THE LEARNING CONVERSATION MODEL

Communication is at the heart of the cause and resolution of conflict. Unless two parties can communicate with each other in a constructive, creative and respectful manner, there is little hope of resolving the issues or restoring the relationships. One such communication tool is the Learning Conversation, a concept created by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations. Stone, Patton and Heen describe a difficult conversation as "anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important or the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult."

A learning conversation is. in reality, three conversations. The first element is the "What Happened?" conversation where the parties focus on their perceptions of the truth, their assessments of intentions and impact and their contributions to the problem. The second element is the "Feelings" conversation which enables parties to surface the unexpressed feelings which
are at the heart of the matter. The third element is the "Identity" conversation which means the parties are challenged to look honestly at their perceptions of themselves. Stone, Patton and Heen write "Our anxiety results not just from having to face the other person, but from having to face ourselves. The conversation poses a threat to our identity, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves."

The first goal of a learning conversation is to create "the third story." As such, the third story is one that describes the problem in non judgmental terms as a difference between parties. A second goal is to create resonance between the parties. Jay Rothman writes, “When disputants interactively begin to go beneath the surface of their own reality and articulate the deep needs and values that are at stake for them in a conflict, exactly what matters so much, an underlying resonance is often discovered." A third goal is that it allows "identity quakes" to occur when parties hear themselves or their motives described in unflattering terms. This enables the parties to complexity their identities by incorporating both noble and baser qualities into a constructive and redemptive statement of truth. A fourth goal is to allow the parties to consider the effect of their
past actions on each other and the need for collective acknowledgement and apology. A fifth goal is that it enables the parties to surface antagonism, vent anger and mistrust so as to move beyond    victimhood to volition and constructive exploration of options.

Adapting the model to a faith-based, identity-based context, there are five basic components:

  • Sharing life journeys and building common ground
  • Sharing perceptions of the conflict or problem
  • Sharing where each has experienced and caused offence to the other
  • Exploring each community's narrative of history and perception of historical wounds
  • Engaging in a problem solving approach utilizing a faith-based reconciliation lens