Here’s how to keep the conversation fruitful, and walk away with respect and understanding.
I am an avoider. If the conversation takes a turn towards controversy, I’m the first to try and lighten the mood. When it comes to a “fight or flight” response, I’m already on a bus halfway home before anyone has time to ask my opinion. Yet, I somehow find myself surrounded with friends and colleagues who enjoy challenging each other in a hearty discussion on theology, social justice issues, or any number of hot button political topics. They thrive under scrutiny, and truly find joy in these spirited debates. They love to dive into the deep end and look for God in these areas the world tries to keep us Christians out of. I have learned that these conversations are not only unavoidable in this day in age, but they can be healthy and healing. Here are some tips I’ve picked up as a long time observer and recent (albeit, cautious) participant:
1. Ask good questions
When you ask meaningful questions, and then pointed follow up questions, you allow the other person to express themselves and really think about why they hold the beliefs they do. Sometimes this is the only role you will play in the conversation, and it is enough. You get to know the person and their opinion more, and you get to challenge their thinking process, all while not saying a word of your own stance. Asking questions diffuses tension and gives way to depth.
2. Be the kind of listener you hope others would be
Don’t be that guy. You know, the one who has to have their voice heard, and needs to get the last word in no matter what. Let the other person finish their thoughts, so you can have an intelligent and complete counterpoint that addresses all of their concerns. Knowing when to keep silent is just as important as knowing what to say and when. This creates an environment of respect and trust, which always helps to further the conversation.
3. Don’t take it personally
And this is where I tend to get lost. I’m slowly warming up to the idea of respectful arguments as a way to actually show someone you care about them, but I still have a long way to go. In theory though, I do understand that these discussions (hopefully) are meant to further our understanding of each other as individuals, build community, and ultimately give glory to God. We need people in our lives that think and see differently than we do!
4. Don’t expect a resolution today
Chances are, you are not going to change anyone’s heart or mind in just one sitting, and that’s ok. All the loose ends will not somehow get tied in a nice little knot after one discussion, but that’s the beauty of this kind of conversation – sometimes those loose ends eat away at us or at the other person, and when we take time to sleep on it, and let it seep in, and pour over scripture, and pray about it – that is when change happens. Your goal is to open more doors than you close, and coming into the discussion with a posture of understanding and respect is to your benefit.
5. Be open to changing your mind
Isn’t this the attitude you hope everyone you talk to has? So why not try it on for size yourself? You may be pleasantly surprised! Just make sure that your heart is first and foremost open to God’s guidance and the Holy Spirit’s leading. You can’t control how other’s are going to react, but you do have control over your reactions. So make them count.
6. Know when to quit
There will come a point in your discussion, (as with everything) that it has gone from fruitful to futile. If you find yourself getting upset, or too busy coming up with your counter argument to even listen to the other person, it is time to stop. The goals should always be to leave with more respect and understanding about where the other person is coming from, and to gain a clearer picture of who God is. If you find your focus shifting to you being “right,” or making the other person look foolish, then you need to shut it down. And to be clear, when I say shut it down, I mean politely excuse yourself from the conversation.
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