How to avoid useless debate and
find balance between conviction Hand kindness.
Have you found yourself frustrated when reading, hearing, or talking on a topic that “pushes your buttons”? If so, you are not alone. It seems as if there is no dialogue anymore. Or at least, conversation with a civilized tone feels rare. I do not mean talk about the weather or your favorite food. Talk about politics, religion, and now the pandemic engenders fiery exchanges. Add to the topic our use of social media, and you soon have a wildfire. Sound bites, anonymity, and the confusing overabundance of information from different sources—each of them contribute to strong proclamations of conviction, even when what is offered is just an opinion.
The church and its members are no exception. Can we talk when positions seem to you to be extreme? Can we talk when what you hear appears to be a conspiracy theory? Can we avoid useless debate? Can we find a balance between honest conviction and kindness? Of course we can.
TALKING PAST EACH OTHER
Truth be told, we can maintain a civilized tone and still talk past each other. I remember watching a church business session online in which a vote was to be taken on a topic that had divided the church for years. Delegates made their points without any acknowledgment as to the “other side’s” value or perspective. These people need a family therapist more than a session chair, I thought. The vote was taken, and one side had more votes than the other. However, was there a sense that we were still part of the same family? I didn’t think so.
Perhaps it might be helpful to consider an extreme case example to highlight some of the dynamics you may want to take into consideration before you have a conversation: conspiracy theories. According to psychologist Karen Douglas, conspiracy beliefs are “attempts to explain the ultimate cause of an event…as a secret plot by a covert alliance of powerful individuals or organizations, rather than as an overt activity or natural occurrence.” She adds, “It can be difficult to persuasively present evidence to refute these types of ideas, especially because experts are often seen as part of the conspiracy, and new pieces of contrary evidence can be rationalized into an existing narrative.”¹
A brain-imaging study showed that the cerebral regions responsible for representing different perspectives tend to shut down when beliefs are held tightly.² Douglas identified the drivers for conspiracy theories: epistemic (what the narrative explains), existential (how critical it is to core values, and even survival), and social (how it gives the person a sense of belonging). If you are going to enter an honest and respectful conversation, particularly with someone you love, it might be helpful to keep these drivers in mind.
TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER
Ellen G. White wrote, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’ ”³ Not all conversations are meant to persuade others, but ideally, all conversations should have the elements mentioned in this beautiful quote. When you mingle with others in a respectful way, you are implicitly addressing the social driver of a person’s belief system. When you desire their good, you are connecting with the existential component.
If the difficult conversation is with someone you are close to and you wish to preserve the relationship, you may want to practice the recommendations made by psychiatrist David Burns. He calls them “the five secrets of effective communication.”⁴ First, Burns advises to listen carefully before offering your opinion, and work hard to honestly find as much common ground as possible. Then he suggests trying to see from the other person’s perspective, as you seek to understand the experiences that have shaped the other person’s life. Third, gently ask questions that can help you get an understanding about the other person’s thinking. Fourth, own your experience—instead of saying “you,” use “I” statements to convey what you feel. Finally, he reminds us to pepper the conversation with genuinely positive comments about the other person’s perspective as you convey your perspective.
WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT?
However much you may try to talk to and convince someone who holds views you perceive as extreme or conspiratorial, you may not succeed. It was not for lack of trying or compassion that Jesus Himself could not hold productive conversations with individuals who held extreme views, such as the Pharisees (see, for instance, Matt. 3:7; 19:3; 23:15, 23, 25). The book of Proverbs contains clear advice about how much of your time you need to spend on those whose minds are closed (see, for instance, Prov. 14:3-13). Ecclesiastes reminds us that “to everything there is a season” (Eccl. 3:1).
Here are a few suggestions. Before you engage, it might be helpful to know your own “buttons.” There may be topics dear to you that do not merit strong reactions. Consider also how central to your values and faith are the issues of disagreement. Another good piece of advice is to focus on the big picture and not yourself. Sometimes the escalation to an argument may be more about your feelings than being right.
It’s usually also helpful to determine what is more important to you: either stay in grace and be consistent with the heart of your Christian faith, or have “the last word.” Finally, keep in mind that it is better to be “a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32, NIV).
Talking together as Christians will take more than awareness and understanding of the psychology of conspiracy theories or even the “right” technique for effective communication. We need the mind “which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). By His grace we can be united with Christ, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, “but in lowliness of mind [esteeming] others better than [ourselves], ”not looking out “only for [our] own interests, but also for the interests of others” (see Phil. 2:1-11).
¹ “Speaking of Psychology: Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories,” available at https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/conspiracy-theories.
² M. Schurz et al., “Common Brain Areas Engaged in False Belief Reasoning and Visual Perspective Taking: A Meta-analysis of Functional Brain Imaging Studies,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2013), https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00712.
³ Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143.
⁴ D. Burns, Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work (New York: Broadway Books, 2008), pp. 95-175.