Facilitating Dialogue on Black Lives Matter: Insights of a Mediator
This Article First Appeared in the December Edition of the Online Magazine of the Association of Christian Counsellors
In this article I aim to shed light on a facilitated dialogue process that I recently led in partnership with a church congregation. Above all, I hope to convey that in spite of the rarefied reputation of confidential, facilitated processes in general, they can in fact be both accessible and relatable. Dialogue need not be the last stop on the conflict express, but rather a valuable tool to utilise throughout the journey of conversation. Especially during these times of divisiveness and frequent misunderstanding.
Setting the Scene
Firstly, a little background to help set the scene.
Following a divisive encounter on the community WhatsApp channel about Black Lives Matter, several members had chosen to leave the community. While not everyone was involved, the feelings of disbelief, anger, sadness and disappointment reverberated widely. In the midst of confusion, there emerged a desire to somehow come together to listen, share and process what had happened and try to discern what the future might hold.
In response, we settled on a two-session structure: the first would focus on what had already taken place, whilst the second concerned planning next steps. Through hard work, patience and compassion, the community successfully developed a detailed action plan and are now busy implementing this.
Lesson One: Recast Failure as Progress
From the outset, some people struggled to get over the niggling sense that just naming the need for a process and facilitator amounted to failure. “How did we get here?...If we can’t even talk to one another respectfully...”. In our culture of self-reliance and individualism calling on the support of another can feel like a humiliation.
My experience suggests that people of faith can also be very hard on themselves since they feel called to a higher purpose. That goes for Christians in particular, who after all seek to follow Jesus, the embodiment of reconciliation!
Part of my role seemed to be to regularly recast the process as a fundamentally positive step. A show of courage and perseverance in the face of hurt and loss. Giving others permission to ‘go there’ and that doing so is ok. In other words, removing moral judgement from taking part, whilst simultaneously reminding participants of its significance.
Also, I sensed a need to depersonalise the process to some extent. This group was no different from any other grappling with real challenges and certainly not alone or ‘special’ in their shortcomings. Indeed, all communities struggle at times, although not all choose to acknowledge that fact.
At times during the process I could hear the wise voice of a clergy friend in my head, reminding me that such words as respect, inclusion and forgiveness are not destinations that we ever fully arrive at. Rather, “we fall down, we get back up and try again; we fall down again, we get back up and keep trying”, making small steps of progress along the way. In sum, it is inevitable and OK that we fall down, so long as we keep getting back up again and recognise that this process has no end, at least not in this life.
Lesson Two: Be Practical (And Know When to Be)
Two observations spring to mind. Firstly, I am often struck in my work at how averse people seemingly are to approaching reconciliation in a practical way, or even really acknowledging this crucial dimension. By this I mean there is often a tendency to focus on exploring underlying concepts and more abstract points as opposed to feelings and experiences. There are several reasons for this: Christians (and those of other faiths) are sometimes understandably drawn to consider reconciliation primarily in theological terms. Also, it can frankly feel safer to remain in the realm of ideas – especially, I’ve noticed, amongst highly educated and articulate groups.
For participants who feel more comfortable in their head space, disagreement can sometimes prompt ever greater reaching for an intellectual solution. But while this has its place - and dialogue within an overtly spiritual context should always be appropriately grounded theologically - this does not take away the need for reconciliation that is rooted in the now: the ordinariness of the everyday and uncomfortable feelings of the heart.
Secondly, by ‘practical’ I also refer to the process of action planning which enables a community to plot its next steps. For example, if the group recognises ‘respect’ to be particularly important, what does that actually lookand feel like when they walk into church next Sunday morning? Breaking down underlying needs into tangible steps is crucial, as is knowing when to pivot to this challenging phase. Too soon, and one risks closing the door on difficult feelings that need to be expressed. Too late, and the group can struggle to know where to go with the feelings and views that have been shared.
Several participants offered me feedback on this point, thanking me for stubbornly bringing the discussion back to how best to implement their collective needs and aspirations. This has reinforced my conviction that funnelling ideas and feelings into simple steps is hard work which requires persistence delivered with a smile. Without those clear steps, good intentions and commitments can easily dissipate in the maelstrom of busy lives.
I am mindful that such a practical focus might feel rushed or artificial to those who work primarily in the psychotherapeutic space. Yet I would argue that the nature of most facilitation and reconciliation work is to focus on past, present and future. Getting the balance right, however, is a tough balancing act, especially when constrained by time.
In sum, whilst reconciliation that is predominantly rooted in abstract ideas and concepts might feel more satisfying and somehow cleaner, in practise meaningful work is usually done through the gauntlet of more scruffy everyday situations and feelings. Part of my role is to help participants recognise this, and to position head and heart as equal partners in a culture that still gives primacy to the former.
Lesson Three: Ask the Question But Don’t Always Expect an Answer
One question in particular ran through this dialogue: do we as a community wish to subscribe to a set of additional principles which explicitly state what is deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable? Or do we strive to hold together different experiences, values and perspectives in some kind of communion? Striving to trust that we all seek God in good faith, even when we may profoundly disagree or fail to understand one another?
I detected expectation and hope that a clear answer would crystalise by the end of the process. It did not, which of course is not to say that one will not appear in the future.
I partly viewed my role as helping to mitigate this frustration of not-knowing. That one may speak with deep conviction and principle whilst accepting that the story is still being written. As the Northumbria Community wisely puts it, “We find ourselves living with questions rather than answers. This is why [we are] always in draft form and never a finished product. It remains a dynamic, ongoing work in progress, aware that ‘constant change is here to stay’”. That is an exciting yet frequently uncomfortable path to walk.
To be in dialogue, or even to seek it, is to be vulnerable. To quote the great Brené Brown, “vulnerability is an act of courage”. For me, faith shines most brightly when I am in the circle and connected to others. But while reconciliation is often talked about, finding such spaces is challenging.
My hope is that Christians of all stripes come to recognise the opportunity and richness of engaging in practical reconciliation work, and thereby normalising it. For while sitting in a circle on a rainy Monday evening may feel like a drag, it is in fact another numinous gateway to following Jesus - one question, pause and acknowledgment at a time.