How Can We Be Better Disagree-ers?
Professor Tim Muehlhoff, author of I Beg to Differ, shares how to tackle tough conversations
Whether in the boardroom or the bedroom, on Twitter or TV, disagreement is a fact of life. And unfortunately, it’s often handled badly — resulting in anger, frustration and strained relationships.
So says Biola communication professor Tim Muehlhoff, whose latest book, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love, seeks to encourage healthier handling of conflict. Drawing on principles from Scripture and communication theory, he offers a strategy for broaching tough topics — finances, politics, religion — in ways that strengthen, not harm, our relationships. In this edited interview with Biola Magazine, he shares his advice for how to turn divisive debates about tough topics into constructive, Christ-honoring dialogue.
Why is it important for Christians to develop a better understanding of how to deal with conflict?
Christ does a very interesting thing. He puts all of the eggs in one basket and says, “If you want to know if this new movement is authentic then I’ll give you a litmus test — and that is if my followers forgive each other and love each other. By their unity, by their love, you’ll know that these are authentic followers.” Part of our credibility as a Christian movement is going to be based on our ability to do the things that Christ asked, which is to forgive each other as he has forgiven us. That’s a huge extra motivation for me and my wife or for me and my co-workers to deal with our stuff. Because we’re not just representing ourselves. We’re representing Christ’s reputation.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when engaging in difficult conversations?
Two things. First, they tend to think that communication is on one level, when it’s actually on two. There is the content, which is the words. But there is also the relational level, which involves the amount of respect and acknowledgement between two individuals, and whether there’s a power
dynamic, such as a conflict with a boss. We teach in communication theory that if I don’t respect you, or if I perceive that you don’t respect me, then I won’t care what you believe. The book of Proverbs says that an offended brother is like a fortified city. If I feel offended because I don’t perceive that you respect me, I couldn’t give a rip what you believe. We also don’t acknowledge one another. We tend to think that acknowledging a person’s perspective is synonymous with condoning it, and it’s not; it’s just acknowledging it.
Second, we don’t think deeply enough about communication climates. As we’re doing this interview it’s about 102 degrees. The climate dictates what I can do outside. It’s the same with a communication climate, which is made up of the expectations, commitment, trust and amount of respect between people. I often say to individuals, “Before you launch into that conversation about a very important issue, what’s the climate like? Is it strong enough to support the conversation?” If it’s not strong enough, I would set aside that issue and work on building up the climate.
You offer a four-step strategy for approaching difficult conversations. Can you briefly explain the steps involved?
Without a doubt, the book of Proverbs would say that the first place you should start is listening. Proverbs 18:13 says that it is folly and shame to speak before listening. So the first thing I want to find out is “What do you believe?” Allow the person the freedom to speak. That’s a great gift to people, and psychologists would say it’s probably the No. 1 way to love a person, is to give them that attention…
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