by Matthew W. Bassford
I am quite sure that God frequently shakes His head in amazement at my foolishness. However, I hope that year by year, decade by decade, I manage to get a little bit wiser. One such hard-won nugget of wisdom has to do with being right and wrong at the same time.
When I was younger, I believed that when it came to a difference of opinion, there was a right side and a wrong side, and that was that. I tried to listen to the views of others and give them a fair hearing, but when I thought I was right, I was quick to inform others of their error. The only thing that mattered was who was right, right?
The problem is that people aren’t computers. People are people. All of us have an emotional attachment to the things we believe. When those convictions are challenged, we don’t enjoy it and are apt to become defensive. If the challenger continues to push, either we push back or disengage from the conversation. There’s been a lot of talk recently about white fragility, but frankly, I think human fragility is the real issue. Nobody’s skin color makes it easier or harder for them to hear things they don’t want to.
If we don’t acknowledge this fundamental truth about people, we are much less likely to win converts and much more likely to create conflict. The map is not the territory, and merely presenting the abstract truth about something often fails to persuade. When we’re right on a conceptual level but get the human aspect wrong, we will end up being right and wrong at the same time.
I spent years being right and wrong at the same time, and I probably spend too much time there even now. I don’t recommend it. It strains and fractures friendships, creates lots of enemies, and accomplishes nothing worthwhile. People won’t listen, and we will become cynical and embittered because they aren’t listening.
If we want to avoid this trap, there are several things we need to consider. What’s our goal? Usually, it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) just to “get somebody told”. As Paul says in II Corinthians 5:11, knowing the fear of God, we ought to try to persuade others. Winning hearts is the goal of the gospel. Winning arguments isn’t.
Persuasion requires us to account for the humanness of those we are trying to persuade. One of the most enlightening books I’ve read in recent years is Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations. It observes that people only are persuadable when they feel safe. The less safe they feel, the more inclined they will be to reject what you have to say.
There are a number of ways to build safety in a difficult conversation. Having a strong pre-existing relationship is perhaps the most important. The more others trust us, the better able we are to safely discuss a difficult topic with them. In fact, I think it’s sound practice for all Christians to build and reinforce relationships with everyone they know as a matter of habit. We never know when we will have to put that relationship to the test.
Second, we need to choose our words carefully. In Colossians 4:6, Paul urges us to season our speech, and our efforts toward palatability can make all the difference between acceptance and rejection. Harsh, condemnatory language rarely wins over its target. On the other hand, when we strive to be understanding, fair, and compassionate, we are much more likely to find an open heart.
Finally, we have to make changing as easy as possible. All of us are proud, insecure creatures. We don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, especially not in front of others. Consequently, private conversations generally are more effective than public confrontations. They allow people to change without suffering a dramatic loss of face.
We also need to put ourselves in the place of the one who is wrong and speak to them as we ourselves would like to be spoken to when we are wrong. We never should demand that someone forfeit their dignity in order to acknowledge an error. As satisfying as it may be to make the moron crawl, such demands will destroy our future influence.
Doing even these things is not easy, and there is much more that I could say on the subject! Sadly, I’m sure that I have even more to learn. We live in a society that has forgotten the art of having conversations like these, but this is a skill that we must master if we want to win souls and inherit eternal life ourselves.