Why bother having a discussion if the other party isn’t going to change their mind? Fair question, and it’s one we get a lot. So, let’s consider what makes the struggle of sticking with it worth it. On this episode, Tim and Rick discuss what to keep in mind when a disagreement appears pointless and going nowhere, and they highlight that appearances of futility oftentimes yield fruitful learning and a deeper relationship with the other party.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California. I'm also the co-director of something called the Winsome Conviction Project. How can we talk to each other in ways that are productive, civil, and engaging in today's turbulent times? I'm also the co-host of this podcast along with my friend Dr. Rick Langer. Rick, introduce yourself, but then I want you to answer a question that we often get.
Rick Langer: All right.
Tim Muehlhoff: The question is, do you really have to wait 15 minutes before you go swimming after... No, I'm kidding. The question we often get is, why talk to a person? Why bother if it's not going to change their mind?
Rick Langer: Ah, okay. Well, that sounds like a good thing to talk about. As Tim mentioned, I am the co-director with Tim of the Winsome Conviction Project, and I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning and a biblical studies and theology professor here at Biola. This question that you asked Tim, part of why I like this question... Well, I don't know how much I like it, but I think it's important to talk about because I have literally had people ask me in those words that. I had just described a situation I was doing.
I was partnering with a different organization, but doing a depolarization workshop, a day long thing where you had people who were left-leaning and people who were right-leaning. I was playing the role of moderator where you're doing these exercises that help people listen and talk to each other. I was at a meeting later that night with someone and they just asked me what I was doing, told them the story, and they just asked me that question. They said, "Well, what's the point of doing something like that if nobody's going to change your mind?"
It's an easy thing for people probably like you and me who spend a lot of time thinking about that to be dismissive about. But at some point, I think this person was not trying to just say who cares about those people, but saying, it sounds like you put a lot of work into this, but it doesn't sound like anything came out of it. It's a little bit like asking a guy who's doing a sidewalk chalk painting thing and he decides he's going to do let's just go for the Sistine Chapel. I mean, Michelangelo was good, but you haven't seen me with chalk.
He's doing the whole thing there and it's like, this is a New York subway and people keep walking over your painting. What's the point? There's nothing that's going to be changed. There's nothing that's different. Nothing that you're doing is really going to make it matter, make the world a better place. Just to motivate that, I kind of get that question, and I don't want to dismiss it slightly, but it has made me think of a few things. Let me just throw a few of these things out that come to my mind when I think of answering this question.
I think the first thing I want to say is, look, sometimes change really does happen. The idea that because that wasn't the guaranteed intention, that wasn't the big plan, you're trying to hear each other, I tell you, just because you stop and hear someone sometimes you do stop and think, let me think a little bit more about this. If you want a big example of this, I want you to think for a second about C. S. Lewis. How many times did Tolkien and Williams and these other guys who are believers sit and talk with him for no apparent change?
They may have been talking about Norse Mythology, they may have been talking about the faith, they're talking about all these things, but did good old Lewis end up seeing anything any differently? No, no, and no. And then finally, they have this long walk along the canal there and Lewis comes to belief in God and then later to actually faith in Christ. The bottom line is those small changes, those small movements in his mind one day turned into a mammoth conversion.
For many of us, as I look back through the 20th century, it's kind of hard to identify a single Christian convert who's had a bigger impact on the Christian mind than C. S. Lewis has. And that was a product of a lot of long conversations that seemed pointless if the only point was to change somebody's mind.
Tim Muehlhoff: I teach communication classes so I can get into this downward spiral of my side bias. People are inoculated against other perspectives. But I love that Lewis example. That's brilliant. I would add, we need to know that what we say, it's not just our skill. There's the Holy Spirit at play, and the Holy Spirit can work in and take a nugget, you said.
As you walk away and almost forget the conversation, the Holy Spirit is saying, "Hey, hey, hey, remember what he said? I want you to mull on that a little bit." I love the fact that there is always the background of the spirit working and taking what you say and applying it in ways that maybe we can't even foresee. There's hope that the Spirit can take what I'm saying and apply it to different situations.
Rick Langer: The harvest is at the end of the age, not the end of the meeting. Don't expect these kinds of conversations to always have somebody falling on their knees in repentance and coming to Jesus. That doesn't mean it doesn't contribute to that exact thing happening. Number one, change really does happen sometimes and let's not forget that or lose hope of that. Second thing I'd say is that nuance is change.
If you take a person who's thinking about some issue in an absolute vivid black and white, there's no two sides of any of this stuff sort of a posture, and you have a conversation at the end of which they say, "Oh, there's more going on here than I thought there was," and they still have the same final opinion, they're still opposed to gun control or in favor of gun control or whatever the issue was, but they suddenly realize, "Oh, this is more complex than I thought."
"When I was hearing gun control, I thought you were saying we're going to take all their guns away. When I hear this person talk, they describe something else, or maybe they tell me a story about what Canada does," and I go, "Oh, I didn't realize that was even an option." I would like to argue that nuance is a really important thing in terms of making change. Let me say a few words in praise of nuance.
If you point out weaknesses in another person's position in a particular kind of way, it can be enormously helpful such that even if they don't have to abandon their position to be able to see another room around it, it gives room for everybody to breathe. When you're locked face to face with absolute disagreement, there's this rising tension and it's almost like the oxygen becomes sucked out of the room. When you begin to see nuance, you can see room on either side, you have that sense of, oh, this might be a place where we could really occupy some ground.
You often learn about yourself that maybe there's complexities and puzzles in the position that I hold, or perhaps your goal is that the other person might see that. Let's not even worry about remedying ourselves, but say, "Boy, it'd be really good if this person could just understand." I find myself doing this a lot as a Christian who's spent a fair bit of time in non-Christian circles where I'm like, I'm not going to fight at this moment for you believing the deity of Christ, but I'd like you to think a little bit about the possibility of there being something transcendent or supernatural in the world. It creates a little bit of breathing room for that concept.
Tim Muehlhoff: When I got to grad school, again, I've been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ had been out of school forever. When I stepped into my master's program at UNC Chapel Hill, it's one of the top feminist theorists schools in the country. Rick, I knew nothing about feminism except it was wrong. The reason I knew it was wrong is because my pastor had repeatedly said it was wrong from the pulpit.
I get there and learn there's three waves of feminism, not one. There's three. The first wave of feminism is for basic women's rights. Women should be treated as human beings. They are of equal value. They should have a vote. They should have a voice.
Rick Langer: Should be able to have their own bank accounts. They should whatever it maybe.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, own property. I'm thinking, well, okay, I think I'm a first wave feminist. If that's first wave feminism, I'm first wave feminist. Second wave, you start to get into reproductive rights, gay marriage, but not everything's bad. I mean, not everything is to be contested in the second wave. What I did is I walked away with a more nuanced view of feminism than what I walked in with. Now, I haven't changed my view on pro-life issues, traditional marriage, all that kind of stuff, but I now have a more nuanced view of the complexity of what it means to be a feminist.
Rick Langer: It invites you to respond to a person who professes their feminism in a different way, so to speak. You say, "Well, tell me what you mean by that. What is it that you're thinking about?" It can be a delightful conversation. Here's another thing about this nuancing thing. I have done this exercise with people where they start out when you're dividing people into two sides, progressives and conservatives, for example. You put all the people who are progressives in one room and they say, "Okay, here's what I want you to do. I want you to identify the stereotype of what the other side thinks about you."
They're progressive. Oh, they think we're all just a bunch of people who are fans of the nanny state or things like that. They list all those things off, and it's really easy for people to do that because all bothered by this false stereotype. And then you invite them and say, "Okay, identify what's actually mistaken about that stereotype because this is associated with you. Understand what it is that they're getting wrong." And then you ask the question, what's the kernel of truth in this stereotype?
Tim, you've never seen a group of people who are more chatty get more quiet than at that moment. You'll often get the most flimsy versions of the kernel of truth. Well, it is true that we progressives really do love all people equally. It's like, okay, and that's why you want, what, equal income? What is it that this kernel of truth that's supposed to be the tension? To be able to say things like, I think sometimes we want everything and we won't take anything short of that, and I think that really does alienate people who see it differently, whatever it is.
Incredibly difficult for people to see the weaknesses. This is, again, one of the merits of nuance where you realize, look, if I point out a weakness of my own position, that's totally different than saying I have to abandon it. I mean, seriously, we talk about when we have good friends with us, we talk about our wife or our kids or our other friends, and we may talk or joke about areas of weakness or things like that. And by no means are we saying, "I no longer love my son, or I no longer love my wife."
On the other hand, you're saying, "Yeah, you know what? We've got some issues, so to speak," and that kind of a thing to be able to do that for one another across a position that's valuable and it depends on actually having meaningful nuance.
Tim Muehlhoff: If you did nothing else in a conversation but dispel some stereotypes, huge achievement in that conversation, even though the person ultimately doesn't change their mind. But to be able to say, "Listen, I know we have our disagreements, but can I address one stereotype about my community? I would like to say I think this is wrong, even though, to be honest, there's part of that critique that rings true. That's the kernel of truth part." That's a great achievement in a conversation.
Rick Langer: One other thing related to the nuance thing, but it isn't just that nuance makes room for us to live together, so to speak. Another victory that you can have without changing a person's mind is softening a person's attitudes. People have edges on their attitudes. I do a lot of woodworking. I like doing that kind of stuff. I like table saws. Tim, your only woodworking is with a toothpick. But anyhow, with a piece of wood, you'll cut it on a table saw and you get a really sharp 90 degree edge.
It's very, very sharp. If you run your hand along that, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to get a splinter long enough to go in one side of your finger and out the other. It is just brutal. All you need to do is just sand that edge a little bit and it becomes safe for everybody. You haven't taken this piece of wood and somehow compromised its strength. It's still going to serve as a piece of furniture that's supposed to hold up a 250 pound adult. But because you smooth that edge just a little bit, it becomes safe without becoming weak.
It becomes safe without becoming mushy or problematic. I feel like that's some of what you do when you just talk to a person who sees it a little differently. An example of this for me was my attitudes towards vaccination issues. Let me clarify, this is not the COVID vaccine. This is several years before the COVID vaccine came out. I just was a person like, just get your kids vaccinated. We don't need mumps and measles rattling around in our public school. I know there's people who were anti-vax, but I wish they'd just get on with it and vaccinate their kids.
I'm not advocating for it, I'm just telling you the report from Langer's. You don't mind. There it is. I was in a group that we had done actually a project we're doing with Winsome Conviction stuff that had people sharing about different issues. In this case, we're actually talking about healthcare reform and issues like that. We had some people who were opposed and people who were in favor. I was expecting that, and that was what the chat.
But one of the people who was opposed to healthcare reform was opposed on grounds that were related to vaccination and vaccination requirements and building up the legal fang, so to speak, of our state medical operation. I had a picture in my mind of what goes on to make a person be anti-vax. This person was simply talking about an experience within their family where they had...
It wasn't their own nuclear family, but rather the sister of this person's wife and their kids had had some really terrible and near life-threatening experiences with vaccines that everyone agreed was a side effect of the vaccine. There was no debate about that. They're just like, "I don't think we want to get our kids vaccinated." I looked at that one, and again, these were things I was already aware of, and I'm like, "Of course, we can make exemptions. I mean, we know that there are those issues. Everybody agrees we should do that."
Well, the problem was, as it turned out, was because it wasn't their actual children had the problem. They said, "Well, you don't know this will happen to your kids, so you have to have your kids vaccinated to be able to go to public school. This is California laws." They're like, "But my sister just had this problem. It was almost fatal. I am just not sure I'm feeling comfortable with this." The school's doubled down, and next thing you know, they're meeting with people up in Sacramento.
They're going through all these kinds of things. His wife ended up having to do homeschooling. The whole experience was just a thing that made me go, oh, didn't change my feeling about vaccination. I'm not even saying I'm no longer in favor of mandating vaccinations the way we have for public schools. I haven't thought about all the details of that, but the main thing it does was it took an edge off my own thinking. Because if you ran your fingers across my conviction about vaccines, you would've got splinters in those little fingers.
After having this experience, I'm way more willing to just take the pause and say, "Huh, what's going on here? How can we purposely soften the unneeded edge to our convictions?" Anyhow, that's one of the virtues of talking to somebody who see things differently.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is all the relational level, Rick. We tend to think about the content level, which is your idea against my idea, who you're going to vote for compared to who I'm going to vote for, the vaccination issue, disagree. It's content, and that's all that matters. We're saying sometimes people do get entrenched in the content, their beliefs, but the relational level is the amount of respect between individuals, the amount of compassion, empathy.
That's incredibly important if it's your brother, if it's your spouse, if it's your kids coming home from college, if it's community members and coworkers. Achieving on the relational level is a huge win, even if that person never fundamentally changes.
Rick Langer: I think a lot of us have family members who are like, yeah, they'll never change. You're happy to acknowledge... Your wonderful little comment, well, the Holy Spirit can still do miracles. Yeah, yeah, yeah, right. But honestly, my brother's never going to change. You know that partly because it's your brother and you just have grown up with him. Those perspectives are so deeply embedded. But the idea is, do I need to have a slightly ugly relationship with my brother or could I have a healthy relationship with my brother regardless of whether my brother and I does that?
Yeah, the relational part is huge. Another thing that I would point out is that even when you disagree about issue A, there's something interesting when you discover you actually agree about issue B. In other words, you acknowledge it's one particular issue. Like I say, maybe it was gun control or whatever. You are irredeemably committed to no gun control. The other person says, "Man, you should take all those guns away and then we won't be killing people." You're just completely polarized on this issue.
But then you discover you really share a lot of common perspectives about some completely different matter. Maybe it's pornography that you think should be eliminated. It doesn't matter what it is. The main point is you suddenly say, "Oh, in the same person that I find this really difficult position that I can't possibly embrace, I find an incredible advocate for a position that I really am committed to. It's wonderful to have this person on my side. What am I going to do with this person?
Am I going to jettison? Will I push him off the boat of my community and let him drowned in the ocean that surrounds us? Or do I say, oh, he's a bit of a win some, lose some for me, so to speak. There's things that I gained by having him around and on my side and in my life. There's some things that I lose." But you realize people are packaged deals and they didn't put into that package all and only the things you hate or all and only the things you love. You've really got both embedded in that same person.
Honestly, there's a lot of good that comes from finding these points of common commitment. I fear that our polarization has made us blind to even trying to find that people who won't even begin to try and cross the aisle in politics because they would be viewed as betraying the other side. But you actually look at it and say, "Well, this is actually issue that we all agree on. Why not build this alliance?" It's like we've become allergic to even the idea of an alliance, and that to me is really destructive. There's common ground even when the other person doesn't change your viewpoint at all.
Tim Muehlhoff: That reminded me of my favorite quotes from Lewis, from his book The Four Loves. He goes, "Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another, 'What? You too? I thought no one cared about that but myself.'" And that really is a wonderful way of saying, listen, I know we disagree about X and I don't think we're going to make moves on X, but let's not forget, we also both care about family. We care about our marriages. We care about other things.
It's a wonderful way of not what a psychologist call the splitting. A person's all good, all bad. No, no, no, you disagree about this issue, but there's many things to admire about that person. It reminds me of that... Remember that crazy podcast we did, Rick, a long time ago where we talked about the positives of President Biden and the positives of President Trump. Remember that?
Rick Langer: I do remember that.
Tim Muehlhoff: That is a great way of saying, listen, I disagree with this man's policies here, here and here, but I uncovered some things that I actually was really encouraged they care about an issue that I care about, or they have a love that fits within what I love. I think Lewis is great. That's a friendship waiting to happen, even if we disagree on the big issues.
Rick Langer: What you need is an issue that draws you together. That doesn't mean you don't have any issues that push you apart.
Tim Muehlhoff: Even the return of laughter and... There has to be a release valve. If you keep talking about X, which you know separates you, that friendship is going to be strained. Are there things you can do that actually allow you to connect with each other? Here's what I'm thinking of. When I was in college, Eastern Michigan University, Mike Bailey, we were on the speech team together. He was an ardent atheist. Ardent. I obviously was a Christian with Campus Crusade for Christ. We would have knock down, drag him out arguments about atheism, Rick.
Oh my gosh, it'd be 3:00 in the morning, we're at Subway and we're just going, going, going. There's only so much you can do that. But here's the thing, Rick, he was from Ohio. I was from Michigan. When that Michigan-Ohio State game came... By the way, let me remind you, the school we're at, Eastern Michigan University. We'd walked into the dining home the entire week leading up to that game and he'd wear a hat that says, "I hate Michigan." I'm like, I am not walking into the dining commons with you wearing...
He goes, "I thought you were a Christian? I thought you were supposed to lay down your life for me?" I go, that could really happen. I could really lay down my life because people would get beat up, but we would howl about that and still have the disagreement about whether God exists or not. It's the release valve, and that's what friendship can exist because there's something to go to that deflects from the thing that you disagree with. That's a huge accomplishment of having conversations.
Rick Langer: One last thought on this. Why bother having these conversations if the person isn't going to change their mind? Here's a question. What's your option? If you aren't going to talk, what's your plan? Honestly, ultimately, the only option to having civil conversation is having civil war. When we refuse to talk with each other, we carry on the conversations, roughly speaking, with bullets rather than words, with fists rather than words, with burning things, with tearing things down, and I think people get tired of the slowness of conversation.
I get that, and it doesn't seem to have a payoff, so you disregard it. But I think we fail to appreciate the fact that in the absence of the discipline of civil discourse, we quickly drift or even flee directly to acts of violence, acts of destruction. And that to me is one of those things, I think we haven't counted the cost of the alternative when we ask questions like, why bother talking to someone if I am not going to be able to change their mind?
The bottom line is when we declare the time for talk has ceased, we're usually at the same time and in the same sentence declaring the time for violence has begun. I worry about that for our country right now. I feel like we're moving into a phase where you see these studies where people think if your side loses politically or are you justified in doing acts of violence if somebody else gets elected? You're seeing 20, 30% of the people just saying, yes, you are justified in that. It's a lot of times because the time for talk is over.
We've talked long enough. We've been talking for 250 years about this issue or whatever it may be. I think the idea is that somehow if we stop talking and have a revolution instead, that things will automatically end well. I don't think history proves that line of thought right. It isn't to say that there's never a time that that happens, but you want to be really, really cautious about moving there quickly.
Tim Muehlhoff: There's reason to be worried. Consider this, Rick. In a comprehensive survey of college students, an alarmingly large number believe it's acceptable to act, including resorting to violence, to shut down expression of opinions they consider offensive. One member of Congress argues differences are too great between Americans and calls for a national divorce. If you go to our website, winsomeconviction.com, we have David French, one of our astute political commentators today talking about, hey, don't think this country can't fracture and maybe not be put together.
We did a whole event here at Biola called Divided We Stand, and I would encourage you to go to a website, listen to what David French is saying. We need to be concerned about this. What a great comment is, what's the alternative? But sadly, I think some people would say, Hey, this church would be better without you, so just leave. This country would be better without you, so you just leave. We've got to fight against that kind of a mentality. Paul says, "Protect unity at all costs," to the church at Ephesus.
Rick Langer: Well, those are just a few thoughts about why it is that we should perhaps go ahead and have a conversation even if we know we aren't going to change people's minds.
Tim Muehlhoff: And have these conversations, but have a game plan, have a strategy, prepare a habit, but we're encouraging people to have it. Well, listen, we're so glad that you tuned in, Winsome Conviction Podcast. We mentioned before, winsomeconviction.com, where we have all of our podcasts that are archived. You could go listen to the President Trump, President Biden one.
The David French podcast is there as well. But thank you so much for supporting us. If you like what we're doing, please give us a like on whatever is your favorite social media platform. Thank you so much for being with us with the Winsome Conviction Project.