When people disagree well, I take notice. Perhaps it’s because when I have failed to do so, it felt devastating. Once I notice that my words aren’t landing charitably, or that the other person doesn’t feel understood, I know I’ve lost something very important in conversation.
The opportunity to demonstrate healthy disagreement—regardless of if minds are changed or consensus is reached—reflects some of the beautiful paradoxes of Christianity. Ineffective dialogue can ruin this opportunity, and too often it takes people far from the Christian mission of speaking the truth in love.
I am slowly becoming aware of the spiritual, social, and psychological dynamics of conversations, and it has taken sensitive training and correction. Now, I find myself in the precarious role of teaching others what it means to navigate tense conversations… at age 12.
As a 7th-grade science teacher at a Christian school, I didn’t necessarily expect this would be part of my job. Then, as we began exploring life science, genetics, and ethics—hard-hitting topics that even adults disagree on—the students began piping up with questions of their own.
Miss Rollins, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful and is watching over us even when we were just a cell or two, then how come some people are born with disorders?
Welp. Faced with this opportunity I felt several emotions at once; my head went off like a panel of Inside Out characters. I had just told them about how God watches over us since our conception. And as soon as the student finished asking his question, hands shot up across the room—hands from kids who didn’t always participate in our discussion.
These conversations continued as we went on to study biological evolution and biblical creationism. I wasn’t only getting a grasp of how well the kids understood each lesson, but also how they approached dialogue with one another.
I realized one of the most important things I can teach my students is how to apply their academic knowledge into real-life conversations. Even “book smart” students may not be able to articulate their positions in a winsome way, or hear out those on the other side. Robust discussion in a classroom setting can teach students how to disagree well.
I find myself playing the role of a coach, or even a chaperone, in their debates. I force students to ask themselves questions before they speak up and take the time to seriously consider one another’s points of view, and help them practice with role-playing. I repeat lines like:
- What are your initial feelings and judgments?
- Why do you think this is a topic worthy of discussion?
- What would you say to someone who disagrees with you?
When things get heated, I try to suggest they pause and reassess:
- Hey, let’s not duke it out…
- Did you hear my perspective? Would you be able to articulate it?
- I admire your zeal, but your tone would cause me to get more defensive.
- Have you thought about this opposing aspect?
Debriefing afterwards is also important:
- How do you think our conversation went?
- What does God want us to accomplish while dialoguing about this subject?
- What is the point of talking about this in real life?
- Can you think of anyone you need to have this conversation with?
Every time I coach my students through our discussions, I realize how many of us adults could benefit from a better understanding of disagreeing well. It’s an art we have to practice, by being bold enough to engage difficult topics at the right time and humble enough to hear out those on the other side.
I find myself asking close friends to help me in my own conversations. I have experienced certain tones and body language that made me feel small, defensive, or misunderstood, so I am sure that I am capable of doing the same to my conversation partner. Close friends can help us identify and assess how we come across in conversation.
Christians are facilitating efforts to develop this essential skill, including at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought (CCT), which spent a year focused on healthy Christian disagreement. They created a conference on “transforming discord to dialogue.” Gabe Lyons, the founder of the learning community Q Ideas said in an interview with Biola’s CCT, “Let’s bring our best thinking to the table and be okay that we might come out of this conversation disagreeing. But it doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable types of people.”
One of the leading evangelical voices on racial reconciliation to come out of the American civil rights movement, John M. Perkins, offered this insight on the importance of listening:
Ask, “Where does our pain come from? Why are you hurting?” And I give you your pain. And I say that you’re hurting. And you give me my pain. And we say that we’re hurting… We’ve got to be close enough to the situation that we can listen to the pain. So Christians have to be present. Be there. I’m hoping and praying that this will create a deeper conversation.
We see the importance of this kind of clear, gracious communication every day—especially online, where misunderstandings can escalate so easy. On The Gospel Coalition, pastor Thabiti Anyabwile recently responded after such a dispute. He recounted an important aspect of disagreeing well, looking for occasions to defend the “other side”:
Last year this time I sat in California with a former [police] officer for a couple hours discussing these very things. We came into the meeting prepared for the worst, I think. We left the meeting as brothers, in charity, and feeling we could see all the same issues on both sides, but because of our experiences we leaned in slightly different directions. I think we both thought we should wave the other person’s banner a bit more than we do, and that might give the other’s arms a little rest. I suspect that would happen a lot if folks sat and talked.
The quest for us to disagree in love has been a perennial issue dating back to the church’s founding. I suspect we will never run out of topics to disagree about. And yet, to partner with another—to engage with fellow Christians who hold different views as well as those who don’t share our faith—this is a crucial starting point. Practicing healthy dialogue prepares us for when we feel fired at or worse—we find ourselves behind the verbal trigger. Such preparation also has missional benefits, as we find ourselves dissenting from the cultural norms or defending our faith. We must practice.
For teachers, parents, and youth leaders, we should not be afraid to invite young people into these conversations as well, even with difficult topics for which we may not have a clear-cut answer. I think we’ll find them to be more interested and insightful in these areas than we assume, and these discussions can prepare them for the harder conversations to come.
Alicia Joy writes from sunny Southern California, where she enjoys working as a Jr. High science teacher, girls basketball coach, and stays an adoring fan of God’s creation. She delights in the diversity of the world and can’t stop thinking about stories. Alicia explores different perspectives at Reimages.net, and you can find her @alicia2joy.