Then there was silence (Acts 15:12), followed by the testimony of Paul and Barnabas.

The Council then concluded with a summary decision by the President of the Council, James. As with the Jerusalem Council, the conversations on the synodal journey require skilful management to facilitate the discernment of the Spirit.

The research of neuroscientists helps us to understand how the brain functions during difficult conversations and how we need to manage it. They discovered that the brain responds to conversations by producing a mixed cocktail of ingredients, that includes oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin on one hand, and cortisol, adrenaline, and testosterone on the other hand.

If there is a conversation characterised by exclusion, judgmental statements, withholding information, dictating, or criticising, then the brain produces cortisol, adrenaline, and testosterone.

Cortisol causes us to be defensive, responding by fight, flight, or freeze–we can become disengaged from the present experience. Adrenaline, the stress hormone, triggers rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, and goosebumps, and then activates the part of the brain responsible for distrust.

On the other hand, when we feel included and appreciated, there is open sharing, free exploration of issues, discovery of new ideas, moments of celebration and development, then oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin are produced by the part of the brain responsible for trust.

Therefore, the management of conversations in the synod process is so essential in ensuring that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is stimulated to produce those neurochemicals that are associated with building trust.

Coordinators need the requisite emotional and conversational skills to navigate difficult conversations. Hence, the Synod Secretariat insists on the formation of coordinators.

They write, “what is most crucial is adopting suitable methods that facilitate attentive listening, genuine sharing, and communal spiritual discernment.” If we carefully read the narrative of the Risen Christ’s encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we observe features of distrust among the disciples at the start of the narrative in the words, “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days” (Lk 24:18).

Due to the excellent facilitation skills of the Risen Christ, distrust changes to trust and is reflected in the disciples’ actions and words, when they pressed Him to stay with them saying, “It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over” (Lk 24:29).


The Creating We®Institute recommends five conversation essentials. These include:

(1) Priming or creating an environment for trust;

(2) Listening to connect by asking questions such as: What are they trying to say? What are they thinking? What are they hoping you will help them explore? Can they say it in other words?  I don’t understand?;

(3) Ask questions for which you have no answers; and

(4) ‘Double-clicking’, that is repeatedly asking, Why? What does this mean? What else?

(5) Sustaining Conversation Agility, the ability to keep the conversation channels open via reframing or refocusing.

According to The Creating We®Institute, distrust results when we see reality through anxieties, threats, and fear, and we shut down. Consequently, we reveal less, expect mistakes, assume the worst, look with caution, interpret with fear, tell secrets, and become “yes” people.

On the other hand, trust is when we see reality more clearly and are more open to engagement. With trust, we reveal more, expect the unexpected, assume the best, look with an open heart, interpret with facts, tell the truth, and say yes to truth-telling.

In the words of American author Judith Glaser, “To get to the next level of greatness, depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations. Everything happens through conversations.”

Pope Francis’ dream is for the Church to move to the next level of “greatness”. He is convinced that “greatness” rests in the quality of the conversations on the synodal journey.


Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference. His weblog is https://belovedreflections.org/

Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash