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Oprah Winfrey and the Popes

For many it might be a surprising juxtaposition. I suspect some might think it is a lead into whether Oprah agrees or disagrees with the Popes on one of the hot button issues of the day.

Actually, I juxtapose them in light of something I read about the “Oprah Winfrey Rule.” The article appeared in Inc, a well-respected business-oriented magazine dedicated to helping entrepreneurs change the world. It triggered a memory of the emphasis Pope Francis and previous Popes put on “encounter”.

“Encounter,” is one of Pope Francis’ favorites words  popping up often in his public addresses. He used it 32 times in his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. Keep in mind this document lays out his vision of church and how it should function. He sees the church as a place of encounter between God and humans as well as brothers and sisters in the human family.

In my mind, the Popes seem to be stressing we need to really listen more to one another.

Certainly, many regard Oprah Winfrey as one of the master interviewers of our age. You can count on Oprah to be immersed in encountering and learning more about the person she interviews.

Oprah Winfrey Rule

The particular reflection by Bill Murphy, founder of Understandably.com, reflects on what he calls the “Oprah Winfrey rule.’

He writes about watching when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Meghan Markle and Prince HarryShe had so many opportunities to insert herself into the dialog. Yet he writes…

I was struck during the interview that Winfrey never mentioned the fact that it was she, 25 years ago, who first interviewed Sarah Ferguson when she divorced Prince Andrew–an interview that had many obvious parallels. 

How clever of her, and what an obvious trap that would have been for many others in her position. In fact, having looked at the transcript of the interview, Winfrey does only three things throughout the whole three hours:

She asks direct questions.

She gives one-word answers like “Yeah” and “Mm-hmm” that encourage Meghan and later Harry to fill the void.

She offers factual assertions to get them talking more.

Parallel versus convergent conversations

In a parallel conversation, one or both seems to be more dialogue with themselves than with the other person. He continues

Today’s exercise is about the difference between parallel responses that we use without thinking, and convergent responses, which might be more appropriate if you want to prompt positive assessments and reactions from another person.

Let’s compile a few quick examples — simple phrases — and then we’ll analyze them. These are all parallel responses, juxtaposed with convergent responses: 

“I understand” versus “Help me understand”

“I know how you feel” versus “I’m listening, and I hear you saying [X]”

“I’m right there with you” versus “I want to be there to support you”

Finally, let’s add a contextual example, just to make this more complete. 

Suppose an employee confides that they’ve been having a hard time coping with work during the pandemic.

Let’s imagine two ways you could reply:

Parallel response: “I’ve had a hard time too. I understand exactly.”

Convergent response: “I’ve had a hard time too. Tell me more about what’s been going on.”

Imagine how different our political or theological discourse would be if we practiced the “Oprah Winfrey rule”. If we listened to learn we might actually learn and “encounter” each other!  So… let’s stop preaching to our interior fan club!

Pay Attention

  • In observing true “encounters” which type of responses do you hear?
  • Which characterizes your conversations – “I understand” or “Help me understand”?

Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk