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In this episode, Austin Suter, executive director for United? We Pray, interviews Tim on his recently released book, End the Stalemate: Move Past Cancel Culture To Meaningful Conversations (released by Tyndale House on June 18, 2024), which Tim has co-authored with Sean McDowell. Tim speaks with Austin about the purposes in writing this book, which is less about learning how to win an argument and more about learning how to foster productive conversations and find common ground. They consider two fundamentally different views of communication, the emotional influence upon beliefs, dangers of straw man arguments, and how to remain hopeful given the current state of things. You can learn more about ways to find common ground at the End the Stalemate website.


Austin Suter: Grace and peace, friends. I'm Austin Suter, joined today by Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. He's written a new book, End the Stalemate: Move Past Cancel Culture to Meaningful Conversations, and he's written that with my colleague, Sean McDowell. It's a fantastic book.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, I really appreciate it, Austin. Sadly we need it today. Unfortunately, a book like End the Stalemate, we need because people are getting in stalemates in their homes, where they work, in their churches and their communities, and we've got to find a way of breaking free and having productive conversations.

Austin Suter: Well, tell me a little bit more about that. What are the conditions you saw around you or experienced in your own life that made you want to write this book?

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, because I'm in academia, statistics kind of stand out to me, so consider these statistics. A couple of years ago a survey was done, 98% think of that, think that, Austin, in a time Democrats and Republicans can't agree on anything, 98% of Americans would say incivility is a threat to this country. 67% would say we are at crisis levels of incivility. Based on a 2016 survey, nearly 33% of people, based on the 2016 presidential election, have stopped talking to family members. And this has actually blended into the church unfortunately. Christianity Today did a survey of pastors saying, "If you could financially swing it, would you quit today?" 43% said, "I'd quit today." When asked why, it's how church members talk to each other about race, politics and gender. They're just tired of all the acrimony.

Austin Suter: Yeah, and I appreciate you making that point so clearly because this is not just a problem for those out there. This is affecting Christians as well who are meant to have the fruit of the spirit, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Austin, since co-directing The Winsome Conviction Project, I would argue it's so much easier to deal with non-Christians, help them resolve arguments, because Christians do this very interesting thing. They point to chapter and verse in the Bible and they'll say, "No, no, no, no. The Bible clearly says about this issue. This is what Paul says. This is what Jesus says." And what happens is you disagree with that, you're like, "Oh my goodness. The passage you just pointed to I thinks says the exact opposite of what you think Paul meant by that." And so we get into what the Greek means, the Hebrew means, and after a while everybody thinks it's a drop-the-mic moment when they can cite chapter and verse. But we're really disagreeing with how we think Paul would answer certain questions or how Jesus would approach certain issues today.

Austin Suter: It's interesting that you bring up scripture as sort of a tool we twist to further division, because you mentioned early in the book about we can unhelpfully view conversations or disagreements primarily as a data transfer. As long as we make our point with facts to back it up, then we should be good, our point is made for us. Explain why you think that's not the most helpful way to think about it.

Tim Muehlhoff: So there's always been two different ways to view communication. One is what we call the transmission view, which is exactly as it sounds. I transmit to you information. And today we're in the information age, we are literally bombarded with messages. One scholar said it's almost like you're sitting down in one day watching 16 full length movies back to back to back to back to back, like 74 gigabytes of information, which 500 years ago you would've gotten 74 gigabytes of information in your entire lifetime. And we're getting that literally in one day. So sometimes we can make the mistake to think all you need is more information. Like, "For me to win my point, I'm going to quote this study, I'm going to mention this Ted talk. I'm going to mention what I read online," as if more information is going to sway you.

Now, I don't don't want to pooh, pooh the transmission view. I mean as Christians we have a message we do want to transmit to people, of course. But I think the transmission view has fallen on some really hard times and we need to precede it with another view of communication before we get to our content. Let me break that down just for a second. I love that you mentioned, I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. My kids were born cheering on the Tar Heels, Austin. And we hate, with a biblical hatred, Duke basketball. With a biblical hatred. We do not like that team. We don't even mention that name in the household. So my kids grew up with that. They grew up with UNC Chapel Hill stuffed basketballs. They had baby outfits. We watched games together as a family.

So imagine if you're trying to convince us, the Muehlhoff family, that Duke is actually the better basketball team or the better basketball transmission, what chance do you think any of that information is going to crack the Muehlhoff household when we have really brought our kids up with one constant message, "The Tar Heels are better than the Duke Blue Devils"? We have a technical word for that. It's called my side bias, which means your information is not cracking our defenses. And I actually came across a study, Austin, that was fascinating that I view your counter information as if I'm being physically attacked.

Austin Suter: Yeah, that was fascinating.

Tim Muehlhoff: Isn't that interesting? They took participants, there were 40 of them. They put them in an MRI machine where they were charting that part of your brain that registers physical threat. It's called the anterior insula. And then what they did is they read to you a political belief that you agreed with. Then they read five political beliefs that challenged that belief and the part of their brain that registers threat lit up like crazy. Then they did an interesting thing, they showed the picture of a wild animal about to attack, and that part of the brain also lit up.

So think about that, Austin. I'm sharing my political views with you, my views on race, my views on what the scripture says, and you feel threatened as if you're about to be attacked by a wild animal. I was doing bike riding. There's some great mountain passes, some hills right by where I live. And a bobcat, a bobcat, Austin, crossed the path in front of my bike. Now if it was a mountain lion, I probably would have met Jesus already if it was a mountain lion, but it was a bobcat. It looked like a German Shepherd, but it had cat-like features, but then immediately went into the tall grass. I completely lost sight of this bobcat.

Now I knew not to get on my bike and ride like a mad person that would kick in his chase instinct. But I got to tell you, the feeling I had walking my bike, trying to use my bike as a shield with that tall grass, my heart, I bet you my heart rate tripled. So imagine if this study is true, when you're presenting your views to this person, they're looking in the tall grass expecting a bobcat to attack them. There's no way they're going to consider your information if that part of their brain is lighting up that also registers physical attack.

Austin Suter: Yeah. And something you do in this book, you do a really good job showing the relationship between experience and the worldview. And I think that's something sort of lacking in society, because painting with a broad brush, ideological left can view experience as determinative. You are, for example, either oppressed or an oppressor. Ideological right can get it wrong in saying something like, "Facts don't care about your feelings," as if your experience doesn't matter at all.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Austin Suter: You have a more compelling picture of how experience affects worldview. Can you explain that to us?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. So the form of communication I think needs to precede the transmission view is what we call the ritual view, which is we bond with each other first. Before you're going to consider my information, we need to bond with each other. And a way that I can bond with you, Austin, is I need to understand all the experiences that went into your convictions. What shaped how you view an issue? Let me give you a for instance from college.

I went to Eastern Michigan University and we played basketball, and one day we all realized we need new basketball shoes. So we go to this Foot Locker and my two friends walk in and I stop as if I've been hit by a force field. I literally can't walk into the store, and my friend notices walks back out and says to me, "Dude, what are you doing?" I said, "Bro, I can't go in." And I pointed to a man holding a picket sign. The employees were picketing Foot Locker at the time. My dad, Austin, was a factory worker in General Motors, with GM, and I remember three times them going on strike, we didn't have anything to eat, Austin, because there was no paycheck. So I remember waking up and there was food and milk on our doorstep, and money, that would get us through a week. My dad said to me, looked at me right in the eye, "You never cross another man's picket line. Ever."

So here I am, Austin, I can't walk into the store. And if you were to ask me, "Tim, give me a complex understanding of unions," I'd be like, "I don't know what I think about unions." But my experience with my father has really shaped how I even approached the topic of unions. And I realize I'm kind of biased for them, but I honestly don't know philosophically when I think about unions. So it's so good when talking to a person to try to uncover those experiences that have really shaped how they view information and different kind of issues.

Austin Suter: Yeah, how does having that connection of not only how people operate but then making that connection with someone and how they see the world, how does that change the pattern of argument from just rehearsing competing sets of facts?

Tim Muehlhoff: I think it makes all the difference. For me, so imagine you're trying to make an argument and you are anti-union, Austin. And if you ignore that powerful experience with me and my father as a young boy and him saying that to me, "You never cross another man's picket line," if you ignore that, what does that subtly communicate to me? "I don't really care about your life history, I don't care about your story. We're having a debate and here are the facts about unions." But if you do jump in and say, "Oh man, Tim, that must have been a powerful, life-changing experience. Tell me more about that. Tell me more when your father went on strike. What was it like opening that door and getting money? And did the money last?" And you know what, it didn't always last.

I remember eating cereal, Austin, with water because we didn't have milk because the money had... So you know what I mean? The more you take time to understand the emotional component of my beliefs, that will hopefully lower my defenses so that now I can listen to what your concerns are about unions once you acknowledge my story. But sometimes we think acknowledgement is condoning, right? "I listened to your story and somehow I'm condoning your beliefs." And I just don't think the two are equal. I think I can listen and empathize while not condoning parts of your narrative that I honestly disagree with.

Austin Suter: Let me ask you this, what role do preconceptions have in dooming conversations from the start?

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, it changes everything, Austin. It changes everything. Remember what the Proverbs say, "Life and death is in the power of the tongue." So let me give you for instance, I went to a conference, an interfaith conference, I had a placard on for Biola, which is the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. We're a very conservative evangelical university, and so we go to this place where there's people of religious faiths, all different kinds, and I sit down and across from me is a person. We're doing these speed conversations, which was kind of an interesting idea. In six minutes, let's talk to each other. So I literally sit down, he looks at my name tag, Tim Muehlhoff, Biola University. Here's what he says, "I'm tempted not to even talk to you." And I'm like, "Wow."

Austin Suter: Wow.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's a weird reaction at an interfaith dialogue conference. I go, "Can I ask you why?" He goes, "Yeah, my daughter is transitioning right now to being a boy, and I already know all your arguments. I know everything you're about to say. Why you think that's a bad idea, why I'm a bad parent, they're too young. I know everything you're about to say and I'm tempted to not even have this conversation." Austin, I never said a word. I said, "Hi, I'm Tim." He looked at my lanyard and the conversation almost stopped right then.

So that's a preconceived notion of what a Biola faculty member is about to say. I like this one quote we include in the book, "A Baptist said of an Episcopalian, 'I'm tempted not to talk to you based on what I think you're about to say.'" So we actually close off conversations because I look at you and I got you pegged A to Z on what you're going to say about this issue or how you're going to vote based on the place that you work, the place of worship, all those different kinds of things. So preconceived notions can really shut down a conversation before you ever get a chance to address those stereotypes.

Austin Suter: And it's unfortunate because we do this all the time as you say, and we do it based on things we know about you. So if I know Tim has this position on unions, that must mean I know what Tim thinks about gun control or race.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes, yes.

Austin Suter: And those things don't always follow.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, not at all. Have you heard of the group, Austin, called Braver Angels?

Austin Suter: No.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, they're an awesome group that tries to get Republicans and Democrats to talk about each other. The co-director of The Winsome Conviction Project, Rick, we went to one of their conventions and you had to say in the beginning what your political leanings were because they wanted to give you a blue lanyard or a red lanyard, right? Well, I put down I'm an independent. I'm honestly an independent. And so they gave me a blue lanyard, which signified being a Democrat. Austin, it was an unbelievable exercise. Because I would say I'm independent, probably leaning maybe more red-ish, you know what I mean? But immediately they would look at my blue lanyard and tell me everything about myself, how I voted, how I came down on race, how I came down on X, Y, and Z. And I never got a chance to even open my mouth. It was really fun to dispel some of those stereotypes very quickly to say, "Hey, I'm actually pro-life." And they were like, "Oh. Oh, really?" I'm like, "Yeah." Because they thought I was blue.

So again, we got to find ways to end the stalemate by breaking free of this, "I already know everything about you because I know where you worship. I know where you work. I know what movies you watch. I know at news program you get most of your news from." We got to find ways of reshuffling the deck and surprising people. And the place to start with is me, obviously, Austin, is I got to stop judging people so quickly based on the limited information I have about that person.

Austin Suter: What are some other things we can do to help ourselves have better conversations?

Tim Muehlhoff: So we believe at The Winsome Conviction Project, it's called The Three Conversation Model that we explain in the book. The very first thing we need to do is what we call the pre-conversation. So there's the pre-conversation. There's the middle conversation, what we tend to think about this is when you sit at Starbucks and actually have the conversation. Then there's the post-conversation, after you finish that conversation, how do you relay that back to your friends? Positively or negatively? Charitably? So that pre one though to me, Austin, is everything, is I need to sit with the Lord and I need to say, "God make me open to other people. I do have my convictions. I do believe the Bible says this, but am I open to different perspectives at least just to consider that perspective." Remember the Proverbs, "A wise man seeks out knowledge." "So is my heart ready to enter this conversation? Am I teachable at all when it comes to this conversation?"

I got to be honest with you, sometimes I am not teachable. On certain topics, I need to go before the Lord and soften my heart, show some humility. So we honestly believe the pre-conversation you do with you and the Lord and you're evaluating your self-talk before you ever walk into that actual conversation. I'd probably start there with your listeners to say, "How do you feel about this person you're about to talk to?" Because those negative emotions, it's what they call an emotional contagion. It bleeds into the conversation. So that person already knows kind of how you feel about them subconsciously. Put it in popular vernacular, "I get a good vibe from you. I get a bad vibe from you." And that happens at the subconscious level.

Austin Suter: And I appreciate that so much of this book, which is about how to have better conversations, it's not a book about winning arguments. It's, as much as anything, a book about working on yourself because that's the part of the conversation you can control. You can control how you come into it and how you act during it.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, so we got to practice, right? We have to practice doing this because we're all embroiled in the argument culture. We've all been attuned to really my side bias. So with this book coming out, we have a website. We hired a talented web designer and we created something called It's a website, Austin, where you can go and you're going to watch a conversation between two Christians who really disagree. We're going to start with politics, because the presidential election is breathing down our necks. So you're going to watch two Christians. One Christian is going to say, "There's no way as a Christian you can vote for President Trump. You simply can't do it." The other Christian's going to say, "No, you have to vote for President Trump, even if he has rough edges, it's his platform you need to vote for." So you're going to sit and watch this.

The cool thing is you do it in the privacy of your own room. So you can yell at the screen and have a really bad day and it doesn't hurt your relationship. But then we have you work through all those conversations. It's a time of prayer. It's a time of heading in, before you hit play, how do you already feel about the two positions? Like you might say, "Okay, I'm with person A, and person B is out to lunch." Before you even hear the conversation, you'll reflect on that. And then you hit play. And then we'll teach you through the book how to chart the argument. And then where can be the common ground. If you can't find any common ground, that might be something wrong with my perception. But the great thing about the website is you can have a bad day and nobody will hear you have a bad day. We can actually practice the things that we try to share in the book.

Austin Suter: That sounds like a really helpful resource. Thank you for putting that together. I wanted to ask you, there's a lot in the book about processing information, which you just alluded to, and you talk a lot about recognizing straw men. How can we better recognize straw man arguments when we hear them?

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, Austin, this is what's so discouraging today. We do not reflectively think about really complex issues. Because this is exhausting to be honest, right? It is so easy to be in my bubble where we all think alike. Nobody's pushing our thinking. So in the book, I gave a real life example. This totally happened. I think it'd be really good for your listeners to hear what certainly has to be a bogus argument. So in my inbox was this message that says, "Got to read. We've lost our minds." That's what the message said. And that my friend, who's a strong Christian, forwarded me this. And it's an article that was written by a Christian criticizing Montana State University. Here's the headline. "Public university rules now prohibit offensive facial expressions, that you can get suspended for negative facial expressions." Okay, so when you read that, what's your reaction?

Austin Suter: That sounds crazy.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's ridiculous. That is utterly ridiculous. How can a university believe something, that I'm going to get suspended by making a negative face about your... Talk about cancel culture. All right, already my antennas should go up. Are people really that unreasonable? Would a university actually seek to police nonverbals? Now, I'll give the person credit who wrote the article. I mean, they were really slamming Montana State University. So I clicked on the link and went right to their website, because I want to read it firsthand, not what somebody said about it. Here is the quote that you go to with the link. "Civility is not a sign of weakness. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems, which divide us. JFK." I was like, "Okay, I like that quote."

So then I continued to read, right? This is what they say on their website. Students should treat each other with a certain set of expectations. Expectations include trust. Talk to not about others. Listen, employ active listening by giving undivided attention to the speakers. And understand, view conflicts as a learning opportunity. And responsibility, be accountable and take ownership of all your communication." Now, Austin, as you listen to that, what thoughts are going through your head as you read that?

Austin Suter: That sounds like the Book of Proverbs.

Tim Muehlhoff: That sounds like the Book of Proverbs. But my antennas are still up because we have yet to talk about nonverbals. Okay, so maybe the bottom's going to drop out and what I thought was really reasonable turns kind of crazy. Well, they do address nonverbals, and here's what they say about nonverbals, okay? "When discussions become heated and passionate, they should never become mean, nasty or vindictive in spoken, printed, emailed words or facial expressions." You know what, Austin, I like that. I'm a communication professor.

So imagine you're in my class, a public speaking class, and you're giving your speech and then later come up to me and say, "Dr. Muehlhoff, I got to tell you, it's kind of discouraging that there's a gentleman in the back that everything I said, he rolled his eyes." And I'd be like, "He did what?" They said, "Yeah, every time I spoke, he'd give me an eye roll." I'd say, "Well, you know what? Let me talk to that student." So what would I say to that student, Austin? I'd say, "Listen, be a good audience member. I'm not saying you need to agree with her position on gun control or global warming. But no eye rolls." Arthur Brooks once said it on our podcast, "Contempt is what's killing this country. And the sign of contempt is the eye roll." But let's say, Austin, that student said, "Hey, I'm sorry, prof. I'm doing whatever I want. You can't police me. I'm doing whatever I want. I'll roll my eyes if I want to roll my eyes." Now, what would I do in that situation?

Austin Suter: What would you do?

Tim Muehlhoff: I'd probably send them to the chair. There's a person over me, and that's the chair of the department. I would say to the chair, "Hey, I've approached the student. I do not think that's appropriate. I think that's inappropriate and I think it's rude. Would you please talk to them?" So let's say the chair talked to the student, the student said, "Hey, lady, I'm sorry, man, you don't get to tell me what to do." And I think at that point she'd get to say, "Hey, at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, sorry, there's a code of conduct that you actually signed off on when you came here. And I think being disrespectful to other people's views via your nonverbals is one of those."

Guess what we're doing, Austin? We're literally doing Montana State University's policy. But how is it presented? Right? This is what the guy wrote in the article. This is how he concludes his article, "When George Orwell famously wrote about a dystopian future where your every thought is monitored, he shouldn't have said it in Great Britain. It would have been much more accurate that he instead wrote about American college campuses."

Austin Suter: Yikes.

Tim Muehlhoff: So when my antennas go up and I hear you say something, I think, "That is just the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," maybe I need to go one step deeper, because maybe it's my problem, and if I researched a little bit more, it'd become a little bit more reasonable. So let's not believe these, what do they call that, Austin? Clickbait, right?

Austin Suter: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Let's not do clickbait. Let's afford people, "I'm going to give your view dignity, and make sure I understand it before I critique it. Because right now, I got to tell you, I think what you believe, I want to say it's ridiculous. But maybe I don't understand it. Explain it to me in a charitable way that I can interact." Does that make sense?

Austin Suter: It makes total sense.

Tim Muehlhoff: My goodness. We don't do that today. We just don't do it, when it comes to critical race theory, when it comes to trans rights, when it comes to gun control, when it comes to... I could go on and on and on. All of us know it. All of us know the hot 100 list that Americans go after each other, both inside and outside the church.

Austin Suter: Can you share a personal example of a time where you had a disagreement with someone, but through this kind of listening and speaking, were able to find common ground?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. So I was on a panel, Austin, where a person mentioned benevolent sexism. Have you ever heard this term benevolent sexism?

Austin Suter: No.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. I hadn't either.

Austin Suter: I don't know that term.

Tim Muehlhoff: I had never heard of it, right? Here's how the person explained it. When you open the door as a man to a woman, you're doing it benevolently. You're wanting to be kind, polite. But if you keep opening doors for women, women will never learn to open the door themselves, they'll always be dependent on a man. It's benevolent, but it's sexism, right? Because you would only do that for a woman, right? Okay, now let me just stop real quick. I don't know your listeners, but if your listeners are listening and they're going, "That is ridiculous," that's kind of my point. And I got to be honest, I had that knee-jerk reaction. I have three boys. Austin, you better believe we taught the Muehlhoff boys to open doors for women, right?

Austin Suter: Right.

Tim Muehlhoff: I stopped and I thought about that. It really haunted me. And I thought of this scenario. Let's say I got on a crowded bus and there was a woman sitting there and she jumps up and offers her seat to me. How would I receive that? I would probably say, "What, do you think I need your seat? Do you not think I'm a man, I should stand? I should give you my seat." And that stayed with me. Now, listen, I'm not arguing for benevolent sexism. What I'm saying is there are times I had this knee-jerk reaction like, "Okay, that's beyond the pale."

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "Okay, I can maybe see a little bit that maybe it's good to set up situations where women don't always need to depend on the kindness of men or the power of men." By the way, Austin, at the end of the day, I'm opening the door for a woman. But now maybe I have a little bit more charity towards that position and realize I probably judged that pretty harshly and very quickly and maybe a little bit more research would soften my view, even though I'm still going to open doors for women.

Austin Suter: I appreciate you sharing that example, and given sort of the state of things that you relayed at the beginning of this conversation, I wanted to ask you kind of a personal question, which is, are you hopeful we can do better?

Tim Muehlhoff: Can I be really honest?

Austin Suter: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: So before The Winsome Conviction Project, I would've been hopeful. But Austin, for the last four and a half years, I've seen churches explode. I've seen ministries almost crumble because of disagreements they cannot solve. And we went to Capitol Hill, and we were invited to Capitol Hill, and we met with certain leadership. And we made a radical idea, Austin. We said, "Listen, could you even amidst your disagreements get together socially, maybe, I don't know, have coffee in the morning, maybe grab a meal." And one of the leading statesmen that was there said, "Have a meal? We don't even share the same elevator with the other people."

So Austin, I want to say after four and a half years of The Winsome Conviction Project, there are some tools we can use, honestly, but this is what I love about your group, your ministry. We got to pray for a revival. And it's got to start in the church. We have to pray God softens our hearts because the way we're treating fellow Christians online is we are literally attacking them and calling into question their faith, their fidelity to Jesus. So I would say I'm hopeful that maybe a revival can take place. But without that revival, I'm not sure how much people will use techniques. That's why in the book we really do talk about spiritual formation. And remember what Jesus said, "From your heart, you speak." And so we've got to address the heart. So I would say I want to be hopeful God can move. But man, after four and a half years with the most bitter election prognosticators are saying is coming our way this election, God better grip our hearts and then we can use the tools that maybe we explore a little bit in our book.

Austin Suter: Well, friends, thank you so much for listening. Please check the show notes for links to get the book, and thank you again. Grace and peace.