Why We Argue Best with Our Mouths Shut

When Tim Keller announced he would be stepping down from his New York City congregation —known for its outreach to the religiously unaffiliated—he shared his thoughts on how evangelicals could better connect with skeptics.

“We could do a far better job of patiently listening,” Keller told The Huffington Post. “And we should not talk until we can represent the skeptic’s viewpoint with empathy so that a skeptic friend says, ‘Yes, that is my hang up; I couldn’t have put it better myself.’ Only then should [we] try to . . . recommend the Christian faith to them.”

Keller echoed the conventional evangelical wisdom: “You can’t argue someone into the kingdom.” Both common sense and research confirm this is true; it is very hard to change a person’s strongly held beliefs—religious or otherwise.

But if it seems obvious that arguing is not an effective way to win someone over, it doesn’t stop people from trying. From Facebook to family gatherings, our disagreements regularly erupt into arguments. It’s no wonder people often avoid topics pertaining to politics and religion, in both their digital and social lives. It’s often just too risky.

If we have any hope for healing the divisions in our society, families, churches, and communities, it will serve us well to learn how to have better conversations. And mounting scientific evidence suggests that the secret may lie in the charge put forth by James: to make every effort to be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:19).

Why people resist being persuaded

The problem with persuasion is not just that people are stubborn; people change their minds all the time about all sorts of things. The ...

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Why We Argue Best with Our Mouths Shut
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June 2017

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