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When good people have bad ideas: How to disagree agreeably this holiday season

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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Let’s say that you’re getting together with your family for the holidays for the first time since the pandemic started, and you find yourself sitting next to a relative who gets on your nerves. 

The two of you haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. 

You always seem to disagree.

It’s a common situation these days, although that other person may have a desk next to yours at the office, or a house across the street from your home.

How do you talk to these people? Why even bother?

The problem with our witness

You may disagree about current affairs or something even more fundamental, like biblical values. They may be on the other side of the culture wars, but don’t look at them as the enemy. They could be your friends—and people you can influence for Christ.

“We are called to love one another, including those who don’t look like us, feel like us, think like us . . . or vote like us,” Eugene Cho wrote in Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics.

The Bible makes it clear, practically from the first page, that we were made for relationships. In Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (NIV). And in Romans 12:18, Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Unfortunately, we tend to associate with people like us. 

The Public Religion Research Institute has found that our closest relationships tend to be with people of the same race or ethnic background. And research by the Barna Group indicates that evangelicals, in particular, think it would be difficult to talk with people who are different than them, such as Muslims or individuals who identify as LGBTQ.

But we must avoid what Arthur C. Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, called “hiding in our narrow ideological foxholes.”

We can’t spread the gospel that way. 

In biblical times, we might have been called to witness to a Samaritan or a tax collector. Today, it could be someone with different views about politics or the pandemic.

In these situations, there are three basic principles we can use to build relationships with people different than us.

3 tips for meaningful conversations when you deeply disagree

First, look for common ground. 

You might find it with relatives by talking about family.

“What we focus on expands,” John C. Maxwell and Rob Hoskins wrote in Change Your World: How Anyone, Anywhere Can Make a Difference. “If we focus on our differences, our differences increase. If we focus on what unites us, then our unity increases.”

Too often when we meet people, Brooks wrote in Love Your Enemies, “We speed past the questions that would help us get to know another person’s story and instead immediately look to the places of greatest difference and disagreement. As a result, we cripple our ability to locate areas of common ground that do exist.” 

He added: “The important lesson here is not that our differences are trivial or better off never discussed. It is that if we want to overcome a culture of contempt, we must look to what we have in common before we look to what makes us distinct.”

When they served on the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the great liberal, and Antonin Scalia, the great conservative, bonded over their mutual love of opera, among other things. At Scalia’s funeral, Ginsburg said, “He was once asked how we could be friends given our disagreements on lots of things. Justice Scalia answered, ‘I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas.’”

Note: See the appendix to this article for thirty questions to help you seek common ground with others.

Second, realize that different people express their morality differently.

Kirsten Powers warned in her new book, Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered, and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts, of the dangers of “binary” or “dualistic” thinking.

“Binary thinking makes people all good or all bad, which is simply not how things work,” she wrote. “People and situations are complex and nuanced.” 

Brooks wrote that liberals and conservatives look at moral concepts like fairness and compassion differently. For example, liberals tend to provide basic human needs, like food and clothing, to the poor while conservatives tend to help them help themselves.

“Nearly all of those who disagree with us are not, as we so often think, immoral; they simply express this morality in different ways,” he wrote.

 So don’t think you have all the answers; there’s always a chance you could be wrong.

“We don’t know what we don’t know and we won’t know unless we listen,” Tony Beckett said in a Denison Forum interview.

Third, humble thyself.

Beckett, a leader with Christian Business Men’s Connection and a former teacher for Back to the Bible, warned of the dangers of pride. 

“When humility is missing, pride fills the void with an unwillingness to even listen to another point of view,” he said. “Pride prolongs and escalates disagreements while humility builds and enhances relationships. It takes humility, a putting aside of self-assertion, to listen well, find the common ground, and build from there.”

When you invite people to share their stories, you may find your heart opening up in response. You may earn the right to share your story, perhaps even Jesus’ story.

“It’s much harder to have contempt for real people with names and faces and human stories,” Brooks wrote. “When we encounter one another as individuals and tell our stories, we overwhelm contempt with something more powerful: love.”

If you want to engage people of differing views in a meaningful way, Brooks advised, “Don’t attack or insult. Don’t even try to win. . . . Almost no one is ever insulted into agreement.”

Instead, be kind, even if you don’t feel that way, because feelings follow actions. 

“It starts with a commitment to acting the way you want to be, not the way you feel at any given moment,” Brooks wrote.

Model biblical values in your own life, and people will notice. 

Show people that you care, and they will begin to trust you.

You may never agree about politics or the pandemic, but you could be surprised by how much you have in common.

30 questions to help you seek common ground

When seeking common ground with others, keep these two foundational thoughts in mind: 

  1. Show that you care.
  2. Be willing to help. 

For many people, just being listened to is enough to open them to deeper conversations. However, we’re called as Christians to literally go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41). 

When an opportunity to help arises as a result of being an attentive listener, don’t hesitate to help. Showing kindness through service swings wide the doors of opportunity—to witness, to be a friend, to have tough conversations.

We’ve placed these questions into three categories of familiarity, ranging from people you know well to people you barely know. You could likely ask any question below to the people you know well, but we wouldn’t recommend asking questions from the first category to people in the third category. 

May these questions help you seek newfound insight into the people around you so that deeper and more challenging conversations might occur in the future.

With people you know well (e.g., family members or close friends)

  1. Who in our family has had the most impact on you?
  2. What is your favorite holiday memory?
  3. What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you lately?
  4. What do you think I should know about you that would help me better know the real you?
  5. What are you passionate about?
  6. What are you excited about coming up in your life? Any trips or vacations you’re planning? 
  7. What is your favorite childhood memory? 
  8. What was your favorite childhood activity?
  9. What was your favorite adventure we’ve had together?
  10. What hidden talents do you have? 

With people you see often (e.g., coworkers)

  1. What were you like in high school?
  2. What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work?
  3. What is your dream vacation?
  4. Would you tell me a story about your growing up that still sticks with you?
  5. Where did you grow up?
  6. How did you wind up in (city where you live, current profession, church, etc.)?
  7. What’s your favorite home-cooked meal? 
  8. If you could play one sport professionally, what would it be?
  9. What book (or film, play, etc.) has most impacted your life?
  10.  Which of your family members are you closest to? Why?

With people you barely know (e.g., acquaintances)

  1. What is your favorite (sports team, movie, book, game, etc.)?
  2. What is your dream vacation?
  3. What do you do for a living? Is that what you want to keep doing?
  4. Would you tell me about your family?
  5. Are you from this area originally?
  6. What do you like to do for fun in this area? 
  7. What is your favorite restaurant?
  8. What person has most impacted your life?
  9. What has made you smile most recently?
  10. How would your friends describe you? Would you agree?