My two most recent blog posts (here and here) should raise an important question or two. In a sense, the represent flip sides of the same perspective; on the one, bullying or badgering is a poor way to advance your cause, while on the other, loving, credible, face-to-face interaction is not just a better way but an obligation given to believers by our sovereign God.
An obvious question is how do we do that? Even in churches that seem strongly evangelistic, many individual Christians feel ill-equipped and fearful of making personal contacts and engaging others in “sharing the gospel.” The idea has crept among Jesus’ followers that this requires either a special gift of gab or special training; they believe it’s a job for specialists, not for the ordinary Jane or Joe. In the more political area, a similar problem exists. People are just plain ignorant of the most basic understanding of our constitutional, citizen-based rule of law, designed to be a small government, freedom-loving system. Then, to make matters worse, many view both areas—religion and politics—as too controversial for polite conversation. The just completed campaign cycle, I suspect, has more than ever sickened many of its rhetorical ugliness. Perhaps the harder question than “How?” is, “Why would anyone want to start a conversation in either subject area?”
Some years ago, after working as a peacemaker to resolve personal disputes, I became convinced that our focus in communication had become skewed, overemphasizing expression over impression, output over input, or talking over listening. This leads to a number of problems including the badgering kind of exchange I oppose. It easily become an ego-gratifying methodology, where a salesman tries to cleverly close the deal, not to say that many well-meaning, mild-mannered Christians have any intent other than to bring another person to Christ. I simply began to doubt that jabbering at people was the best way. In time, my reflections became “Listening, the Key to Evangelism.” Yeah, listening, not talking!!
An important aspect of this approach is learning to be other-focused. Developing an attentive attitude and learning to become a good listener become a loving discipline. Consider any meaningful relationship, and you will find that love leads to listening. How do we recognize that another person cares about and for us? It is when we notice that he or she truly pays attention to us. Sadly, some begin to doubt the love of a parent or spouse when it becomes clear that they don’t really take time to hear them; sometimes, this is merely a momentary preoccupation with work or life, but if it isn’t corrected, then often an important relationship may be threatened or even lost.
One of the essential skills for a peacemaker or mediator is facilitating communication between those who have stopped talking or, more importantly, listening. It is not conflict that necessarily destroys the love in a friendship, partnership, or marriage; it is more often a failure to listen. I have had occasions where all I did was act as a faithful transmitter of what people had to say that hadn’t been getting through. In one case, the impact of that comparatively simple adjustment ended days of loud angry fighting between a couple. Failing to listen and understand what others are saying is bound to cause trouble. Listening, however, is an excellent way, not just to keep a good relationship alive; it is an equally excellent way to demonstrate genuine respect and compassion.
While I highly recommend reading, studying, or taking a class on listening skills, I have also come to realize that we can take a significant step in that direction by using a simple technique—asking questions. As long as we actually listen for the answers, asking questions is an easy way to put your attention on another person, to engage them in enjoyable conversation, and open up even difficult topics for useful interaction. I don’t believe it is necessarily the subject matter that causes people to avoid topics like politics or religion; I believe it is a condescending or badgering approach, one that is much less likely if we ask simple, honest questions.
It has already been 5 years since I compiled and published a set of questions related to politics or world view. “ I suggested to a high school class, at that time, that the best way to engage people in constructive conversation about the important issues was to ask questions. I promised then to begin a list of a few questions in some of the major issue areas. This was my first such list. I tried to ask open-ended questions, the kinds of questions that get people talking without suggesting that you don’t really want an answer. Some of these questions require that the one asking know something about the issues in question; in fact, most of them do. The purpose in asking is not just to exchange ignorant ideas. It almost surprises me to realize I wrote this more than 5 years ago because it seems so timely.
I also wrote and posted a set of evangelistically-oriented questions. My suggested questions are by no means sacrosanct; the particular questions are not the point, at least not to start. The point is to engage people in a loving, constructive way. It is a method to invite others to share what they think rather than force them to hear what we think. Often, once a person recognizes they’re truly being heard, they will respond by asking your opinion. A good listener must be careful not to shift gears to quickly, lest they simply stop listening. I’ve done my share of interviews, as a radio broadcaster, and I know the power of good questions. This isn’t a “gotcha” game, like some use to trap interviewees in a lie or contradiction. I gained the confidence of guests when they realized I was genuinely trying to help them get out their own thoughts clearly. Today, I do a bit of taxi-driving, and a few honest questions often lead to interesting and enjoyable conversations.
I can hear the objections: “When do I get to tell them the truth?” and “Why should we care what they think when what they think is wrong?” Isn’t listening alone likely never to get to straightening out bad thinking and wrong ideas? Years ago in the early 70’s, I was living with a family and found myself at home alone while they were on vacation. A couple of young men, Mormon missionaries, came to the door and wanted to talk with me. I had the time, and I invited them in. Now this was before I went to seminary, but I was hardly a novice. I was not an expert on Mormon doctrine, but I was confident enough in my own beliefs not to find their approach threatening. Can you guess what I did? I asked questions! I already knew back then that I could engage even the most practiced salesmen with good questions, and I didn’t even need to be an expert on anything. We talked for quite some time, and I eventually controlled the conversation to the point that one of the young men was agreeing with me; at that point, his older, more experienced (I assume) partner ended the encounter. To this day I wonder if I planted seeds that later bore fruit in that young man’s head.
Good questions are nothing more than asking about areas where we suspect a problem. “Why do you believe in the book of Mormon?” “Isn’t that story about the special glasses just a little strange?” “Why do you reject traditional Christianity?” “Saying that your beliefs answer the divisions between sects and denominations, isn’t that just adding one more sect?” To be honest, I didn’t have a list of questions in advance. I knew why I believed the Bible and the gospel, and I just asked questions that were prompted by my own understanding of truth. So, obviously, there is one caveat: Beware of being a shallow or ignorant believer, for then you risk being led astray. I’m not saying “Don’t ask questions,” but I am saying, “Make sure of your own salvation!”
Before I conclude, I’d like to say this this approach is not just for those who largely agree with me on religion or politics. I recommend this to anyone who believes anything. Are you as tired as I am of the angry maliciousness that seems to pervade so much of modern discourse? I’m not much less annoyed when I hear a conservative attack a liberal than when it’s the liberal attacking. Oh, I’m as human as the next guy and may find a moment of pleasure in hearing a big-mouthed bully shot down, but I’d rather listen to honest discussion of the various positions people hold. I’d love to hear honest debate where those who disagree question each other so that they may each understand the other’s point-of-view. Of course, that’s not likely when the stakes are winning or losing, but I’d like to call on all those so-called “undecided,” presumed moderates to lead the way in demanding more true dialogs where the goal is understanding rather than beating an adversary.
For those are familiar with Steve Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you know his fifth “habit” is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In other words, the best, most effective way truly to engage with another person requires a strategy other that “driving home a point.” We may have driven to the curb, but the house is closed, the doors locked, the windows closed, the curtains drawn, and our “point” never reaches the barricaded mind.
The purpose of peacemaking is reconciliation; the purpose of mediation is finding a mutually agreeable solution to a problem. Negotiation is working together to reach a place where the “buyer” and the “seller” are equally satisfied. Listening to understand the other’s position is vitally necessary for any of these methods to work. Asking questions is simply a basic tool for gaining understanding, and the necessary listening that follows not only informs, it shows respect, compassion, and love. I believe it is the essential tool for creating a better future, and I urge you to use it.