Do you grow tired of the militaristic posture characterizing many individuals engaged in a discussion? I sure do! Whether it’s a fly-by political discussion with someone at Fry’s, an in-depth conversation with an acquaintance over religion, or a perusal of Facebook where people pontificate on any and all issues, I find myself emotionally exhausted and discouraged at how capable people are of being mean-spirited and unkind.
Now, please don’t misunderstand that first paragraph as a dismissal of values, policies, or beliefs as unimportant and not worthy of rigorous, passionate debate. I’m a pastor of a Baptist Church here in town, which means, among many things, I hold to certain values and beliefs as very important. Not only that, but I’ve devoted my life to knowing, studying, and sharing these beliefs so others can find true meaning, fulfillment, and purpose.
But what it doesn’t mean is that I have the license or justification to treat people as less than human when I engage in discussion with them. Alan Jacobs, in his book How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, shares a helpful word on this issue. He writes, “When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed ‘victory’ in debate.”
Jacobs’ quote is a word I’ve kept tucked away in my heart ever since I read it several months ago. I regularly interact with people who espouse beliefs and values diametrically opposed to mine. At times, I’ve wrongly categorized them merely as “such-and-such a person who advocates for this or that” rather than seeing them first as a person; I reduced them to merely a representative of a viewpoint that I disagreed with, and in so doing I failed to have an empathetic or compassionate posture.
Have you ever done this? My suspicion is that you struggle with this too. Again, if you’re like me, you’ll want to do better in this area. Differences of opinion on all things political and religious (e.g. marriage, immigration, life, sex, lifestyles, parenting, money, etc.) aren’t going away. So what do we do? Isolate ourselves and pursue a bunker mentality? Engage exclusively with people who are exactly like us in every way regarding the aforementioned issues? These options aren’t tenable or realistic in any capacity. And more than that, they don’t even remotely capture how a Christian should engage with the people around them.
Let me suggest several principles that David Powlison provides in his book Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness, that will help you and me engage with people in a more winsome manner.
- Listen, when you used to be busy crafting a comeback.
- Treat people fairly, representing them accurately and recognizably; no gross caricatures.
- Speak accurately and abandon prejudicial language: “always” and “never” are rarely true and are invariably more destructive than constructive.
- Speak calmly, rather than with gusts of inflammatory emotion.
- Overlook an offense you used to explode over.
- Solve the problem, rather than attacking the person.
- Replace harsh words that stir up anger with gentle answers.
 Alan Jacobs, How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Crown, 2017), 98.
 David Powlison, Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness (Charleston: New Growth Press), 142-143.