Whether in the boardroom or the bedroom, on Twitter or TV, disagreement is a fact of life. And unfortunately, it’s often handled badly — resulting in anger, frustration and strained relationships.
So says Biola communication professor Tim Muehlhoff, whose latest book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love, seeks to encourage healthier handling of conflict. Drawing on principles from Scripture and communication theory, he offers a strategy for broaching tough topics — finances, politics, religion — in ways that strengthen, not harm, our relationships. In this edited interview with Biola Magazine, he shares his advice for how to turn divisive debates about tough topics into constructive, Christ-honoring dialogue.
Why is it important for Christians to develop a better understanding of how to deal with conflict?
Christ does a very interesting thing. He puts all of the eggs in one basket and says, “If you want to know if this new movement is authentic then I’ll give you a litmus test — and that is if my followers forgive each other and love each other. By their unity, by their love, you’ll know that these are authentic followers.” Part of our credibility as a Christian movement is going to be based on our ability to do the things that Christ asked, which is to forgive each other as he has forgiven us. That’s a huge extra motivation for me and my wife or for me and my co-workers to deal with our stuff. Because we’re not just representing ourselves. We’re representing Christ’s reputation.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when engaging in difficult conversations?
Two things. First, they tend to think that communication is on one level, when it’s actually on two. There is the content, which is the words. But there is also the relational level, which involves the amount of respect and acknowledgement between two individuals, and whether there’s a power dynamic, such as a conflict with a boss. We teach in communication theory that if I don’t respect you, or if I perceive that you don’t respect me, then I won’t care what you believe. The book of Proverbs says that an offended brother is like a fortified city. If I feel offended because I don’t perceive that you respect me, I couldn’t give a rip what you believe. We also don’t acknowledge one another. We tend to think that acknowledging a person’s perspective is synonymous with condoning it, and it’s not; it’s just acknowledging it.
Second, we don’t think deeply enough about communication climates. As we’re doing this interview it’s about 102 degrees. The climate dictates what I can do outside. It’s the same with a communication climate, which is made up of the expectations, commitment, trust and amount of respect between people. I often say to individuals, “Before you launch into that conversation about a very important issue, what’s the climate like? Is it strong enough to support the conversation?” If it’s not strong enough, I would set aside that issue and work on building up the climate.
You offer a four-step strategy for approaching difficult conversations. Can you briefly explain the steps involved?
Without a doubt, the book of Proverbs would say that the first place you should start is listening. Proverbs 18:13 says that it is folly and shame to speak before listening. So the first thing I want to find out is “What do you believe?” Allow the person the freedom to speak. That’s a great gift to people, and psychologists would say it’s probably the No. 1 way to love a person, is to give them that attention. Question 2 is “Why does this person believe that?” How did they arrive at these convictions? The Harvard Negotiation Project says that the biggest mistake we make is that we just trade conclusions, but we don’t share how we arrived at those conclusions. It’s really helpful to get the back-story on a person. Jeff Goodell once said in an interview that he thought all of [Apple founder] Steve Jobs’ life was an attempt to show his birth parents that they were wrong to give him up for adoption. He was trying to prove to his birth parents, “I’m worth loving.” Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it makes you look at Steve Jobs in a different light.
Question 3 is “What do we agree on?” If I could summarize all of communication theory, it’s this: Start from points of agreement and work toward disagreement. When you disagree with your spouse, your child, start by saying, “Here’s where we’re on the same page.” And the last one, Question 4, is: “Based on everything I just learned, what is the one thing I should say?” And I think it’s important to find the one thing, not two, three, four, five. I need to prioritize what I’m about to say to this person. In the book I work through the adage, “With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is one thing I should say?”
As Christians, what role does the Holy Spirit play in how we handle disagreements?
I have a whole chapter on spiritual disciplines, because the odd thing about reading a book on communication or teaching communication is that I can know what to do, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll do it. I either don’t want to do it, or I don’t think you deserve it or I’m too tired to do what I know I should do. So unless we’re engaging in spiritual disciplines, we’ll never be able to do what Peter says: “Bless those who insult you.” Or the book of Proverbs: “A wise man overlooks an insult.” I’m not going to be able to do that, especially when my emotions are amped up.
Increasingly, it seems that traditional Christian views on sexual ethics, as an example, are becoming so marginalized that no matter how graciously Christians might seek to articulate a position, they are labeled bigots. How do we have fruitful conversations in that kind of scenario?
Well, this is the hard thing about being a communication theorist. It’s very hard to talk in generalities. It’s like a person saying, “What should I say to my spouse about finances, because he always gets defensive?” Well, first, I’d need to hear about your marriage. So with this issue, I would want to know about the specific situation. But I would agree with Aristotle in his book On Rhetoric when he said that the most important thing is ethos, by which he meant credibility. In each one of those situations where you feel like the Christian sexual ethic is being stereotyped or attacked, I would ask what constitutes as ethos — credibility — within that workplace, grad school or community. So we need to be active participants in any area that we’re seeking to influence. That garners credibility to be able to address some of the stereotypes. It’s easy for me to stereotype someone if I don’t know or care who you are. In grad school at UNC Chapel Hill, I was the conservative. But they knew I was a member of the department — I went to functions, I supported other people’s speeches. I think they would look at me at say, “Muehlhoff is one of us, but he’s just got some bizarre ideas.”
So it doesn’t necessarily come down to being able to articulate a position in a certain way. It’s about those personal relationships.
Yes, it goes back to the relational part versus the content. As Christians, we write volumes on the content. We’ve got the best arguments in the world that nobody wants to hear. And I would shift to the relational. Do I love my neighbor? When people feel loved and cared for, that goes a long way toward getting them to listen to us. We just want to sit down and present a logical refutation of this issue, and people think, “I don’t even want to hear what you have to say because you’re judgmental and homophobic.” But to know a person, to care about a person, opens the doors. And it’s never separated in the New Testament. Paul says, “I want you to speak the truth, but I want you to do it in love.” Peter says, “Be ready to give a defense, but always do it with gentleness and respect.” We can’t divorce those two.
Books and Culture editor John Wilson recommended your book in a recent review, but he also had some critiques. For one thing, he questioned the idea you mentioned earlier that we should try to understand how a person arrived at a belief — that we can know their motives. Would you care to respond?
On the one hand, I agree with him. The book of Proverbs says that a person’s thoughts are deep waters, and that the job of a conversationalist is to surface them. So I would agree with him on the fact that a person might believe things without knowing exactly why they are so passionate about that issue. My job as a conversationalist is to help them process: “Why is that so important to you? Why do you think finances have always been such a big deal to you?” Now, by the way, I can look at your upbringing and maybe I know enough about your dad that I can put two and two together. But I don’t do that dogmatically, like, “I know exactly why you’re stingy.” If that’s what [Wilson] is talking about, I would agree. That kind of arrogance is not what I’m advocating. This is more of an authentic, “I want to hear about your history, your upbringing, your culture.”
Your book talks about difficult conversations. But these days, so many of our disagreements tend not to really be conversations, but online exchanges — on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and so on. Should we put a moratorium on debating online? Or do these principles translate to technology?
Well, first, I’m not anti-technology. I argue in the book about the importance of phatic communication, which is everyday communication — the running jokes, or popping my head in the office to say, “Hey, how are you?” Emphatic refers to big dramatic conversations. We know from communication theory that small conversations set up big conversations. So, social media, texting, Twitter and so on can actually be great forms of phatic communication. Now, online communication can be helpful in some ways for the dramatic stuff, but the problem with an email is that it’s me launching into a monologue. An email or a blog post can be static and one-directional. Twitter is hard, but at least you’re getting responses. I think all of these principles work for social media, but anytime we aren’t interacting with someone face to face, we just have to be very careful to ask questions: “What did you mean by that? When you put that all in caps, are you yelling at me?” We need to be more intentional to do perception checking, and to do that in real time as much as possible. The bad thing about an email is that I can stew about it and overanalyze it, and that’s just not good.
About the Expert
Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communication studies at Biola, holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love, was released by IVP Books in February 2014.