Ignatian Insights on Difficult Conversations

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by Myles N. Sheehan, SJ, MD

(August 8, 2022) — Having difficult conversations can be daunting, and there is plenty in our current world that serves as a source for such conversations. Is there anything in our Ignatian heritage that can help us here at Georgetown to communicate in a way that is respectful, encourages reflection, and creates bonds between the participants even if there remains disagreement?

Myles N. Sheehan
Myles N. Sheehan, SJ, MD

St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits lived at a time of profound religious and political division. Disputes about religion could lead to imprisonment, banishment or death in the time of upheaval around the Reformation. Although some of the Jesuits certainly got themselves into controversies and could be pretty sharp of tongue in an argument, others cultivated gentleness and respect. There are some hints from Ignatius’ life that can give us worthwhile ideas about conversation and communication.

Ignatius, writing at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, advises those involved “to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement rather than condemn it.” [1] In a world where tolerance was a rare commodity, Ignatius’ presupposition that a person with whom one is speaking is not wicked or evil was a major step forward. It may well be a needed step today in our highly polarized society. This does not mean that one needs to sit and endure vile and hateful speech. But it does suggest that even if people express their thoughts imperfectly and inartfully, we should go easy on quick condemnations. Sometimes, we will be disappointed and find out our conversation partner is not operating from a good place: There is something darker than a difference of opinion. Starting with a more positive presumption, however, can make many attempts to communicate go more smoothly.

Ignatius looked at conversation as an opportunity to come to know another. He encouraged speaking slowly and carefully, and then to make sure one listens calmly and attentively. Ignatius also urged that in a conversation on a particular topic that one not simply expound on one’s own views, but also repeat the reasons for another position held by the person with whom one is speaking. It is not about just explaining why “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Rather, “This is what I believe is correct, and here are the reasons I hear from you that suggest otherwise.” Along with this respectful back and forth, Ignatius suggested avoiding using arguments from authority that supposedly clinch one’s point, e.g. “But the Pope/the President/the Dean/the Big Shot said.” And acknowledging it is not always easy, Ignatius encourages calm and humility in presenting a position. He seems to have shared our experience that people who are loud and obnoxious know-it-alls are rarely good conversationalists. Another Ignatian insight is that conversations take time. Leaping into a complex topic that can stir strong feelings without taking the care and courtesy to find a time and space that encourages listening is a bad idea. [2]

Perhaps the deepest perspective Ignatius and Ignatian spirituality gives us at Georgetown, as we consider conversations on tough topics that may feel loaded with strong feelings and the potential for harsh disagreement, is to realize that we are called to find God in all things. The person with whom we are speaking is as much an image of God as you or me. I may not agree, but I may find something truly beautiful in the other that reveals God. The energy and passion I can find in someone with whom I disagree can reveal a great and caring soul even if I believe the point the person is making is not correct. That is part of contemplation in action, especially at a university. Jesuit education encourages good people to pay attention to strong feelings and emotions and then follow them to strong thinking, respectful dialogue, and constructive engagement. We can see a bad spirit when we don’t bother to talk, dismiss the other, or use insulting labels or cheap verbal tricks that are disrespectful acts of linguistic violence. But when we engage each other, we see God working with us even as we struggle and disagree. Difficult conversations and Jesuit education go hand in hand.

Sheehan is a Jesuit priest and physician. He is director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center and a senior clinical scholar at The Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

[1] Known as the Ignatian Presupposition. See: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, n.22

[2] These directions on conversation are from a letter that St. Ignatius wrote to Jesuits attending the Council of Trent. I am heavily dependent in this paragraph on a book that discusses communication in the Ignatian style. See: Lambert W. Directions for Communication: Discoveries with Ignatius Loyola. New York: Crossroads. 1999. Pp. 29-43.