When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. . . . We can enter into communication with the other only when our own life choices, attitudes, and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.
— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
"We need to talk." I'm unable to hear or say those four words without my stomach tightening and my blood pressure increasing. As hosts, our primary aim is to receive all our guests and help them reveal the promises they bring. As Nouwen also reminds us, there are inevitably times in almost every relationship where a good host needs to confront a guest. When others see things differently than we see them, don't understand or care about our feelings, or do not realize what a situation means to us, we need to talk to and confront our guests.
Of course, in our culture confrontation has a negative connotation. That's why I appreciate the following definition by Evelyn and James Whitehead: "The ability to confront involves the psychological strength to give (and to receive) emotionally significant information in ways that lead to further exploration rather than to self-defense." How might we let others know that our intention when we confront them is to invite them to mutually explore a difficulty rather than to attack or blame them for it?
In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project underscore the importance of inviting those with whom we disagree to shift to a learning stance. Like the Whiteheads, they recommend that in opening any conversation in which we confront another we invite the other into a joint exploration. In order to do that, they remind us that each difficult conversation is really three conversations:
1. The "What Happened?" Conversation that typically involves disagreement about what has happened or what should happen.
2. The Feelings Conversation, which may not be addressed directly but leaks in anyway.
3. The Identity Conversation that we each have internally about what this situation means to us.
It's challenging to remain receptive, to not brace, and to embrace another in the midst of difficulty. Stone, Patton, and Heen recommend that we try to move from a stance of certainty about our side of the story to a stance of curiosity about another's side of the story. To practice a stance of curiosity, in order to better understand another's perspective related to each of the three realms of conversation, we might ask:
- Regarding "what happened or what should happen": "How do you see things?"
- Regarding feelings: "How are you feeling about all of this?"
- Regarding identity: "Say more about why this is important to you."
- "Help me to understand." Good hosts begin their conversations with these four words in an effort to learn more about the other. In the midst of difficulty, they turn to wonder rather than judgment. Whenever there are different perspectives in a conversation, a good host seeks to understand better how others see things, their feelings, and why their position is important to them.