The Uncomfortable Conversation
User's Guide to Sunday, Sept. 7
Sunday, Sept. 7, is the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, Cycle II).
Sept. 8 is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalms 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Patrick Lencioni knows how hard it is to follow the advice in the readings today.
Lencioni is the millions-selling author who specializes in “business fables.” His books tell fictional stories that deliver lessons about life — workplace life and life in general.
“You have to correct people. You have to have the difficult conversation,” he told a group at Benedictine College this week (he was the keynote speaker at the college’s opening convocation). “And yet people who would do almost anything for their business will refuse to correct others. I remember one client who flat out refused to correct a colleague. His team said, ‘Come on, you are willing to go to Japan for a meeting, but you won’t talk to the guy down the hall?’ That’s because going to a meeting in Japan doesn’t make you uncomfortable.”
That’s the message of the readings today: It may be harder than a trip halfway across the world, but we must be willing to have the uncomfortable conversation.
The Gospel gives God’s own three-step advice on how to disagree:
First, have that uncomfortable conversation, one-on-one, with the offender.
Second, be willing to bring others in only after you have confronted that person alone to no avail.
Third, bring the person to the Church (or the boss, perhaps, in a work situation) and only then determine whether or not the person is beyond help.
Too often, we do the opposite: When someone has wronged us, we imagine the worst about them. They didn’t just misstep; they are bad through and through! We cc the boss when we complain. Then we share our own dismissive judgment of them with our friends. Only as a last resort, and perhaps only when the subject of our wrath tracks us down, do we actually speak with them one-on-one about our concerns.
That’s bad workplace practice. But in the moral life, it is even worse.
When we fail to have the uncomfortable conversation, we are imperiling the soul of another person and our own, too.
Here’s how the first reading, from Ezekiel, puts it:
If “you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”
We do not have a duty to correct because of some harsh extremism or a desire for God to see us squirm. St. Paul in the second reading describes why: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Just as we would want to know if we were doing something damaging to our souls, we should love others enough to warn them when they are damaging their souls.
Incidentally, Lencioni’s advice is not just good for the workplace — it works for families as well.
We read his Five Dysfunctions of a Team out loud to each other on our most recent vacation while the children listened to their own book on tape in the back of our van. It reminded us of the need to be willing to lovingly criticize each other — and to be open to criticism.
When he was on campus, Lencioni shared a story about two couples who were close to each other early in their marriage: one couple never argued, and the other sometimes argued vigorously. The quiet couple thought they were better off, but they ended up divorced. The couple who aired their grievances had a long and fruitful marriage.
“Being willing to lovingly disagree is a sign of health,” he said. “The false peace of a couple that won’t argue is actually a warning sign.”
So is the false peace we allow when those close to us are headed toward ruin and we say nothing. We should offer correction in love to others and accept it for ourselves.
Tom and April Hoopes write from
Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is
writer in residence at Benedictine College.
- Sept. 7-20, 2014