Respectfully Engaging in Complicated Conversations

how do we talk about our differences without exploding?

On the recent Pillars book club Zoom call we had a wonderful discussion and a highlight for many of us was the last 15-20 minutes or so when we started talking practically about how to have hard conversations about complicated topics with people we care about.

We talked about Covid, masks, vaccines, politics, race, and religion. Like I said, it was a great discussion. At the end, one person (I think it was Larrnell – shout out to Larnell!) said, “These are the kinds of conversations we need to be having more often.” A hearty amen to that from me!

As we talked, I took notes and would like to share them with everyone.

How do we talk about controversial and loaded topics without hurting people, harming relationships, or stirring up anger, hurt, or resentment?

1.     Ask narrative questions. Instead of asking what someone believes or why they believe it, ask them what life experiences brought them to that conviction. Instead of saying, “Why would you ever become Catholic?” Or, “How can you continue attending a Southern Baptist church?” Try something like, “What do you love about Catholicism?” Or, “Could you share some of your highlights from growing up your SBC church community?”

2.     Respond with compassion and empathy to the stories people share rather than with your proverbial fists up, ready for a fight. You don’t have to agree but you can still appreciate their perspective. Consider that sometimes an underlying issue or emotion may be driving their response. For example, fear could cause someone to speak more harshly than they normally might. Or a past hurt in a related topic.

3.     Leave room for ambiguity. We don’t need to wrap up every conversation and we don’t need to force conformity. Learning to say, “Well, I understand that you feel that way and I don’t agree with you but hey, can we talk about something else for a while? I don’t want this disagreement to mess up our friendship,” is valuable. Not every topic needs to be covered in every relationship; practice selective editing, which means know your audience and know yourself.

4.     No “Kingdom competition.” We aren’t in a battle to see who can love God more or better or more accurately, whatever that means. We aren’t in a battle to see who can love our neighbor best or do the best social justice or whatever. We are not in a competition with other humans.

5.     Be in person together whenever possible. Obviously this is Covid dependent but still, when possible, connect in person. That can take so much sting out of comments. Social media posts and even texts aren’t the best spaces for hard conversations.

6.     Let the conversation be a dialogue. That requires back and forth. Don’t go on monologuing but be a good question asker and learn to stop a harmful monologue respectfully, even by simply walking away.

7.     Look for common ground. Okay, we won’t agree on all of this, but what do we agree on? Be intentional to find those points of connection. Which are the links that hold you together - can you work with someone with whom you share those things, even while disagreeing about the ones unrelated? An example might be a family that is not bound together based on who each person voted for but on a shared love for fishing. Focus there, at least for most of the time.

8.     It is okay to have boundaries and lines you don’t cross or topics you don’t discuss with certain people. It is okay to walk away from that monologue. Also, what are some non-negotiables that would in fact end a relationship? There may come a point where you do have to step away for a bit. Don’t just disappear, that can be hurtful or cause more conflict. Gently explain your position and ask for some space or time.

9.     Ask for help. When an issue is especially entrenched or volatile, when organizations, teams, families, even friend groups, or churches are involved, it can be useful to invite an outside party to help moderate a conversation.

10.  Develop shared stories that humanize and value both parties, those on either side of an issue. This means sharing experiences, telling and hearing the stories of others and considering how we intersect, and highlighting the parts both parties play in a story so that not just one group comes out a hero or a victim but rather makes room for nuance.

11.  Exclusion and embrace. This is a concept I studied in seminary this term based on a book by Miroslav Volf: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It is a thick read in places, but I highly recommend it. The image of embrace means opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and then opening them again. A way I have been talking about it lately is with the phrase “holy welcome”. We welcome someone else, someone different, with their difference, and we don’t force things. We just say, welcome. They come, we share something, and we separate again. Maybe we are both changed by the encounter, maybe not, but we have had a genuine engagement that is not volatile or explosive. Each step matters – welcome, wait, share, release.

These are some of the things we came up with as people shared from our own experiences.

What would you add?

There are also some good books out there which dig into this much deeper such as:

I Think You’re Wrong But I’m Listening by Sarah Holland and Beth Silvers

The Space Between Us by Sarah Bauer Anderson

The Courage to Stand by Russell Moore (truth be told, I have not read this yet but plan to)