As one in the public square regularly, I often find myself in contentious space.
I sometimes am the “token” evangelical chosen to defend what many see as indefensible or presenting a perspective some have trouble appreciating. It makes for interesting conversation. What is amazing is that I often find the opposition is not because someone understands my position but because they never had a non-polemical conversation about it. So I have developed a series of ways to try and engage in disagreement in ways that point for better understanding versus division. Here are some of those points.
- I start out working hard to avoid a debate scenario, opting for a conversation. A conversation probes for understanding why someone holds a view different than mine. I am looking to see what I can engage on and if their concerns overlap with my own. In areas where I know my position is different than my conversation partner, I try to frame the conversation in a way that connects with those surfaced concerns, if possible, or seeks to explain why I see things differently than they do.
- I never impute motive to a view. To pretend I know what someone else is thinking is not only likely to be wrong, it undercuts the pursuit of conversation on the issues. It shifts the discussion from the facts of the matter to a personal level. I say these thoughts are likely to be wrong because I have had too many people misread my motives for my views. I know the poor track record of such arguments. In the few cases where it might be right, many more are not. So this derails real discussion of the merits of the case.
- I am in this to learn not just defend. A conversation mode means I might learn something from the person I disagree with about something. This happens more frequently than I often care to admit. Most of the time these are not game changers but are nuance makers that actually help me and advance the discussion for both of us.
- The goodwill and respect this kind of approach generates is worth the price of admission. Once this conversation feel emerges within a discussion, it changes the emotions generated and inevitably makes for a better exchange. The result is even better once there is a resolve to agree to disagree as the evaluation of fairness in it all has left people with a sense of having had a genuine exchange on the topic.
- None of this means a diminishing of conviction. Rather what we are saying is that tone matters in such discussions and the more respectful the conversation, the better ultimately the resulting dialogue is because less static has been introduced into the conversation.
- It works. I cannot tell you how many times after such a conversation the response has been an affirmation for the edifying nature of the experience, an expression of appreciation for a conversation that is not as emotional and divisive as such interactions often can be. For some, it is a new experience. Coming as it often does, in exchanges that involve controversial topics, it comes as a surprise well received. Sometimes it even opens the person up to discuss the merits of the different way of thinking.
What is amazing is that I often find the opposition is not because someone understands my position but because they never had a non-polemical conversation about it.
I have noted these because in an area like the creation discussion, this kind of an approach can be hard to find with the result that little actual conversation and understanding takes place. Sometimes there is real value in not only understanding that a disagreement is present but establishing clearly the actual reasons why. In my case, interactions with people involved at Biologos have been serious and mutually fruitful exchanges, even as we have agreed to disagree on what we each regard as substantive matters. It has often been the case that each of us has acknowledged the need to change our thinking about some specifics and seeing where we might have been unfair to each other even while maintaining our position, now held with more care. The nature of this relational dimension is so strong that either side feels comfortable reengaging when opportunity allows for it.
This kind of approach to conversation has a better chance of taking us to such a relational place than the polemical environment this topic often generates. It is especially appropriate in an educational context where reasoned discourse and achieving some form of mutual understanding (not the same thing as agreement) should be the goals, an art falling on hard times in our days of ideological dig in. Disagreeing agreeably is an art we need to rediscover.