We are two years in with the Winsome Conviction Project, so it’s a good time to stop and reflect on lessons we’re learning. Tim and Rick share what they are learning on having healthy communication during moments of passionate disagreement. They draw out insights that help prevent disagreement from devolving into a toe-to-toe conflict that harms the relationship. This is part 1 of a 2-part discussion.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff, I'm a professor of communication here at Biola University in La Mirada, California. I'm joined by my co-host who's also the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, Dr. Rick Langer. Rick.
Rick Langer: Tim, thanks. Looking forward to what we get to talk about today this is kind of fun. As Tim mentioned, I'm also a co-director with him of the Winsome Conviction Project, and I'm also biblical studies and theology professor here in the Bible Department, and I'm also the director of the office of faith and learning. We spend a lot of time thinking about important, different challenging issues. The Winsome Conviction Project we've been going at for about two and a half years. When originally identified and we had funders who said we'd like to do this, it was planned to be a five year project we're thinking we may well continue it. But we thought at the very least, this would be a good time to just stop and do a little bit of thinking, kind of a midcourse evaluation or reflection on things that we have done that we have found valuable, kind of lessons learned or things like that.
That's what we wanted to talk about today, and here's an interesting way to think about it. If you were to ask me Rick, what have you learned in the last two and a half years about helping people talk face to face without going toe to toe, what would you say? The first thing I would say is that, that is really the challenge, is we really do want people to talk face to face, and we are the Winsome Conviction Project. This isn't the kumbaya project or this isn't we'll all smile and act like there's no differences. We really do want to have people talking face to face about things that are really important.
But the problem is that when we talk about things that we care about, matters of moral conviction, things that we view as absolutes, we have a tendency for it to go from a face to face conversation to a toe to toe conflict. It may or may not be shouting, there's many of us who do the quiet, slow, angry burn, as opposed to the shouting burn. But the feeling in all cases is that rising feeling of animosity. So the key question is how do you talk about what matters without turning it into one of these toe to toe kind of conversations? That's one of the big goals I think as I look back in retrospect saying yeah, this is what we've ended up feeling like we've spent a lot of time trying to do for people.
Tim Muehlhoff: What's fun about this is we've not shared these lessons with each other, our observations, so I'm hearing this in real time. I love your distinction that we are not uniformity at any cost. We do believe that communities really do disagree with each other. Christians have very differing biblical convictions, and we're not denying that. But we're asking in spite of our political, social, theological differences, can we at least talk to each other in a way that's productive and just doesn't break apart? I'll do mine, here's a lesson. Tim needs to have a more prominent role in the podcast. That's just something that over time... I'm not even looking [inaudible 00:03:08].
Rick Langer: We can edit that one out, that would be fun.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm not even looking at... Lesson number one Rick for me. Our biases are for real. We have biases, every single person does. A good friend of mine, Dr. Ed Uszynski was at Bowling Green doing his PhD in cultural studies, and you know what his topic was? His topic was how LeBron James coming to Cleveland Cavaliers was a form of social support. When Cleveland was in really hard economic times, you could at least come home from work where you saw your wages decrease, taxes go up, and sit down with your favorite beverage and watch LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's social capital. Well, he gives it to me to read. Just for the listeners, I'm from Michigan, we do not like Ohio. There's only one state Detroit gets to make fun of and it's Ohio.
Rick Langer: Especially Cleveland probably.
Tim Muehlhoff: Especially Cleveland, and I do not like LeBron. So this was a double whammy. He hands me this and I have to fight myself to accept all the good, I mean he did a history of Cleveland Rick, was mind blowing. Stuff I never knew about how Cleveland was a powerful influence not only in the United States but worldwide, and things he shared about LeBron. But the entire time Rick, I'm having to fight myself to read it. We're coming out with, and we'll talk more about this, we're actually going to have some participants. The Christian Scholar's Review is one of the finest Christian periodicals in the world. Rick and I were asked to be guest editors on a special theme issue on civility. That's going to be coming out, I think it comes out in the summer, so we're going to actually have some of the participants who wrote great essays for it over here at Biola University. One of them wrote a great article where they identified something called my side bias.
My side bias is exactly me reading that dissertation about Cleveland. I am very quick to accept evidence that supports my position, and I am really quick to dismiss counter evidence. So in other words, my threshold for what counts as really good evidence is much, much lower for things that support my position, and I put maybe even an impossible standard on any kind of evidence that would detract from what my convictions are, and my biases really do protect me... Now in our book, Winsome Conviction we do a whole chapter on groupthink, which is you surround yourselves with people who hate Cleveland, and you just talk about it, laugh about it.
After a while, you would never think within that group of ever saying something positive about Cleveland, you know what I mean? Because you know it would be laughed at, and if you were really serious, then it questions your standing within the group, fidelity to the group. So I think we really need to understand our biases, and many of us, myself included, we're just completely blind to our biases. Reading that article and my side bias really made me think how do we counteract this? How do I become aware of my biases and then counteract it? Any thoughts?
Rick Langer: Let me just empathize with that. Just because of the political environment that we're in, I find myself having pretty profound internal discourse while I'm talking with people who view things differently. We talk about polarization as if it's a problem that's out there and other people face. We have had so many conversations with people about these kinds of issues over the past couple years, that I've become way more reflective about my own tendency in terms of polarization, kind of mental gutters into which my mind drifts in terms of responses that come out. As you say, the bias thing is real and I'm like yes, the bias thing is real for me. I feel it viscerally. There's certain positions that I am really not interested in hearing the other side too, because I feel like I have made up my mind, and by the way since my mind is right on this issue, it really isn't going to help me think better.
I imagine there's people who are listening right now who actually feel that pretty deeply and say yeah, that's not only a good point Rick that's right. The one thing I would like to say I guess as pushback on that, I think there are times when you just clearly do see something that is right and that someone else is doing something wrong. There's enough evil in the world to be able to identify those situations. The problem is we get in the habit of playing that card. We think the key indication of absolute right and wrong is the depth at which you feel an issue. I'm like yeah my personal sentiments are actually more conditioned by other things than simply objectively the rightness or wrongness of a particular position. I'm just picking up on the theme and adding my own side to that. Let me just run with that though with a thought on my end or do you have something else you want to...
Tim Muehlhoff: I want to get your opinion on this. Because again, we have not shared this with each other. Now certainly this is not a new topic for us talking, but I'm springing it on Rick during the podcast. So I wrote down three ideas of how to address it. This is off the top of my head so you tell me what you think. Number one, and this is a phrase we like to use at the Winsome Conviction Project, adopt a little intellectual humility, in the fact that I don't know everything. I am kind of biased, I realize that. I do like the news programs I like, I like the authors I like, and I find myself going to the same places on the internet to sometimes affirm my thinking. Intellectual humility is to recognize a little bit that there's some smart people on the other side, and it would be good to give them my ear to listen to what they have to say.
Second fits right with the first, is expand myself to the other side, expose myself. We like a website called all sides.com, that they put together what they think is the left middle center. When you go to that website and you read about immigration, prison reform, gun control, you get the perspective. Now they pick it, they're picking who they think represents the left, right and center. But Rick it's fascinating like on gun control to read left, right, and then somebody who's down the middle. Sometimes I'll confess I'll be reading an article of what I thought I would disagree with going I'm surprisingly agreeing with this person more than I thought. That to me is not a bad exercise I think to engage in. The third one is we did this in grad school. They had us sit down and write out our biases.
We actually had a piece of paper and they said as you're about to do this academic article, frame yourself. Here's what the framing would sound like for me. I'm a committed evangelical Christian. I have certain religious beliefs that are the most important beliefs. I tend to be right leaning. My parents always voted X. I'm married to a woman who votes Y. I have a job that I really like, and there's certain beliefs that would not make it tenable for me to be at Biola University, or it would just make it awkward. I wouldn't necessarily be let go, but people would be raising eyebrows. To write that out and actually look at it to me was really helpful to say I could see how a person would look at me and say I'm pretty biased in one direction. It was just good to see it on paper.
Rick Langer: That's an interesting exercise because it's really looking at yourself in the mirror, as opposed to just glancing to see if your hair is sticking out. Now, in Tim's case that's not really a thing because he doesn't have any hair. But for me though gray I still have hair that can stick out sideways, and it's good to actually look in the mirror beyond enough to simply notice if you have something bizarre going on. But to stop and say wait a minute, what's really going on in here? I guess that's one of the things that has hit me in some of the conversation, is I feel sentiment rising within me. I realize wow Rick, you have a pretty strong current going there. The thing I haven't done with that is what you just described, actually sit down and write it out. To do a spend a day journaling and going these are my biases, these are the things that push my buttons. That's a good thought, I'd like you not to have any more of those because that's a little convicting.
Tim Muehlhoff: First you have great hair. I don't care if it's gray I would still take it. Second, Rick I just thought of something. What if you wrote yours out and I wrote mine out, and then we handed them to each other, read them, and like you say to me okay I really appreciate this, your transparency, your introspection, brother you left one out. I'd be like what do you mean I left one out? Oh Tim I've known you for 15 years dude, when it comes to this. Wouldn't that be interesting?
Rick Langer: This is an interesting thing because it's one thing to say let me do a little self-reflection. Self-reflection usually is a bit safe because rarely do you find some raging monster against your will so to speak. Well, a friend who knows you well and has worked with you or whatever for a lengthy period of time might have a couple of keen insights that you never bumped into. At some point you have to decide how much do I really want to discover about my own soul?
Tim Muehlhoff: I was at a FamilyLife marriage conference, and there's another speaker who gave a horrible idea Rick, don't ever go do this idea. He was speaking to the dads and he says, "I want you to go home ask your kids is there anything if you could you would change about dad?" So Rick like an idiot I go home and I say to my three kids, I got three boys. I said okay if anything, what would you change about dad? Rick the words were not out of my mouth and three hands shot up in the air. I was like wait, do you need time to think about it, pray about it? Nope, got mine. Then they shared it and I got defensive. I immediately got defensive like what.
Rick Langer: Was one of them about being defensive?
Tim Muehlhoff: But you know what, that was an interesting... Like if you were to say to me okay Tim, as a dad, what do you need to work on? I would, say-
Rick Langer: You would come up with certain things.
Tim Muehlhoff: But Rick they picked one I'll be honest I would not have picked. To have all three confirm it, I grounded them all, I did I grounded them. No but-
Rick Langer: Good to see you manage your own household well, I like that.
Tim Muehlhoff: But that's an interesting thing to write out your biases and then have somebody look at it.
Rick Langer: We talk a lot about intellectual humility. It's interesting to think about what would it look like to really lean into that, and say okay, let me be reflective about this. I think part of that is actually being willing to acknowledge a bias, because we know biases just mean you have then confirmation bias. Any piece of information that corresponds with your bias has a lower threshold. Just like you were describing the my side bias that you were talking about, that's the thing we know. At some point we have to say okay, that should make me cautious. That should make me think twice about things that I might only think about once otherwise.
Tim Muehlhoff: You know who we need to have? So we had on Dr. Gregg Ten Elshof he's a colleague of ours. He I think to this date is the only three episode guest we've ever had on his wonderful new book called For Shame. But long before that he wrote a book called I Told Me So, which is all about self-perception. It won a Christianity Today book of the year award. Hey let's have him on and talk about his book on deception, because I think that would be really good with my side bias. So you make a note of that.
Rick Langer: So let me throw in one here that is a bit related to this. One of the things that I think I've really learned is the value of having people exchange stories rather than exchange conclusions. In other words, here's what I concluded about abortion or about immigration or whatever the policy might be. We tend to have our discussions about the conclusion. You have the wrong conclusion, all of this. The one thing we never hear is the backstory. How did you arrive at that conclusion? I have done this and I think I've probably done this on this podcast, described some of my own backstory relative to immigration, and the fact that my dad was an immigrant and things like that. You realize oh, so Rick has all that and you might call those my biases, but I'm saying what's really interesting is actually hear my story.
Don't turn me into a lab rat that you're doing a bias analysis of. Turn me into just a person whose story you want to hear. Once you've heard it you'll realize oh, so that's some of what's going on with him, and you'll probably respond to me in a different way than if I just dropped a conclusion on you about what we think should happen with immigration or some other thing like that. The other thing that's interesting about exchanging stories is that when it comes to your conviction itself, we tend to think of the conviction as a thing that is the final, it's like a conclusion, it's like the last thing. But it really isn't. Convictions have a story too. We talk about the conviction spectrum, so to speak. It begins on the far mentally picture going from left to right, so on the far left side would be absolutes that all Christians would share. These are like confessional beliefs, the Apostles' Creed kind of things that define the Christian faith.
If a person denies one of those, you have a pretty good basis for saying well, I wonder if they're really a Christian, because they've just denied the deity of Christ or whatever the issue might be. Similarly, we have moral mandates and I'm thinking here in the 10 Commandments kind of vein or things like that, that aren't super controversial. They're clearly taught in scripture, and they are just these areas of not murdering and not stealing and not committing adultery and things of this nature that you're like well okay, those things are pretty well set, they're clearly taught in scripture. We're assuming that in fact like the Westminster Shorter Catechism includes the 10 Commandments as part of that, that you're thinking yeah these are core beliefs. These are things that you assume Christians share. But then one day you get all the way down to the details you fight over don't look like that, but they look like should there be a mask mandate?
You know immediately that there's no verse in the Bible that talks about the necessity of wearing a mask for treating COVID for heaven's sakes or avoiding spreading COVID. So you have to unpack it. That's not to say there's no biblical thought that you could give to mask wearing. Some people say hey, that's a good way to love your enemy, and others say that's a good way to limit human freedom and people's ability to choose. It dehumanizes people when you turn them into a mask wearing object, it's like the only thing you care about is the disease. Well, okay tell me the story of how you reach that conclusion. Your conclusions have a story that are often really helpful to unpack. Now, I do this with my students a lot in class. I teach a class called money, sex and power, and there's a lot of controversial issues we talk about, and they always have convictions about these things. Then to say okay but where does that come from?
It's really hard for people to give convictions about a lot of these things. Ranging from things that are kind of what you might call normal, people shouldn't have premarital sex or people shouldn't commit adultery is handy because you do have a 10 Commandment associated with it, that's clear. But when you begin to think about things like not so much should Christians practice gay marriage, but even to just say should the society that you're in have that kind of a marriage practice? Where you're going look, it's a pluralistic society it isn't a Christian society what should we do about that? It isn't that there's no biblical point to make, the point is it isn't transparent, so it needs the story in effect to unpack. So that whole issue of just approaching things by exchanging stories the long, the backstory, not just playing whack-a-mole over a conviction.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's so good. So I'm teaching a family communication class right now, and part of it is, and it's a 400 level class so I'm asking a lot of these students. But they're analyzing disagreements or tensions they have with their parents. That's what the paper is. But part of it Rick is doing an interview with your parents. Saying, can you bring me up to speed on the life of the marriage, the life of the family, background information that helps them understand the context of the disagreement. It is a life-changing assignment that students often comment. Because Rick, there's something affirming about me asking for your story. I really do want to hear it, the background. I'm interested in you and want to know the background of this. That's brilliant and I think we need to invite more conversations like that where I know what you believe, but tell me how you got there. Show me the math of how you got there, and for goodness' sakes appreciate the fact that a person's telling you and inviting you into their story.
Maria Lugones calls this world traveling. That I actually travel into your world and see how you have constructed the world including me within your world. I think that's a great lesson. Well, we're just halfway through the lessons that we have been learning through successes and failures. But thank you so much for listening. I think we're going to pick this up in the next podcast, there's more lessons we have. So check us out, you can find us anywhere you find your favorite podcast. You can go to winsomeconviction.com, and we just have a clearing house of information. You can find all of our podcasts. You can find our articles we've written, blogs events. So please go check that out and as always thank you for listening to our podcast.