The Word Among Us

September 2015 Issue

Dialogue, Not Discussion

How to have your own family synod

Dialogue, Not Discussion: How to have your own family synod

When the Synod on the Family begins this October, Pope Francis, the bishops, and others in attendance will be wrestling with a number of challenging issues concerning marriage and family life. We know that Francis is bringing these issues to his brother bishops to seek their observations, their counsel, and their discernment. We know that he has asked that the synod be conducted in a spirit of transparency, dialogue, and humble listening. Repeatedly, he has stated that he wants everyone involved to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and so he has asked us to join him in prayer for the success of their gathering.

In this process, Pope Francis has done more than lay out a new approach to ecclesial issues. He has given all of us a model for how we can be the kind of family God wants us to be: kind, loving, and united in Christ. At the same time, this model can also help us when we face the challenges that are common to all families. How you deal with these challenges—or don’t deal with them—can have a dramatic effect on the relationships in your home. So let’s take a look at how we can apply the Holy Father’s model to our families.

Discussion? Or Dialogue? Last year, when Pope Francis opened the initial Synod on the Family, he encouraged everyone to work together in open and honest dialogue. He didn’t want there to be winners and losers. He reminded the bishops that they were pastors, not advocates for one side or another. The Church is at her best, he said, when she invites, embraces, welcomes, and affirms, not when she excludes, judges, or condemns.

Interestingly, dialogue is not the same as a discussion. The word “discussion” has roots in a Latin term that means “to shake apart.” Discussion looks at an issue, breaks it down through analysis, then seeks to prove that one interpretation is right while the other is wrong.

Discussions are competitive by nature; there tend to be winners and losers. In a discussion, when one person is talking, the other listens, with the goal of preparing a counterargument, not of coming to a greater unity based on deeper understanding. One person presents his view, and then the other presents her view in response. The first view is then restated, only in different words, inviting the other person to present her view again, also using different words. The process continues until one side or the other gives in or an uneasy compromise is reached. Often enough, discussions don’t end in solutions but in arguments and fights.

By contrast, dialogue has a better chance of keeping people at peace because the goal is unity, not victory. Dialogue is focused on listening more than talking. In dialogue, we shift from a mind-set that is determined to convince someone of our view to a mind-set that asks the other person what he or she thinks, so that everyone comes to a deeper understanding. Dialogue is based on the belief that when people feel they are being heard, they become more willing to listen, and new possibilities present themselves.

A Family Synod. With this distinction in mind, let’s think about what it might be like to have our own “mini-synods,” perhaps with our spouse or as a family. But before you start, ask yourself, “Can I enter into a family meeting with ground rules that ask me to suspend my judgment and my bias? Can I listen humbly and remain open to the experiences and the views of my spouse or my children, even though I may not agree with them?”

Of course, if everyone in your family is more or less on the same page, a mini-synod has a good chance to be successful and productive, even when controversial topics come up. But if there are strained relationships in your family, you may face some skepticism or resistance. Don’t let that discourage you. Place the emphasis on dialogue without judgment, and doors may open, allowing for progress, unity, and even healing.

Remember: it’s usually better to engage in dialogue than to suppress the differences and pretend as if they do not exist. It’s better to get those obstacles—which take a real toll on relationships—out in the open. Even if that’s all you accomplish in your first couple of gatherings, you are making progress.

Certainly that is what Pope Francis is trying to do through his synod. He is trying to get the polarized views out in the open without debating who is right and who is wrong. And he’s doing this, not because he needs to know these views, but because he wants everyone to make progress toward greater unity. He knows it isn’t an easy task. But he is convinced that the blessings of true dialogue are worth the effort. Certainly, we can learn from his example and begin to bring out into the open issues that we have glossed over for a long time.

Deepen Your Love. Families can have dialogue about all kinds of issues. You can talk about the ordinary family issues like finances and sharing responsibilities around the home. You can talk about how often you will eat together and how much free time you will spend with each other. You can talk about the goals you want to set for your family over the next year.

You can also have dialogue about more complex issues like the ones that the synod is undertaking or about the Church’s teaching on the environment or about capital punishment or poverty. You will be surprised at what comes out when you establish an open and constructive forum for sharing.

Husbands and wives can talk about finding the right balance between romance and the functional responsibilities of the home. All too often, function overcrowds romance, and couples end up spending next to no time alone with each other. They can also have a dialogue about each other’s little annoyances and idiosyncrasies—but without being defensive, of course. And of course, they can talk about each of their children and what they can do to help them grow and mature in their faith. Even if the children are grown-up and no longer live at home, parents can still make a difference through their witness, their words of gentle encouragement, and the stories they tell of their own faith journey.

Dialogue like this can be a very powerful way to help a couple deepen or renew their love for each other. Few things are more meaningful to husbands and wives than knowing that their spouse cares about them and takes their opinions seriously. When you listen with a true desire to understand and a determination not to judge or belittle, you display a love and respect that cannot be matched.

Let Love Reign. If you want to have a family synod in your home, you’ll have to start by establishing a list of ground rules. Then you have to propose a topic. Perhaps the first topic ought to be on the goal of dialogue—how it can help your family and what you might want to talk about. Whatever you decide to do, be sure there is no hidden agenda. Try to be as transparent as Pope Francis.

As you talk together, make it a point to stay focused on what everyone holds in common. Everyone wants love to reign in the home. Everyone wants to have healthy, upbuilding relationships. Everyone wants to try to be responsible and fair and to make concessions for the good of the whole. Everyone wants to be forgiven—even if not everyone is immediately willing to forgive. As long as you believe that love can cover “a multitude of sins” and differences, your family can make progress (1 Peter 4:8). Even if the hurts you have inflicted on each other make forgiveness next to impossible, know that cautious, respectful dialogue can help you uncover and maybe even recapture the love you once had.

At the end of your time together, find a way to express your love for each other. Close by highlighting the value of the meeting and the contributions that everyone has made. You might even celebrate with a special dessert!

The Right Direction. We all know that there are no guarantees in life. But we also know that God blesses our efforts, even if they seem weak and halting to us. So know that if you try your best to hold mini synods in your family every now and then—and if they are grounded in humble listening and respectful dialogue—you have a good chance of deepening your family’s ties to one another. As long as you are moving in the right direction, you will be blessed and led by the Holy Spirit. After all, if it’s good enough for Pope Francis, surely it’s good enough for you!