by Conrad Martin
I hear a lot these days about how much we disagree. Can I disagree on how much we actually disagree? I’ve been wondering over the past few years why it is that we say we disagree when it seems that we are only talking past each other, even to the point that one could say we aren’t even speaking the same language?
My Sunday School class recently studied the book Winsome Convictions, co-authored by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. The subtitle of the book is Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church. About two-thirds of the way through the book, a light came on in my mind as to why we seem to be talking past each other in our “disagreements.” The authors state that what we have actually achieved is only misunderstanding, rather than real disagreement. How can we disagree when we don’t even understand what the other person is saying? The authors don’t suggest we need to agree on issues, but we do need to understand what the other person is saying.
The authors’ recommendation is simple: Before we can claim to disagree with another, we should be able to first state the other person’s position or side. How many times have we heard, “Wait a minute, that isn’t really what I’m saying at all?” We must first be able to state the opinion or position of the other in a way that the person can nod and say, “Yep, you got it right, you really understand me.” Once we are speaking the same language, we can move on to deciding whether or not we truly disagree. This may require several attempts at stating the other’s position, but it helps to build mutual respect and trust that we are aiming for.
Stating the other person’s position in a way they find agreeable doesn’t mean that you agree with their position; however, the authors of the book do say it needs to involve both facts and feelings. They ask whether we can reach a level of understanding that can not only state the facts of the issue, but also state how the other person’s beliefs make them feel and why those beliefs make them feel that way. Perhaps we need to get to the level of understanding that we can not only state what the person believes, but also state why it is so important to them. Personally, I’m a facts guy rather than a feelings guy, but I am interested in knowing why things matter to people.
I don’t know if this really works or not, but I’d like to give it a try. Anyone want to test this out with me? I invite conversation and correspondence, and I will try my best to say your position back to you in a way that you can say, “Yes, you understand me.” At the very least we can aim for better understanding in our disagreements and perhaps find some areas of agreement along the way.
Conrad Martin is the Director of Finance for Mosaic Conference.