Winsome Conviction Project logo


We’ve been talking about conflict and what causes conflict. In this episode, Tim and Rick resume the discussion on conflict and discuss the influence of phatic communication, the place of humor, and the need to do soul work when one is not in the throes of conflict in order to engage conflict in healthy ways when it arises. This is part 2 of a 2-part discussion on conflict.


Rick Langer: ... And we don't just need to tell the truth to others. We need to tell the truth to ourselves. And when the truth is inconvenient, I really have a tension with this person that I deal with, and I am playing bad records in my mind about them, you probably need to say, okay, let me think of a way to at least broach this subject.

Welcome to the Winston Conviction Podcast. My name's Rick Langer. And I'm one of your co-hosts for this podcast. I'm a professor in the biblical studies and theology department, and director of office of faith and learning here at Biola, as well as the co-director of the Winston Conviction Project.

Tim Muehlhoff: And my name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm the other director of the Winston Conviction Podcast. I'm a communication professor here at Bible University. Thank you so much for joining us. We've been talking about conflict. We've been talking about what causes conflict. And so if you didn't listen to the first one, just go back and take a look. One point Rick made though in that podcast, that is well worth repeating. This is not a new phenomenon. It's not that the modern church is suddenly embroiled in all this controversy and endless conflict. If you go back, Rick makes a great point in our book, Winsome Conviction, that quarreling is one of the biggest threats to the church, and that the church has always tried to maintain a desire for unity, but also the real fact that conflict is present. Paul says to the church in Corinth, you're a holy people called together. And then in nine verses later, he says, I've heard that there's quarrels among you.

So what am I hearing that certain things are happening? So we covered a couple of different things, go back and hit that podcast. This one can kind of stand alone, though. We're going to pick like two other areas.

One that often gets neglected in communication theory, but I really think it's important to pick up on this because the research is fascinating. So Rick, we know that there's kind of two different forms of communication. There's what we call emphatic communication, right? Turn on the news. You're going to see emphatic, me pounding the table, me speaking with full whim and vigor, and passion, we call that emphatic communication. And a lot of the argument culture is kind of made up of that. Well, in 1923, communication theorists started to identify a different version, called phatic communication. And this is the mundane things-

Rick Langer: Phatic communication?

Tim Muehlhoff: Phatic, yeah.

Rick Langer: They didn't check with the guy that are marketing about good terms and just picked up phatic communication. Okay, go ahead. I just wanted to clarify that, back to you.

Tim Muehlhoff: So phatic is the mundane stuff. It's like the routine things, a way to think about it is, inside jokes. So when I was at Eastern Michigan University as a communication major, a good friend of mine was Mike, he happened to be from Ohio though. He's from Columbus, Ohio-

Rick Langer: They have like winning football teams there, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, this is my segment-

Rick Langer: I'm sorry. I interrupted, you're in-

Tim Muehlhoff: Why would you bring this... Yeah, University of Michigan is on hard times, man. I say to my friends from Ohio State, the Buckeyes, I was so bummed that the game got canceled because of COVID because I was confident, we were only going to lose by 20 points this year.

So Mike is from Columbus, Ohio, but he's attending a school in Michigan and he's an ardent atheist.

And I'm a student leader with Campus Crusade for Christ. So Rick, we have had our emphatic conversations, right? Talking about proofs for God's existence. He'd like to bring up the problem of evil. We had plenty of emphatic. Now, if that's all we did, most communication therapists would say, that's going to burn out. You can only have these robust disagreements for so long, because then it starts to affect the communication climate that we talked about in the last podcast.

So we had all these great jokes, we'd see each other in the morning and we'd pass each other and he'd go, "I hate Michigan." I'd go, "I hate Buckeyes." And we'd just pass each other and just kind of laugh about it. He would wear to the lunch room, we were good friends, we lived next to each other, a shirt that said profanity, Michigan. The week of Michigan, Ohio State, a profanity pick whatever one you're thinking of, Michigan, and we would walk and I'm saying, we are going to get beat up. We are going to get beat up.

And he goes, yeah. And they're just going to assume that you're with me. I go, I am with you. So those funny things, Rick, those are the simple, common, it's like a spouse that you're kind of upset with, but you call her a hun. Hey hun-

Rick Langer: It's softens-

Tim Muehlhoff: It softens, and we know that good phatic communication actually sets up the possibility of emphatic actually being productive.

Rick Langer: Okay. And does this include just ordinary small talk or does it have to be joking or things like, because I hear people-

Tim Muehlhoff: No, ordinary small talk.

Rick Langer: Okay. Because people will sometimes disparage that. That's been one of things I've noticed with COVID in living in the zoom world. You can still have small talk in the zoom world, but there's a lot of the really informal, Hey, how's it going? What happened, kinds of things that just aren't said, because you don't meet each other. Everything's in the context of a meeting. And I wonder how that erodes our communication climates and our ability to talk with one another when that kind of ordinary smalltalk, and I worry sometimes that we shouldn't actually call it small talk because it's perhaps way more important than you think it is, for all the other good side effects. Even if you don't learn that much, that seems important.

Tim Muehlhoff: And one of the casualties of the argument culture, we do not see phatic communication. There is no room for it because we're not interacting with each other. The only time we're with each other is, we're going be arguing in front of Congress. We're going to be arguing in front of the school board. Right? So these small little things... So I had a good friend of mine, a PhD student at UNC Chapel Hill, very progressive, and I was conservative, so our joke, and by the way, you better believe we mixed it up in classrooms. I mean, you'd better believe, I started bringing up the conservative view and she's bringing out the progressive. So she would go by and she goes, "What's it like being part of the dominant culture?" I said, you would not imagine the meetings we have, they are endless meetings. And I said, it's even hard to listen to your marginalized voice.

And so we would joke and that was like letting off steam. And so GK Chesterton, would have all of these amazing debates with George Bernard Shaw, and if you see these photographs, Rick, they're smoking cigars. They would often compare their favorite cigars, and we actually have letters that they're talking about cigars, and you might think, well, that's just stupid. No, it's brilliant because how many times can you argue conservative versus liberalism, or the existence of God, versus humanism? So the cigar stuff, I would argue, becomes amazingly important. So I want to challenge all of us as Christian communicators, as we're trying to influence other people-

Rick Langer: To smoke a cigar?

Tim Muehlhoff: No, thank you. This is brought to you by Biola University.

Rick Langer: [inaudible] got this cleared up, Tim, go ahead.

Tim Muehlhoff: But where are, you know what I mean? That to me is brilliant. What are the... so Rick, let me give you another illustration of this.

I read a Rolling Stone article that caught my eye because the title of it was, Bruce Springsteen Saved Our Marriage. Okay. So I love Bruce Springsteen. So I'm reading the article, there was a guy who just loves Springsteen, traveled all over the country going to Bruce Springsteen's concerts. Never took his wife. Their marriage is not doing well. So he has front row tickets. And a friend of his gets food poisoning, cannot go. Now he's stuck with a ticket, literally like five hours before the concert.

So he begrudgingly looks at his wife, says, "Hey, want to go with me to the concert?" And she says, "Sure." She loves it, loves it. And now they start going as a couple, all over the country, going to Bruce, using vacation time to hit different concerts. And the article was brilliant, kind of tongue in cheek that, Hey, we found something and we still argued, but we always had Springsteen. That to me is really a nice thing. And that's what we need to get to in this country is, what's the things that we can talk about that aren't X, that's causing all this tension in our relationship?

Rick Langer: Yeah. And that is an interesting thing. It's a little different than just saying, ignore the problem. It's, the danger is that because of the problem we ignore the commonalities, the shared interests, the things that we might both care about. And so we don't talk about them because we've got to talk about the important stuff. And perhaps you can't talk about the important stuff until you've shared some time enjoying the things that you happen to share in common, even if there's trivial is cigars, Bruce Springsteen, or whoever [crosstalk 00:00:09:17].

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, you've got to release the steam. The steam is building up way too much. And what is the common, fun, mundane things that release the steam, and today's argument culture, I think we're perpetually perturbed with each other, and we never find a mechanism by which to let off the steam.

Rick Langer: All right, Tim, let me change, take a little turn here in our conversation.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay hun.

Rick Langer: That didn't work.

Tim Muehlhoff: I tried.

Rick Langer: That was a bigger change than I was planning on taking.

I think it's great to give counsel advice, kind of the things we've been talking about, help us understand the difficulties and reasons we have our conflicts. One of the other things I found though, is that we aren't always, and even myself, I've noticed in my own heart, I'm not always actually willing or wanting to let these things go. I'm really bothered by it. You know, it reminds me of an itch. I happened to be up at Bodega Bay with my family. I happened to discover that poison oak grows with great enthusiasm in Northern California. My legs decided to verify that fact and it's proven true. So I have an itch that I know I shouldn't scratch. If scratched, will spread, gets worse. I know this fact-

Tim Muehlhoff: Currently, you have this right now?

Rick Langer: You don't want to see it.

Tim Muehlhoff: I do not, I'm so glad we're distancing, [crosstalk].

Rick Langer: Be glad we're listing this as a podcast, not video. So you have this itch and you know you shouldn't scratch it, but boy, do you want to, and by the way, when I do scratch it, it feels incredibly good for about two seconds. And I feel like part of the thing with quarreling and fighting with people, it's like a poison oak itch. You know you shouldn't do it, but oh, at that moment you get the dig in, you get the thought, and you get it, you kind of vent the deep seated frustration you have. And then of course, all the problems of quarreling tend to come out.

So here's the thought, let's take a few minutes and do a little bit of brainstorming. If you wake up today, you listen to this podcast or whatever it is, you look at, and think, Yeah, I should work on this. What does it look like to work on this kind of within your soul? To move the needle of your soul's affections in a different direction?

So I was thinking a little bit about this and I'll throw out a few of those and you can chime in. One discipline that is very common. We talk about this lot, but there's an easy way to begin thinking about it, as an example of this, is Paul talking about, not letting the anger go down, the sun go down on your anger. And I think you talk in this book, and I think there's all kinds of wisdom that people have offered about this. Don't get crazy with the thing of everything has to be talked about every moment, but the general idea of saying yet, do not let these things fester, find ways to address them. And I think that discipline of saying, okay, let me find a good time, and let me not dodge the topic. Somehow we need to have this conversation. And it may not solve the problem, but the discipline is saying, I'm not going to act like it isn't bothering me when I know it is.

Because in effect, what you're doing is lying to yourself. And that's a tacit way of helping yourself become a person of the lies, so to speak. And we don't just need to tell the truth to others, we need to tell the truth to ourselves. And when the truth is inconvenient, I really have a tension with this person that I deal with, and I am playing bad records in my mind about them, you probably need to say, okay, let me think of a way to at least broach this subject, do it in a way that's constructive, prepare ahead of time, whatever it is, but just say, as a matter of spiritual discipline, I'm not going to just let things savor, your complaint is not fine wine, and it will not get better by keeping.

Tim Muehlhoff: So what would that look like, that soul work before you have this conversation, what would it look like to wrestle before you open your mouth?

Rick Langer: So that's a good question. One of the things I've noticed, so disagreements with faculty members or other people that I have, you get the self-talk going. And then you almost, when you think of the person, this weird little bizarre caricature pops up in your mind. In one thing, I think of one person in particular, I've had some of these discussions and tensions with, that I really enjoy a whole set of features about, and I'm really bothered by other features about this person.

And the discipline's for me, before I think of what I'm even going to say about this, let me think about some of the things I really savor and value about this person. And it just begins to change, I guess, kind of the climate that's in my head. And it opens up the possibility of imagining good alternatives, positive things, as opposed to just drifting in the negative, with my negative cartoon-like caricature of the person. So that's one thing that comes to my mind.

Tim Muehlhoff: Can I, let me tag off that real quick. So John Gottman who we've mentioned before, relational expert, he makes a comment that absolutely applies to what you just said. He said, the best indicator of the future of a marriage is how you recall your past.

Rick Langer: Oh, wow. Okay.

Tim Muehlhoff: So when you look at the past, do you look at the negatives or the positives? So Rick, I like that, I'm about to have a talk with a person about an issue. And I think Gottman would say, that conversation is going to be based on how well you look at the overall relationship, the past interactions. So I think it's one thing to say, I do like this person, I do admire this person. I think they're wrong, in this instance, where they owe me an apology, or this is an issue, but I'm looking back and I mostly have fond memories. My question though, Rick, would be, what if you do that soul work, and you honestly say, I don't have any positive interactions with this person. It's been pretty negative from the get-go. What do you do when you find yourself locked into this? I'm looking back at the past and I can't think of very many positive moments.

Rick Langer: Yeah. So, I mean, it's interesting for me, one thing I've discovered is how often simply telling the truth can be enormously helpful. And to think of a moment like this and say, obviously this would depend very much on the context and the person, but to be able to say, I was sitting there thinking about this, I know we need to continue working on this project or whatever, but just that, I realize when I think about this, I have a lot of negative memories and very few positive memories of discussion interaction. I don't like it that way. And I'm not saying this is your fault, not my fault, but I just suddenly had that realization. And I think I'd like to work on that.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's good.

Rick Langer: And it's not an indictment of the person, and there's something interestingly transparent and warming, even if that person says, wow, well, it hasn't been that big of a problem for me, to say, well, good. That's helpful to know.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, so you're talking about articulating it to the person-

Rick Langer: You actually articulate it to the person. And it depends again, a lot on the personal setting, but to be able to say, yeah, I feel like we've gotten into a cycle that's really negative. And I'd really like to change it. It doesn't do me any good and I imagine it doesn't you either. Have you felt that? What are some things, are there things that I do that make it hard for you and just broaching the problematic nature of it with a person.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, I like that. I do like that. What you just said, one, the person can say, oh, that's not hitting me that way at all. You're like, oh, great. Or if the person says, yeah, I do think our communication could be better, then to say, well, what can we do to make it better? And here's my commitment. I'm going to try to be more encouraging. I'm going to try to listen better. I'm going to try to acknowledge better. So I like, but it's a little bit of a gutsy thing-

Rick Langer: It is a gutsy thing. I mean, it's not, but this again, per what we're talking about, it's kind of a spiritual discipline thing, to say, wait, I need to tend and curate my own soul. I need to cultivate certain qualities that aren't coming naturally to me. So here's another thing I thought of, it's good to think about... I'll put two things together, what you might call self-talk. So I just mentioned that, how do I think about this, for example, wow, I tend to just get in these spirals of negative self talking, not about myself, but to myself about this other person in a very negative pattern.

I think one of the things that makes it easier to do that is the kind of media we consume. So if we're constantly listening to talk radio that is doing that kind of negative conversation, that just becomes the gutter into which our mental self-talk drifts. And you'll probably think bad things about In&Out burger, as well as your neighbor, your spouse, or your boss. You just get that going. So be an interesting spiritual discipline to stop and say, okay, today, what have I read or seen on social media that gives me hope.

What have I seen or read on social media that's an example of a person who's said or done something that's really good. Could I tell a friend of mine, Hey, this was a link that I read that really encouraged me, and send it out to a person. As opposed to just spreading the negative. And again, you're not creating something that isn't real, it doesn't work if it was really a dreary thing, it has to be something that really does give you hope. But part of the thing is, we don't see lot of things because we don't look for them.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's good.

Rick Langer: And I grew up in Colorado. I've spent a lot of time skiing and doing other things that involve snow. And when I look at a field of snow, I immediately look at it and I go, that looks like icy snow.

There's an ice coating on it. I see if it looks like softer corn snow, is it new fall? Is it light? Is it heavy? I read all those things out of the light that's reflecting back to me off the snow field. Why do I do that? Well, because I grew up in Colorado and spent a lot of time skiing and it mattered to me, Man, if I didn't read it right, I'd crash and burn. So you acquire the skill and you attend to it more carefully, you don't glance. You look, at what looks to anyone else, just like a white field of snow. And I think doing those kinds of things to the stuff that we're having coming, wait, let me look for something good. Let me praise the good, let me pass on the good, can begin to shift our kind of mental energy and again, as a spiritual discipline, to help change and reshape your own soul, that can be really valuable.

Tim Muehlhoff: Can I jump in there real quick because I-

Rick Langer: No.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. I love what you're saying, and I'm thinking of an illustration, Rick, where I was preaching in a church and temporarily lost my mind, because it was when Donald Trump and Secretary Clinton were running against each other. And I had this wild idea, Rick, of saying, you know what? Aristotle says, that good will is key, that we learned how to afford it to different people. So I actually did a sermon, Rick, on... So here are the things I learned about Donald Trump that I didn't know, and I think are positive. And here about Secretary Clinton. Okay?

Rick, I got hit by everybody. Everybody was so mad at me because, how dare you say anything positive about Secretary Clinton? I mean, I got letters and emails and it was bad. So I love what you're saying, but that ought to be a big tip off to us that we have become really myopic in the negative messaging that we're getting. And I love what you're saying, man, let's, let's try to deviate from that because that can really have some harmful effects, where a person is all bad. That is dangerous territory.

Rick Langer: Let me give one more, Tim and I were at a conference together last weekend, and a person brought this discipline up that I thought was just a great idea. So let me just play it out a little bit. So the Shama, which is the Hebrew word for here. So it's the phrase here [inaudible] the Lord, your God, the Lord is one and he shall have, you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. So this is a phrase that faithful Jewish people would repeat several times a day, seven times, five times, depending upon your context or the group you might be a part of, but it was a thing that you did again and again and again, to kind of reorient yourself to who God is and who you are.

And it was very powerful, but it was built completely on ongoing repetition, on the assumption that this little, what we might call now, a mantra or a slogan, would help frame your thinking.

So really interesting thing that this person at the conference mentioned, that I'd just like to pass on to our listeners, the idea of saying, hey, I've been kind of developing personal Shama, kind of perhaps a thing like about communication or something like that. So for Tim and I, in the last 18 months, or so as we've been doing this, James chapter three, verses 17 and 18, become like this, it says, the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, and a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

It'd be interesting to put that on the back of a business card. And in the morning when you get up, when you start your day at work, before you come in, before you go to bed, to read that, and it helps a ton to say it out loud, actually, just like I just did in terms of helping to retain it.

But that kind of a thing say, let me find a phrase, seek not so much to be understood as to understand, the Saint Francis prayer. It doesn't matter. It doesn't have to be biblical language, but it's something that captures a biblical vision for how it is that we should communicate, especially when the prevailing culture is not doing it that way. They're playing by a different set of rules. And you have to remind yourself, say, I need to be different. I want to be different. What's my Shama, what is my repeated phrase that will help me kind of reset or refocus on the way I need to communicate.

Tim Muehlhoff: And at bare minimum, start the day, end the day, and it can even be a little bit of a diagnostic to say, Hey-

Rick Langer: How did I do? Yeah, yeah-

Tim Muehlhoff: That's good. Rick, you need to clear this before you share these convicting things. I was not emotionally prepared, but man, what a great idea to have that Shama, for us to invite the Holy Spirit in to remind us of it throughout the day. And I like it, saying it out loud. I think it's really good.

Rick Langer: Yeah. That's one of the things, and it's similar to praying on your knees or praying with your hands open or raised or things like that. There's certain things that just help you kind of deepen a ritual that otherwise could become really trivialized. So those are just a few ideas for saying, okay, I understand I need to work on quarreling. I'm not really feeling it. So what are some things we might do to help make us a person who feels just a little bit more drawn to working on quarreling?

Tim Muehlhoff: So if you've listened to the previous podcast, you know that we've been talking about what causes conflict, and we've just mentioned some very broad categories, certainly check out to get more resources. The book we've been talking about is, I Beg To Differ, navigating difficult conversations with truth and love, that I wrote in 2014, but we certainly have a book, a current one, which is, Winsome Conviction, disagree without dividing the church.

We are here to resource the church. We're here to resource you. We do believe in civility, speaking truth in love. And in order to do that, we better understand how conflict arises and some simple ways to deal with it. So Rick, close us out with that Shama and we will be done. And we'll see you guys in future podcasts.

Rick Langer: Yeah. So let me do it. The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, and full of mercy, and good fruits, impartial and sincere, and a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. What a wonderful message. Thanks for joining us on the Winsome Conviction Podcast.