How to Respond to Strong Opinions with Grace

We want to add a caveat at the beginning of this blog to clarify that we don’t discuss politics in Life Groups, this includes all the hot topics of current day. Life Groups are designed to build Christian relationships and bring us closer to God. Groups are where you get to roll up your sleeves and discuss how the weekend’s message works in real life.

The world is loud. The world is full of viewpoints including your own.

Whether it’s about who does the dishes or takes out the trash, impeachment or gun control, the same rules apply.

We often need to have difficult conversations about things we disagree on to reach solutions or find understanding, particularly with family, close friends, or co-workers.

There’s value in having hard conversations with people with whom you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. You might evolve your perspective on a topic. You might bolster your argument for why you disagree. You might learn something new about the person you are talking with. And when we’re respecting one another and acting like grown-ups, such conversations can be really interesting.

But perhaps too often, respect falls to the wayside, and we channel our inner five-year-old-selves, rather than the cool, calm, rational adults we need to be.

And even when it’s not a disagreement that can be “solved,” there may still be costs to not having those conversations. Talking about things like whether religion should be taught in schools or about whether a one-payer health care system is most judicious can lead to better understanding of the issue for both sides. You may even happen upon some common ground on which you agree.

Often times topics like politics and religion get to the core of someone’s identity. One could argue that if we don’t talk about these things, then we don’t really know each other. And it can deepen your personal relationships to have those conversations and come to a better understanding of the people you spend your time with.

Here’s how to disagree with grace:

Whether you’re disagreeing with your best friend over in-school politics or disagreeing with a friend of a friend you’ve just met at a dinner party about income tax, the skills required to make both of those conversations worthwhile ones are pretty much the same.

  1. Decide if you want to go there

Step one is deciding whether that conversation is even worth having. If it’s an argument with your spouse over whether one of you is going to accept a job offer that will require the family to move, you will need to have that talk. But if it’s a matter of asking a friend why she believes abortion should be banned (and you very much disagree), it’s worth asking yourself first why you want to have that conversation. Do you want to learn why your friend feels the way she does or do you want to change her mind?

You don’t have to have a conversation with someone you disagree with to know something about their perspective.  If you’re trying to change that person’s mind, however, the goal of that conversation is not learning and understanding, it’s not really a conversation; it’s a lecture.

Think, too, about how the conversation will be received. Some people love getting into complex discussions. But for some people, some topics just feel like you’re pushing their buttons — which doesn’t necessarily make for pleasant dinner party conversation. It’s okay to not go there, or when someone else brings up the topic to tell them you don’t want to go there.

  1. Ask if you can ask about it

Still not sure if a topic you want to broach is too sensitive? Just ask! This clearly shows that you are respecting the boundary and understand that this may be a sensitive topic. You and your conversation partner can make that decision together. Simply stating that you know a topic is a challenging one and asking if they prefer avoiding it shows up front that you’re making potentially volatile territory safe and that you care about their perspective.

Note if the other person hesitates or answers in a guarded way, move on.

And listen up for emotional intensity. The tone of someone’s voice and absolutes like “absolutely hate” or “idiot” or “moronic” can usually tip one off that the person you are talking with doesn’t likely want to hear an alternative perspective.

  1. Keep it neutral

Keeping the conversation neutral starts from the beginning. If you’re asking questions about the other person’s perspective, ask in a way that shows you know the context of a situation, but that doesn’t come off as one-sided. And don’t ask so tentatively, either, that you invite a lecture from their side. You want to start from neutral territory where no one’s poking a stick in the other person’s emotions.

  1. Start off the conversation with understanding

Grant your counterpart their premise, and then talk from there. Instead of telling your counterpart their way of thinking is wrong, you legitimately acknowledge their point of view (yes, I understand what you are saying) and then explain why you disagree (but how I see it is …). It helps put edges around the subject — and focus on which subject you need to discuss.

  1. Look for where you agree

The goal of productive conversations is to build understanding and learning (for all parties), not tear one another apart. That means no winners and no losers. The constructive approach is to be curious and seek to understand, you do this by finding areas of agreement rather than disagreement.

It is important to listen with a good ear. Listen for what makes sense about what the person just said rather than listening for how you can show what’s wrong with it.

  1. Talk less. Give the other person space to respond.

Remember that it’s dialogue. Dialogue means you are both responding to one another, point after point — which is different from diatribe (where one side of the conversation drowns out all others) and from debate (an attempt to prove one side right and one side wrong).

And take a breath after you say something rather than plowing through point after point. You want to give your conversation partner space to respond and let emotions settle. It helps the other person feel like they are being heard.

  1. Avoid using the word ‘but’

The word “but” is a subtraction sign in conversation. It erases what was just said. Instead of using it, respond with “and at the same time” or ask a question starting with “how” or “what.”

If you hear yourself saying ‘yes, but’ — it’s a pretty good indication you are trying to score a point rather than keep the dialogue constructive.

  1. Resist the current vogue to be provocative

The best argument isn’t necessarily the one you can hashtag and will go viral on the internet. Those are punches. And communicating that way is very expensive in terms of the emotional toll they take on us.

A Few Final Things to Remember:

  • Take the opportunity when you can to neutralize the emotional load of the conversation and disarm the moment. It often comes down to word choice and the tone of your voice.
  • Set your ego aside, access the logical part of your brain, and try to look at the issue objectively.
  • Choose humility and empathy.
  • Respond calmly.
  • In this era of online outrage, unless it’s absolutely essential, resist the temptation to respond immediately or have a knee-jerk defensive reaction.
  • Social media is beautiful until it gets opinionated. Then it becomes an overwhelming wave pool of strong stances and diminishing people’s thoughts and beliefs.

How do we respect others’ opinions and beliefs without agreeing?

I think there are 3 steps we can take, both online and offline, to love and respect people well—without agreeing with them.

  1. Remember: behind every comment or long ranting post is a human being.

Listen carefully as someone speaks or read through a post carefully and compassionately, even if you painfully disagree on the topic. Remember that the individual believes this as truth just as passionately and with as much conviction as you hold to your truth. This is real for them. No matter what you believe or think, this is what is truth to them. They have feelings and hold on to beliefs just as strongly as you do. They need to be heard.

  1. Respond; don’t react.

If you are ready to comment, engage and respond, don’t react emotionally; share your thoughts with respect and understanding. Nothing moves forward when we accuse and devalue each other’s outlooks. Ask questions, not for your own case against them, but to understand them better. Participate in a conversation. Try to find common ground. That doesn’t mean you agree or you are compromising; it shows you are willing to learn and get to know your friend better. Be sure to listen genuinely. We all have more in common than we think.

Remember: behind every comment or long ranting post is a human being.

  1. Engaging will not always end well.

Some people will not want to give you a chance or take the time to “educate” you on their point of view. That is okay. If you are truly trying to know where someone is coming from, do your own research. Then try to enter the conversation again. If that does not go well, do not be discouraged. Sometimes when the subject is deeply personal, emotions dictate harsh responses.

It is not anyone’s fault; again, this is raw and real for them. Still, take the time to read other’s thoughts and let them know that they have been heard.

It is possible to hang on to what you believe to be true while living among opposing opinions. Our values can coexist without compromising what we believe is true. It is possible to be friends with people you do not agree with. Listen and read what your friend has to say. Respond with grace and your honest opinion without diminishing theirs and try to find the common ground while sharing your truth. Don’t get defeated when a conversation does not go the way you hoped. The best thing we can all do is make space to hear one another. The rest will fall into place.

Amazing things happen when we take time to listen, respond, engage, and accept that we are all different, and maybe that is not something we should try to fix or change but enjoy, learn, and move forward towards peace.

Then, leave the rest to God.

For God and you,

Deb Bostwick