Can We Talk?

How to Have Difficult Conversations – Speaking the Truth in Love

Polarization threatens to destroy our nation, our communities, churches, and our homes. We don’t know how to explore our disagreements with others, and our fear keeps us separated. Because of this ignorance/avoidance, we avoid difficult conversations and (mis)label each other, reducing people to obscene caricatures that make communion and community impossible. (This reduction, by the way, operates for people with whom we assume we agree as well as for people with whom we assume we disagree.)

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life enough sorrow and suffering to disarm hostility. (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

I’m curious about this topic – and hopeful that we can find a way to speak the truth in love with each other and claim our birthright as a human community. When Jesus commands us to raise issues of brokenness directly with each other, one-on-one, in Matthew 18:15, he promises that in hearing each other, we will win each other over. God has reconciled us through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

The number one way to love someone is to listen to them. (M. Scott Peck)

I discovered Mike Erre’s wonderful Podcast, Episode 27 – Jesus and Politics  – How to Disagree Well – Guest Tim Muehlhoff. Muehlhoff’s book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love, was inspired by Proverbs 16:7 – When the ways of people please the Lord, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them. The book explores four questions to ask in difficult conversations:

  1. What does this person believe? Begin with relationship – listen to this person: Don’t assume you know what this person will say. (Proverbs 18:13)
  2. Why do these beliefs seem right to this person? Explore how they arrived at this position/place. Discover their story/history of their conviction (see Proverbs 14:12a). This Biola University YouTube conversation explores this theme beautifully. Instead of trading convictions/conclusions with each other, share the history of how we got to those conclusions (see more at the Harvard Negotiation Project).
  3. Where do we agree? Seek common ground. C.S. Lewis – “Friends look in the same direction.”
  4. Based on everything I have just learned, what is the one thing I should say to this person at this particular moment? What is my history with this person? What gets the ball down the field on this day (helps a lot if there will be many other conversations/encounters). What is the Goal of the conversation? Topic or Relational Goal – Face-Saving Goal. Avoid agenda anxiety – piling on and going all in all at once. Doing life together – interacting regularly – lowers the stakes in any specific encounter.

Our Council of Bishops have recommended the book Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by The Arbinger Institute to guide United Methodist congregations as we have conversations and discern God’s will for our communion as The Commission on a Way Forward explores options to recommend to the Council regarding a way out of our current impasse over how to treat LGBTQ persons in our churches.

This book, like Muehlhoff’s book, does not attempt to advocate for any particular position in any social, political, or theological debate, but provides a way to set the Table for a conversation that seeks what seems good to the Holy Spirit and to the community, rather than seeks a way to win debate points, or to justify the way any one of us thinks.