By Chad Davidson
Who doesn’t love a good argument?! Or maybe you avoid that type of discussion altogether. Verbal sparring might be your cup of tea if you are quick on your feet and love to be right. Others genuinely fear any conversations that are remotely controversial. Like it or not, you can’t avoid getting into a proverbial “fist fight” with words. In our culture, nothing is off the table, whether it be sex, religion, politics, social issues, marriage, or children.
But here’s the thing: many in our society have lost the capacity to meaningfully engage one another in civil conversation. We are often left witnessing extreme means of communication playing out. It’s usually the “debate team champ” tactic or the passive aggressive method. But I have also observed what I call the “I can’t even agree to disagree” approach (i.e., conflict avoidance).
What is conflict avoidance? It is nothing new, but I would suggest there has been a slight spin on this method. It simply means you are NOT allowed to point out that any obvious conflicting positions might be wrong. Everything is simply seen as subjectively true. Thank you, post-modernism! This approach is common in my secular college classroom. As much as I enjoy my students’ discussions, it is unbearable to read some of their comments to one another as they twist themselves into ideological pretzels in order to avoid offending one of their fellow students by disagreeing with them. What I have discovered, and you probably have too, is that challenging someone’s deeply held ideological beliefs is seen as the equivalent of attacking the person. This is an evident cultural shift ingrained in the minds of our young people especially. So, how do we reverse this trend? How do we engage in “constructive” and not “destructive” conversations?
Great questions! I do my best to encourage my students to learn how to have civil dialogue even when their worldviews disagree. So how do we do this?
- Challenge the ideas, NOT the person. For instance, use “I” statements that convey your thoughts and concerns about the issue rather than saying, “Your ideas are wrong.” And while this may be easier said than done, remember, your ideological opponents are made in God’s image and are worthy of respect.
- Make sure to listen. You might remember a passage in James 1 that says something like, “be quick to speak and slow to listen.…” Oops, no, that’s how we usually do it. It actually reads “be slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19). Humor aside, truly listening conveys to the speaker that you genuinely want to understand what he or she is saying. And who knows, he might return the favor when it’s your turn to share!
- BE PREPARED TO GIVE AN ANSWER, one that conveys humility and openness to hearing contrary positions. The belief that your arguments are irrefutable conveys an air of superiority, not a desire to learn other viewpoints. (By the way, this attitude will be evident to your listener, and more than likely, he or she will “check out” of the discussion.) 1 Peter 3:15 provides some insight into how NOT to do this. The next point naturally follows.
- ADMIT YOU MIGHT BE WRONG. Conceding the match is, well, hard …. Even so, if your intended goal is to be “always” right, you’ve lost already – not the argument, the person. The goal is to win the person, not the argument. Jesus is our exemplar on this point, and the Apostle Paul illustrates this concept powerfully in Philippians 2. Bottom line: you need to think of others as better than yourself.
- BE GENUINE. As the saying goes: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is incredibly true. You are intuitively aware of this fact but forget about it in the heat of verbal sparring. In the end, you will most likely NOT convince your listener with the “profundity” of your arguments. BUT, if he or she sees that you genuinely care about them and what they are saying, you might just win the person. “Love your enemies! Do good to them” (Luke 6:35, NLT). Need I say more?
We are in a culture war, politically and socially. We see it all around us. We agonize over the direction of our culture and the long-term implications of what might become of our country. The ideological divides are growing, and NO one wants to listen. We may be right, but the real work is done one on one, face to face with our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members. We need to have genuine conversations where we share each other’s concerns, passions, and frustrations. As followers of Jesus, we can LEAD the way. We can set the bar for meaningful conversation where people can be truly heard, loved on, and potentially persuaded – not necessarily to our political views, but to our JESUS. This is where change can happen. We need only to venture into the murky waters of difficult conversations in our schools, churches, workplaces, and social groups to make it happen. But wait, when you do, make sure to always FIGHT FAIR!
About the Author
Chad Davidson is a member of the pastoral leadership team at Fort Des Moines Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa, where he has served in a variety of capacities. For the past eleven years, Chad has taught world religions at Des Moines Area Community College and William Penn University. He also enjoys teaching at Harvest Bible College in Des Moines. Aside from his teaching and pastoral duties, Chad also runs a small handyman business. He has a genuine passion to see believers grow in their Christian worldview and feels it is imperative to challenge ourselves not only spiritually, but also intellectually. In doing so, he believes we will be able to effectively articulate the relevancy of the Gospel and build bridges of conversation that lead people to the life-changing message of Jesus.