the shape of leadership

Fully Engaging Conversations With Doubters

Be present, whether talking face-to-face or online

Tyler Fulcher on October 16, 2020

There’s never been a better time to live through a global pandemic that causes massive isolation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly difficult, and the pain people are walking through is undeniable. However, technology has mitigated the magnitude of isolation we would have faced even 30 years ago.

The seeming omnipresence of smartphones, the invention of video conferencing, and other technological advances have enabled us to communicate with one another from the confines of our homes in much more therapeutic ways than landlines and dial-up internet ever did. Still, we know we aren’t meant to survive this way for long periods. We need full engagement with other humans.

Before COVID-19, there was a lot of talk about the need to unplug from technology and reengage people around us. While lockdowns have opened our eyes to the real value and potential of technology, the fact remains: We need quality human interaction to thrive.

This is especially true for those in whom COVID-19 has awakened fundamental questions about the world and their place in it. Whether Christian, atheist, agnostic, or something else, all sorts of people are grappling with doubts. And people who are asking existential questions need someone to be fully present with them in conversation.

Since local restrictions or personal comfort levels may prevent us from being physically present with some people, it’s important to recognize what we miss in virtual meetings and ensure that we take steps to compensate for those shortcomings. Here are two tips for being fully present with someone, whether in person or online:

1. Make sure you see them. One of the many reasons video conference apps like Zoom are so fantastic is they allow us to see the people with whom we are talking. It enables us to see their facial expressions and their body positions, which help us add appropriate context to the words and inflections they use. Video conferencing is a vast improvement over texting and phone calls, but it still has its pitfalls.

Since we aren’t in the room with each other, it’s easy to become distracted by our surroundings and lose focus on the person on the computer screen. The effect is the same as if we are constantly checking our phones during a meeting over coffee: The person feels secondary to our agenda. They feel unseen.

We cannot expect someone to be vulnerable about their doubts and questions when our actions make them feel unseen.

Whether we are meeting with doubters via video or in person, we must make sure we see them. We cannot expect someone to be vulnerable about their doubts and questions when our actions make them feel unseen.

So, next time you are out to coffee with someone, make sure you put away your phone and keep your eyes locked on your friend. If your conversation happens online, position yourself in front of the camera so your friend can see you aren’t browsing the internet or doing anything besides engaging with him or her.

2. Make sure you hear them. Besides feeling seen, people opening up about their doubts, struggles or questions often want to be heard first. A time may come when they are ready to look for answers, but the first conversations they have with you are most often about being understood.

People come by their doubts and questions honestly, and they are likely aware that the issues they raise with people who think differently than them might cause discomfort. The last thing they want is to feel their conversation partner doesn’t understand why they ask their questions. This is why hearing our friends is so important.

Hearing someone requires more than taking note of the words coming out of their mouth. When we are talking to someone about important issues in life, we need to understand why they express themselves as they do.

We can utilize lessons from our time on video conference calls to develop better listening skills. Audio glitches and technical issues continually force us to ask our friends or co-workers to repeat themselves when meeting on Zoom. If we don’t ask clarifying questions, it becomes apparent we missed an important detail.

Unfortunately, we often let the practice of asking clarifying questions go out the window in face-to-face interactions. When we talk with someone who has doubts and questions, we need to make sure we understand what we think we hear them saying.

If we are going to walk with people as they navigate existential questions in their lives, we must be fully present with them. While it may not be physically possible in every scenario, applying a few simple tweaks to our normal conversation patterns can dramatically improve the quality of our conversations.

So, next time a friend is opening up to you about difficult issues in his or her life, make sure you see and hear that person before you start talking.

Influence is proud to partner with Preston Ulmer and The Doubter’s Club on a series of articles about spiritual conversations with non-Christian friends. The series appears biweekly on Fridays. Ulmer is founder of The Doubter’s Club and director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network of the Assemblies of God.

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