Fruitful conversation with someone who disagrees is a rare find today. And that may be because we’re forgetting why and how it should be done.
Perhaps you’re preparing to converse with a colleague, friend, or family member with whom you do not see eye to eye in one way or another. You’ve imagined how this conversation might go, and it does not look promising. You’d rather avoid it entirely.
Or maybe you find yourself consistently embroiled in debates on social media or even with the person next to you on the plane. Facts fly and opinions rocket around, but your conversation rarely sheds more light than heat. You’re beginning to wonder whether it’s worth the hassle and frustration.
In high school and college, I competed in formal debate. It pushed me to think on my feet, craft clear arguments, and appeal to a person’s mind and heart. But at the end of every debate round, the judge would declare one team the winner. That was always the goal: to win. Dominate the conversation and overwhelmingly refute the other team’s arguments. Outside of that artificial debate environment, however, should that be our goal?
Why Talk When You Disagree?
Jesus tells us that second, after loving God, is loving our neighbors. We can love our neighbors in many ways, but one irreplaceable avenue for such love is the way we talk with them. Our motives and methods in conversing with neighbors — especially toward those with whom we disagree — reveal our love, or lack of love, for them. We show a lack of love when we quickly ignore them and retreat from them as well as when we seek to dominate and defeat them.
“One irreplaceable avenue for loving our neighbor is the way we talk with them.”
To love others truly, we must choose God over self. An act of genuine love toward another human demonstrates, “It’s not about me. It’s about God.” We love others when we die to our own selfish desires and set our hearts on God. And in conversation, we show that life is about God, not us, when we expect to learn truth from others and don’t hold back what truth we have for them. Neither avoiding conflict nor winning the conversation should be our goal. Rather, our goal is love (1 Timothy 1:5).
Key Principles for Dialogue
But what does that look like? Does it mean we always concede? Do we stop using the available means to persuade others of what we believe to be true? No, we don’t.
So what might it look like to speak in love with that Muslim neighbor with whom you discuss faith at the coffee shop, or your mother-in-law who wants you to parent differently, or the friend voting with a vastly different orientation than you?
Seek First to Understand, Not Defeat
When we talk with someone we expect to disagree with, our first goal should not be to defeat them but to understand them. Understanding someone does not mean we only listen long enough to identify what we disagree with so we can launch a counterattack. We know we’ve understood them when we can articulate back to them — in a faithful and agreeable summary — what we’ve heard, and they respond, “Yes, that is exactly right!”
We cannot love someone well until we’re ready to learn from them. And that means we have to understand them, to lean in and listen with a learner’s ear.
Clarify Differences, Rather Than Blur or Exaggerate
When we discover differences as we listen carefully, we’ll be tempted to respond in one of two ways. Either we will minimize the differences or blow them out of proportion. In both cases, we miss the opportunity to learn from and love someone by clarifying the differences and identifying agreement. In that moment, using precise language is like focusing the camera lens so that the object becomes clear to everyone looking at it.
We love our conversation partner well when we’re precise with our language. Words, and how we use them, matter — and all the more as disagreements emerge.
Address Concerns, Not Just Beliefs
But precise words are not enough. Although we may be able to restate exactly what someone believes, in clear language, we may have no clue why they believe it. If we stop at the level of belief, we may fail to learn their deep, underlying concerns and thereby miss a chance to love someone who disagrees with us.
“We show that life is about God, not us, when we expect to learn truth from others and don’t hold back what truth we have.”
Recently I’ve had the privilege to talk for extended periods of time with a friend whom I disagree with on essential matters. He’s a committed Catholic; I’m a staunch evangelical. While our debates revolve around philosophical frameworks, doctrines, and practices, we’ve both learned to appreciate these important guidelines for dialogue, but especially this third and most overlooked principle.
We agree with how Tony Lane describes this ground rule for dialogue:
It is important to pay attention not just to the doctrines put forward by each side but also to the concerns that underlie these doctrines. If each side can be brought to understand and value the concerns of the other, considerable progress can be made. (Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment)
If we can identify and appreciate the concerns behind a person’s beliefs, then real progress in understanding them, and loving them, is possible. But that is hard work, and it’s going to take both a learner’s ear and a lover’s heart.
Like any worthwhile habit, dialoguing well will take practice. But that practice will shape us into the sort of people who are able to truly learn from and love others.