Conversations are Vital
For many of us, conversations around the intersection, conflict, or experience of homosexuality and Mormonism have been destructive and disheartening. Many are left exhausted by the sometimes violently divisive and seemingly irreconcilable tension between being homosexual and being Mormon, and refusing to listen or engage can seem like the only resolution. But over a hundred interviews and many more personal conversations have made clear to us the need to engage and work through rather than ignore the real, personal experience of it. Building bridges of understanding and love requires mindful, respectful, and open conversations.
So we’re inviting you to re-engage in the conversation about homosexuality and Mormonism to help one another find answers to the most vexing questions about how to reconcile the two. We’ve developed a simple set of suggestions for drawing one another into a sustainable conversation less prone to frustration and offense. We don’t pretend to have all of the answers or even all of the questions but have found a methodology that has helped us sustain the conversation long enough to keep moving forward and to find peace in reconciliation.
Improving the Conversation
The key tool we’ve found is making increased empathy a centerpiece of conversation. Empathy for someone whose beliefs or decisions you may not support or understand does not mean changing your beliefs to agree with that person. It means gaining an accurate understanding of what it is like to be the other person by glimpsing their own experience and perspective. This not only adds to the listener’s understanding but also enables the listener to engage with the individual in their own language and to understand and respond to what the other person actually believes and feels rather than what the listener already assumes they believe and feel. Effective empathy enables more enriching and constructive conversations around divisive issues.
We’ve also identified seven keys to having constructive “empathy first” conversations:
- Acknowledge a shared ignorance. All of us have something yet to learn about truth and about each other that might actually matter in the big picture or on a personal level and which could help us speak in terms someone else will better understand or relate to.
- Set aside settled assumptions. “Empathy first” conversation is about trying to really understand someone who may or may not share all of the hard-won beliefs, convictions, or assumptions you’ve established for yourself. It’s not about arguing or ignoring your own convictions: it’s about approaching this individual, apart from people “like them”, and asking, “What would it be like to be this person, with his or her experiences and beliefs?”
- Draw in rather than drive out. This might seem simplistic, but we’ve found it helpful to make an effort to welcome, invite, and acknowledge what others bring to the table and resist the urge to push away or dismiss views which seem to threaten our own or which we consider incorrect. We’ve found that we learn and share more meaningfully when we provide a safe, inviting space for sharing, and that when such space is provided, others tend to reciprocate.
- Be vulnerable and inquisitive. We’ve found it helpful to be vulnerable, laying down arms in a battle for the tactical or emotional upper hand, maybe by sharing sensitive but relevant motives or experiences, by asking something we’re afraid might sound silly, or by admitting rather than defending error. “Empathy first” also means being willing to ask genuine, sincerely inquisitive questions about someone’s experience rather than just asserting your view. We have been impressed by how many people respect and reciprocate sincere vulnerability and active questioning.
- Share lived experiences by using “I” language, avoiding universalizing or preaching. Avoid implying that just because you think or experience something, everyone else must necessarily think and experience the same. This doesn’t mean pretending you don’t believe in an ideal but expressing it in a way that isn’t closed to discussion or dismissive of differing experiences or beliefs. For example, instead of, “When that happens, you need to do this, and it always has this result,” you might say, “When that has happened to me, I’ve done this, and this is what it’s done for me.”
- Patiently listen with grace to not be provoked. Resist retaliation or rage when someone makes an egregiously inaccurate or inflammatory remark or diverts a previously productive conversation into unhelpful territory. You needn’t subject yourself to abuse, but sometimes a conversation can be saved by stepping back, reserving judgment of an offender’s motives, and recognizing you might have misheard or misunderstood intent. “Empathy first” could mean even understanding someone or something you find offensive.
- Focus on two things: 1) ask questions about what you genuinely do not know or understand about the person’s experiences, and 2) share from your own personal experience.
Types of conversations
Internal – Internal conversations refers to the way you try, inside of yourself, to make sense of your experience as your beliefs and conceptions gel with or compete with your experiences and emotions. For example, it might be the way you think about yourself or your actions or silently debating what steps to take next in life.
Interpersonal – Interpersonal conversations are the conversations you personally have with family members, friends, or others, such as ecclesiastical leaders. For example, it might be telling your parents about your homosexuality, explaining your religious adherence to a friend, or counseling with a homosexual child or ward member.
Community – Community conversations are discussions taking place in public domain. For example, they include online forum discussions, Sunday School discussions, PTA meetings, or political rallies.
Join a Conversation
Following are types of conversations that we can help you facilitate. Follow the links to find tips and tools:
- Empathy First Dinner Groups – a simple way to bring friends and family together to share good food and conversation focused on putting empathy first and understanding what it’s like to be someone else.
- Community Conversations – the silence is broken, and the conversations are happening in many places. We offer some ideas for hosting or organizing a productive gathering to shed light on what many members of your community are quietly dealing with and what can be done to build a more loving, understanding, cooperative community.