Magazine article The Christian Century

The 'No Cross Talk' Rule

Magazine article The Christian Century

The 'No Cross Talk' Rule

Article excerpt

THIS IS GOING to be hard for me," said Mary, an energetic member of the congregation who had asked me to assist in a project described as "taking the pulse of our church" and "planning for the next chapter of our life." Though I had known Mary for less than an hour, I was inclined to agree. She was clearly an extrovert and a bright person who thrived on a rapid-fire exchange of thoughts and ideas.

What Mary figured would be tough was following the "no cross talk" guideline I had proposed as the modus operandi.

"No cross talk" is a standard practice in 12-step or recovery groups. It works like this: when a person in the group talks about his or her recovery, or the temptations faced or the hope and healing found, others in the group do not address the person directly or comment on what's been said. Only the person who has the floor speaks (within an agreed-upon time limit). Others listen.

"Dave," for example, introduces himself and launches into whatever it is he needs to--say about the topic of the meeting. He doesn't talk about a previous speaker's comments. He speaks only for himself. When he finishes, Dave may thank the others, and they may respond with "Thanks, Dave." That's it. Another speaker begins, or there may be silence until someone else is ready to speak.

"No cross talk" means that people don't make comments that may cause the person speaking to feel unsafe or inadequate. Comments like "I don't think you really understand," or "When you've been around longer, you'll get it," or the one often heard in church conversations, "We've tried that before."

The no cross talk rule means not only that no one judges or corrects a speaker but that no one jumps in to take care of the speaker. The person who speaks may become tongue-tied with frustration or shame. They may break down and weep as they speak of past or present failures. Someone may pass the Kleenex, but no one rushes in to say "Oh, I'm so sorry" or "Really, it's not that bad" or gives the distressed person a hug. Such signs of support may be offered when the meeting is over.

When people refrain from advice or ever so slightly judgmental comments, they create a safety zone. And when they hold back from taking care of a person in distress, they're encouraging accountability. Every person has come to work, to speak her or his own truth.

If there is no advice given, no fixing or judging, and no caretaking, what is it that the group does offer? Listening. Deep listening. Someone is heard--without comment, without rebuttal, without affirmation or applause. It turns out that this is a gift. As David Augsburger puts it, "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable."

At Mary's congregation, I gave the 15 or so small groups two questions to work with, with the no cross talk rule in effect. The questions were "Where do you sense God's presence in the life of our church today?" and "Where do you think God is calling us to go in the future?"The groups were to take the questions one at a time and give each person the opportunity to speak for up to three minutes while the others listened. One member of the group was to take notes on the comments, but without recording who was speaking. If someone felt a need to respond verbally to a speaker, I suggested he or she say "Thank you" (and no more) when the person was finished.

When we took a break Mary rushed over to me. "That was amazing," she said. "In our group some people spoke who never say anything. …

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