By Doug Talley
I decided to take a break from social media last Spring. It was prompted by a preponderance of political and COVID related rants. Though I probably rant at times, I don’t find rants helpful. They are alienating, disrespectful of others, cause people to shut down, and do not foster understanding or progress. They just make the person ranting feel better, and that is short lived.
We tend to find it difficult to converse in an appropriate manner with people who think differently than we do about certain topics, such as politics, religious beliefs, convictions, pandemics, etc. I try to read articles and reports that challenge the way I think rather than just read what agrees with my way of thinking. They help me sort through various viewpoints so that, hopefully, what I think is more informed. With that said, I don’t like to be bombarded with rants from people regardless of their perspective. Those are not helpful.
I was surprised that the world pandemic stirred up so many politically, socially, and medically divergent ideas. While I expected varying opinions, I am amazed at how rapidly conversations have gone downhill and become shouting matches fueled by demeaning rhetoric. It has felt like people were only listening (and I question if they were really listening at all) to figure out what their comeback would be. Social media really plays to this tense dynamic because online conversations are very susceptible to unhealthy speech and opinionated rants. It also emboldens people to be more offensive and disrespectful because they can hit “send” and walk away. What really breaks my heart is that Christians are doing this, sometimes to each other and sometimes to people who don’t share our faith.
We all tend to believe that someone who thinks differently from us is poorly informed or dangerously misinformed. This can cause us to believe our job is to set the other person straight. Did you know the other person probably draws the same conclusion? Then we shout at each other but never listen to each other. What does that accomplish?
We ALL have a tendency to do this, so I am talking about you and me, not just about them. Even if I think I am right, if I approach others who have a different perspective in an arrogant, opinionated, or disrespectful way, then I am making the relational divide wider.
People have a right to their perspective, just as I do. I’m not defending dangerous beliefs or behavior. Nor am I saying that every perspective is equally valid, rational or true. I’m saying that regardless of the topic, if you are not able to disagree respectfully and meaningfully, then you are contributing to the problem of polarization and division.
I am a fan of the book Crucial Conversations and its principles for having difficult conversations when opinions vary, emotions run strong, and the stakes are high. The book has really challenged me to think in-depth about how I respond to relational tension, conflict, and polarization. As a result, I am developing some fresh values to guide me. Let me share them briefly.
- Speak with genuine kindness. People are important and valuable even when they have an opinion that differs from mine. If I go ballistic with my words or behavior, I am not conveying that I value them. And they will only hear my anger. So when I speak to others, even when we strongly disagree I can speak with genuine kindness.
- Speak with genuine curiosity. I confess that when I am talking with someone with whom I disagree, I tend to listen just enough to know how to argue in response. I know, that’s pretty stupid. So I have resolved that when someone shares a perspective that doesn’t agree with mine, I will endeavor to be genuinely curious about why they see things the way they do. That means asking questions, like, “Would you tell me why you think that?” or “How did you arrive at that perspective?” Then I resolve to listen. I just might discover that our values have some common ground though our application goes different directions. The problem is that when we aren’t genuinely curious about another’s perspective and thinking, we treat each other like we are arch enemies.
- Don’t villainize the other person. When we label the person who disagrees with us as evil and wicked, we’ve justified our opinion and given ourselves permission to take cheap shots. Then our goal is to make the other person look bad or stupid hoping that we can discredit her or him. I do recognize that some perspectives – like genocide and prejudice – reek of evil. In this value I’m saying I want to be cautious not to lump all people in the evil camp just because I disagree with them.
- Build safety into the dialogue. A long time ago I learned that if I ranted about something, people tended to back away and I felt like I had won. In actuality they backed away not because my rant was convincing but because my hostility caused them to feel unsafe. People cannot have meaningful dialogue about significant issues unless all parties involved feel safe. I’m not necessarily talking about physical safety, but that can be an issue. I’m talking more about feeling respected, valued, and listened to. No one feels safe enough to have a meaningful conversation if they are being verbally assaulted. That’s abuse. Abuse stymies meaningful conversation.
- Pick the time and place carefully. Just any time and any place is not the right occasion for a meaningful conversation about something people strongly disagree about. For example, how many of us pastors have had someone come to us immediately before a service starts or between services to tell us something they don’t like about the church or us? Wrong time for THAT conversation. In like manner social media, email, or text are not the place for pretty much any crucial conversation. So before having a challenging conversation, I want to think through where and when is the best setting for the conversation so it can be helpful and meaningful.
- Give the benefit of the doubt. I know. Some people make it hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I’m listing my values, so this isn’t about how deserving I think the other person is. It is about my posture and attitude. I’ve not walked in their shoes. I’ve not had their experiences. There are things I don’t know. If I want the benefit of the doubt offered to me, then I also need to give it. Yet, I’ve chosen to give it even if I don’t get it.
Please do not assume that I think I have all the answers on how to handle difficult conversations, polarization in our society, racism, or conspiracy theories. There is a lot I am still trying to figure out, and there are still times I do not act consistently with my values. I am thankful that God is faithful to remind me when I don’t, so that I can work to do better next time. What I am asking you to do is step back from the strong emotions all around us and inside us. Ask how you need to approach the tension and divisiveness. And then take some courageous steps to contribute to meaningful, healthy, and productive dialogue.
Opposing opinions and strong emotions do not have to drive us apart. We often let them, but they don’t HAVE to drive us apart. That happens when we choose to draw lines in the sand and judge other persons harshly when they don’t agree with us. I think we are all seeing how disastrously this plays out. We are better than this!