Events like the one occurring in McKinney, TX (my home town) this past weekend always send ripples through our nation. Questions will be asked. Blame will be assigned. Feelings will be hurt. And so many levels of damage feel inevitable.
In a highly critical society like ours, with faces lit by smart devices with cameras in every moment, the way we converse matters all the more. We’ve all participated in a few Facebook debates and we’ve seen the back and forth on Twitter.
I engage many conversations about many difficult issues. Issues that are emotionally charged and very personal. Issues like race relations, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, evolution, Calvinism, and tons others. The list goes on. Here’s a few tips I’d like to share to help engage conversations in a useful, anti-inflammatory and respectful way.
“Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom. But in all thy wisdom, get understanding.” | proverbs 4:7
In my experience, nothing defuses aggressive conversation more than showing understanding. Arguments become arguments when two parties don’t lead with understanding, choosing instead to impose their perspective, and only their perspective, on a given situation. Blame usually follows.
This is especially true when it comes to events like those in Ferguson and even this weekend in McKinney. There is a reason the Bible links wisdom with understanding. It’s because, to truly make wise choices, we must exhibit understanding. To prevent foolish over-reaction and viral, emotional indulgence, we must step back and engage our rational senses.
People want to be heard and understood. They want to be affirmed. They want to know you have stepped out of the worldview that has resulted from your lifestyle, into a worldview from someone else’s lifestyle.
No one makes a bad decision (at least not in their own mind). Understanding seeks to find out why people do what they do, and grants them the credit that their actions makes sense based on that. How right or wrong the actions are is irrelevant for this stage of the conversation. We are in pursuit of “Why?” If we can show we understand this, the defenses drop and you’ll be able to move forward.
2. Empathize & Affirm
“Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn.” | romans 12:15
Understanding means very little without affirmation. This is probably the toughest part. Because conversations that result from social injustices are generally divisive. We get stuck defending our viewpoint against another. This competition usually means we are not willing to “concede” or “affirm” anything from the opposing view.
We have to resist this. If you have truly understood, then you should be able to connect with the way people feel about certain events. So when someone says, “that’s racist!” what you hear is, “I feel that’s racist!” Or more, you hear them saying, “I feel less…” When someone says, “these people don’t belong here” you hear “I feel that people don’t belong here…” Or more, you hear them seeing, “I feel violated…”
If you have understood this person’s worldview, you can then connect to the feeling, not the facts. Rest assured. The facts matter. But more important is the empathy and affirmation that should follow the understanding. If we can learn to set the facts aside for a moment to affirm the reality of feelings, we would go a long way toward a unified response and resolution.
This must be done by both parties.
3. Reason & React
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” | matthew 18:15
The Matthew 18 passage should be read in full. In it, we should note Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the way Christians should behave. But I am convinced what God wants for those in his kingdom is the best way anyone should live, even those outside his kingdom.
To this point, we’ve described what “listening” really is. Understanding and empathy is designed to give “closure” to our emotional demands in order to be able to deal rationally with the facts around a matter. Thus, this final step must confront and address the issue from a global perspective.
No doubt, the process of understanding and empathizing often change the “facts.” What was so obvious before can turn out to be completely wrong. And new elements are introduced that were previously hidden. So this part of the conversation must present the totality of the issue at hand, as much as is understood by the parties, and the blame must be spread to all who acted out of turn, regardless of how they felt.
Emotions do not excuse wrong behavior.
This is the part of the conversation to spread the blame to all who need it, and to begin making decisions about what to do next. “Tell them their faults…” in a way that acknowledges their perspectives, and empathizes with their feelings.
Of course, there is no sure-fire way to avoid contentious conversation. Some folks are way too far down the emotional stream to ever seek to understand, empathize and be reasonable (in the truest sense of the word). However, if we all engaged in complicated conversations using these methods, I think arguments would dramatically decrease, and problems would be solved in a more quick, united way.
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