In our own community we have hurt each other most when we rushed by one another without taking time either to share ourselves or to listen. We were always able to explain our failure away – at least in our own eyes – by saying that “we have too many groups for us to stay in communication”; “nothing gets done, if we all have to participate”; “these conversations drag on and on”; “we can’t talk while people are shivering in the cold.” These statements will have a familiar ring to anyone who is living in community where there is wide diversity of mind and temperament. They are anti-dialogue statements, but they are hard to confront because they are full of truth; we find them in our own hearts and on our own lips at times when we are longing to move on and the group seems to be covering the same ground over and over again, or resisting the making of a decision.
Groups are often paralyzed and fail to move in any constructive way because of the few members who want to hammer through every detail in advance, to know exactly what the future will be, to map out every step, and to be certain that everyone is equally committed to picking up the pieces and bearing the cost in the eventuality of failure. In such a case, commitment to dialogue does not mean that those who are positive, willing to take risks and embrace an unknown future, must always be asked to wait until everyone arrives at the same place. That will never happen. At the same time, the fearless ones cannot forge ahead as though justice and righteousness were forever on their side. If they do, they will only appear to be getting things done. In actuality they will be building structures all new on the outside and full of rotting bones inside.
We do not enter into dialogue to persuade another to see things our way, but because we are open to change, aware that our lives need correcting.
When important issues have to be decided, to ensure true dialogue communities and groups must learn to conduct that dialogue within the context of a passionate waiting on God. This does not mean merely beginning meetings with a time of silence, but allowing a period of silence after each one speaks so that there is opportunity to reflect on what has been said. If this seems too burdensome of a way for some, then I would suggest that discussion at least be interspersed with periods of silence, so that a deeper level may be attained from which to speak and to listen.
Dialogue demands of each participant that we try to live into the other’s world, try to see things as another sees them. We do not enter into dialogue in order to persuade another to see things our way. We enter into dialogue because we are open to change and are aware that our lives need correcting. Dialogue requires a clear, radical, and arduous commitment to listening. Essential to that listening is knowing in the deepest recesses of our being that we really know very little about most things, and that the truth may rest with some unlikely soul. God says to the most gifted among us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways” (Isa. 55:8). When we know that, when we are truly seeking God’s will, we have to be persons of dialogue. The person of dialogue knows that no matter how mean, or hurt, or angry a person may be, he has something important to contribute to the dialogue. Each person in the recesses of his heart knows this about himself. He wants to speak his word and when he is not allowed to do that he feels in his being that a violence has been done to him. True listening requires that we not only listen to words, but also pay heed to feelings and acts. . . .
True dialogue is difficult for everyone. They listen well who know they have been listened to, but few of us feel really heard. I think that I can let the other go when I believe that he has truly heard my story, or point of view, or opinion. If I think he hasn’t heard me, I am apt to hold him with my “glittering eye,” and tell my tale over and over. The ache caused by the inability to communicate can become a kind of throbbing pain that finds expression in too many words or conversely in the silence that locks oneself in and others out, or, even more unacceptably, in the outrageous deed. . . .
We can too easily become identified with goodness – feel that we are “the enlightened ones.” We cease to ask questions about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and whether it might better be done another way. Not only must we question ourselves; we must create the kind of atmosphere that invites others to question us and to give us feedback on how they perceive and hear and experience us.
We all flower in the company of those who confirm and accept us, but sometimes the way to deeper relatedness and increased consciousness is along a more painful path. We each have characteristics and ways of responding that hurt our relationships with others – that make dialogue and community difficult – but we have no deep understanding of these failings. We have been given very little help and practice in the creative giving and receiving of feedback. We have not faced in any decisive way the fact that others have information about us that we do not have about ourselves, and that our blindness might be healed if we had the courage or ego strength to ask for it. Until we have become experienced in the giving and the receiving of constructive criticism it will remain extraordinarily difficult work.
Source: Elizabeth O’Connor, The New Community (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 102–105. Reprinted by The Potter’s House Press, 2015. Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 284, 288–289.
Photograph by Serge Esteve.