Handling Sensitive Conversations

illustration of worried young woman with speech bubble

I will never forget a moment in my tenth-grade classroom when the students were sharing all the different ways that our parish family and our own families have helped us to grow in faith. During the conversation one of my students tearfully burst out, “You all keep talking about your mother and father! But my mother is in jail, and I have never met my father. The Church isn’t a family; it doesn’t care about me.” The anguish in her voice cut me to the bone.

We have all had moments that required us to exercise sensitivity to a specific piece of information, times when we have had to be attentive and purposeful in realigning a discussion, or occasions when we have had to talk about something that might be upsetting. Especially when it comes to matters of morality, we can find ourselves caught off-guard during particularly tender moments. Handling these sensitive conversations can be the most grace-filled moments of our ministry as catechists. We can learn how to handle these situations by following Jesus’ example.

Knowing When to Have Conversations in Private or as a Group

When Jesus encountered difficult situations, the conversations often happened in private, such as with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4–42) or Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night (John 3:1–21). A simple affirming statement such as, “I am so glad that you’ve shared this with me and the class and after our class, I would love to talk to you about this in more detail,” can be appropriate. But Jesus also handled conversations with the disciples as a group, such as when he rebuked Peter or when he spoke to the disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven. Some conversations should be handled in private, and others can be handled in the class. Asking the person how he or she would like the conversation to be handled can be important for discerning the difference.

Listening Not to Respond but to Understand

No matter where the conversation happened, Jesus responded with a reassuring presence that was filled with compassion. Focus on listening intently with the goal of understanding rather than listening to respond. With the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus teaches us that others are most open to new insights only after they have been heard, respected, and honored. Pope Francis speaks about the importance of listening and encourages us to “let us ask for this grace: the grace to listen so that our hearts may not harden.” (“A Day for Listening”: Morning Meditation, 23 March 2017)

Using Questions to Clarify and Affirm

When people asked Jesus difficult questions, he often responded by reflecting the same questions back. Consider that “in the New Testament, Jesus asked 183 questions, gave 3 answers, and answered 307 questions with a question in return.” (Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, p. 147)

Some helpful questions to ask here include:

  • How did this make you feel?
  • How have you experienced this in your life?
  • How has this affected your faith? How you feel about Jesus?

Take time to affirm the person and his or her experience, and continue to ask questions as appropriate.

The Role of Fraternal Correction

If there is a matter that needs to be addressed or clarified for the good of the person and the class, there is a role for fraternal correction. The principle of fraternal correction demands that you share charitably your perspective. But remember you can only correct someone fraternally if you are fraternal (meaning brotherly) with him or her! This may happen during your conversation or at a later time. Respect your relationship with the person, and gently and patiently lead him or her to the truth in love.

Like Jesus, we can navigate these difficult conversations if we keep Jesus’ example in mind and pray for his help before, during, and after such conversations.

About Julianne Stanz 80 Articles
Julianne Stanz is the Director of Outreach for Evangelization and Discipleship at Loyola Press and a consultant to the USCCB Committee on Catechesis and Evangelization. She served previously as Director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay. Julianne infuses her talks, retreats, and seminars with humor, passion, and insights from her life in Ireland. A popular speaker, storyteller, and author, Julianne is married with three children and spends her time reading, writing, teaching, and collecting beach glass. She is the author of Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church, Developing Disciples of Christ, Braving the Thin Places, and co-author, with Joe Paprocki, of The Catechist’s Backpack.

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