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Good Conversations

By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow

I am writing this sitting on a train, travelling back from the first academic conference I have attended for two years. Even though the sheer number of new encounters ‘in real life’ has been almost overwhelming, I have been stimulated, inspired and challenged by talking with old friends and new acquaintances.

So all that has set me to thinking: what makes a good conversation?

One of the crucial elements is a situation in which all the partners have a serious stake in what is being talked about. We are all familiar with customer satisfaction surveys: how do we rate our experience of this or that? The answers are clearly important to the organisations sending out the surveys. But what stake do I have in offering my opinion on customer service? If I travel a lot on GWR trains I do have a stake in making their service better (although I might also feel I am only one voice amongst many customers). But if it’s a café that I’m unlikely to return to…. well what is my interest in answering their questions?

The conversations at my conference are so good because we all have a stake in the answer. Whether we are academics, priests, bishops, authors, educators, editors, we all have a stake in the conversation because we believe in the pursuit of truth because the truth matters. I hope we’re not so hubristic as to think it’s all up to us, but there is a sense of a shared responsibility for good theology.

But the flip side of the question “who has a stake in this?” is “what is at stake for them in this?” And it’s often there that the most painful answers lie. Too often in the past academics have discussed certain topics with our heads, as if we are seeking an answer to a puzzle; by contrast, I am increasingly aware of the sensitivity and emotional intelligence of (especially) my younger colleagues. This is not an excuse for avoiding difficult questions —far from it. At this conference, there were papers on pregnancy loss, dementia, the legacy of slavery, to name just a few. We don’t always get it right, but there is in these conversations a recognition that, for example, a woman who has suffered the loss of a child, or the grandson of Jamaicans of the Windrush generation will have more at stake than others in such conversations. And what is at stake is not just emotional well-being or the right to be recognised as an expert on one’s own experience (although these things are important); livelihoods are at stake too. Junior scholars can be made to feel that they will never get a job (or thrive in a job) unless they look or sound or behave like the older generation. Too much is at stake for some to speak honestly in conversations in which they have a major stake. To change that situation, the rest of us need to work hard at establishing trust and—quite often—learning when our not speaking makes for a better conversation.

On the train, we’re drawing close to Reading. Two rows away, there’s an a animated discussion of a knitting pattern. I think they’re having a good conversation.