By Jayne Ozanne
“It’s good to talk!”
The macho cockney voice of Bob Hoskins encouraging men to pick up the phone (back then a landline almost certainly owned by BT) and talk still brings a smile to my face. It was one of the most successful consumer advertising campaigns of the 1990s, and upheld as the gold standard by all of us budding marketing executives.
Aware that women were much more likely to talk than their bill-paying husbands, BT set themselves the daring objective of wanting to change attitudes towards communications. It worked! BT grew their business by £5billion over five years, despite already being the clear market leader with no significant competition.
Key to this success was getting the BT executives to understand that they weren’t actually in the telephony or technology business, but rather they were in the “reciprocated confidences” business. As the brilliant brand strategist Norman Strauss explained to them – they were in fact in the business of enabling an exchange of confidences between human beings, so leading to better communications and ultimately deeper relationships.
So, it’s good to talk – as many of us can testify following the Regional Shared Conversations.
I must admit I have been pondering why they have been called “shared” conversations, given that the whole exercise has been designed to keep them as confidential as possible. To be fair, understandably so given the sensitive subject matter and the need to protect those for whom this is a deeply personal issue. But shared?
A conversation is by definition between more than one person (unless you have an unfortunate habit of talking to yourself), which of course is where the “sharing” takes place. But sharing that conversation further afield was never part of the agenda – quite the opposite in fact, all flipcharts were to be shredded and no report kept.
So I’d like to suggest that what this exercise was really all about was enabling “shared confidences” rather than “shared conversations”. Indeed, the whole programme had carefully been crafted to ensure that trust and confidence was built, so that eventually – when we were asked to form triplets to share our own personal stories – we had enough of a foundation to be open and vulnerable with each other.
From all the feedback and reflection sessions that I am aware of this is certainly what people appeared to value the most. I would also suggest that this is when we heard each other the best, and where our conversations were most effective.
For me, it was in the sharing of confidences that we became fully human with each other – we could see (and hear) Christ in each other, and we witnessed and treasured the vulnerability that worked as an invisible chord binding us each together. It was here that we spoke in the first person singular, rather than in the first person plural – where we interacted as precious individual brothers and sisters in Christ, with open hearts and minds.
Our goal was not to change or challenge each other, but rather to understand and so respect each other.
Outside of the Shared Conversations I have noticed an increasing tendency amongst certain evangelicals to say that they don’t want to hear any more personal stories, but that they want to “just focus on what the Bible says”. I hear this as code for “please let’s just be rational and non-emotional about this”.
There appears to be a reluctance, despite the normal reliance on personal testimony in the evangelical tradition, to engage the heart in the pain and trauma of the outworking of theological views. Instead they would like to take refuge in their “minds”, where they can safely and confidently stand on what they believe the Bible clearly says.
The best proof I have of this is when I share my testimony, which I frequently do now, and explain how this issue has cost me virtually everything – including very nearly my life (twice!). People listen patiently and then say quite politely “thank you” before moving on. Hardly ever is there a pause to say how awful the story is, or how sorry they feel that I have been through so much pain. It’s as if they can’t possibly afford to do that because they will then be giving some ground, under no circumstances should their emotions sway them from the truth. They need to remain resolute in their belief and not allow any compassion or loving kindness to be shown.
I find this very sad, and if I’m truly honest, deeply concerning. For any form of communication to be truly effective – be it with our creator God or with each other – we need to listen with both our hearts and our minds. We need to engage personally, in the first person, with the reality of those who Christ has placed before us – human beings, with human stories about their divine encounters, with divine revelations.
I therefore believe it’s not only good to talk – to share, to witness, to engage with each other – it’s essential! It’s what our relational God desires for us more than anything. For it is in sharing confidences with each other that we learn to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is in sharing our stories that we realise that we are each just trying to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbour (even if we disagree with them!) as ourselves.