How to Disagree Agreeably
Four ways to navigate debates without shutting down dialogue
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who strongly expressed a point of view different from your own, you know it can be difficult. Tension can build quickly as the discussion escalates from cordial to opinionated, and perhaps even to downright heated.
Such interaction is happening more frequently as the divides escalate in our country and culture. Pastors and leaders regularly encounter people who want to debate — and the potential fallout that comes with them.
So, how do we navigate pressure points that may conceal latent hostility? What traits do we as leaders need to possess so we can avoid conversation killers when somebody expresses a differing viewpoint? Start with these four skills:
1. Model a Posture of Humility
You cannot have meaningful conversations with others if you have an aura of arrogance. And if you use your leadership position to power up your opinion, you risk losing your influence with the person who disagrees. As a pastor, you need to be sure the tone of your preaching and the stance you take on issues don’t ooze pride.
Author John Dickson wisely said, “Humility applied to convictions does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship.”
If you communicate your convictions and beliefs with a spirit of pride, you’ll shut down conversations and burn bridges with people who think differently than you.
Model humility — from start to finish. The apostle Paul said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
Humility reveals your value for others, whereas pride reveals your contempt of others. Humility makes room for the conversation to breathe.
2. Ask Sincere Questions
Seek first to understand. Asking sincere questions helps you shift from correcting people to connecting with them. Rather than relying on surface-level comments, questions help you dig deeper so you can understand the heart behind the comments.
Asking questions also helps you peel back the layers so you can understand the why, not just the what. Unfortunately, not every leader sees it that way. Too often we equate asking questions with making compromises. In other words, when somebody expresses a viewpoint that is blatantly opposed to ours (or even to Scripture), we think making room for discussion is the same as compromising our convictions.
However, the ability to discuss controversial issues with gentleness and graciousness is actually a sign of wisdom. Solomon said, “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips” (Ecclesiastes 10:12).
If you can’t ask sincere questions that help you grow in understanding, you may not be as interested in the person as you are in your opinion.
If you can’t ask sincere questions that help you grow in understanding, you may not be as interested in the person as you are in your opinion. You’ll lose influence, as well as the necessary respect to lead him or her.
3. Practice Active Listening
Leaders tend to be tellers. Maybe that’s why we often squirm when somebody says something with which we disagree. But what if instead we gave them our undivided attention? What if we practiced active listening?
In his book, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle, James Hunter writes about the importance of active listening:
Active listening requires a disciplined effort to silence all that internal conversation while we’re attempting to listen to another human being. It requires a sacrifice, an extension of ourselves, to block out the noise and truly enter another person’s world — even for a few minutes. Active listening is attempting to see things as the speaker sees them and attempting to feel things as the speaker feels them. This identification with the speaker is referred to as empathy and requires a great deal of effort.
Unfortunately, too often we trade active listening for listening cafeteria style. We take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and we ignore the parts of the conversation that might actually be good for us to hear.
If you’re going to connect with someone who has a different viewpoint than you, you have to listen with your ears, eyes, and body language, and you have to lean in and tune in to what the other person is saying.
4. Control Your Response
Proverbs 10:19 says, “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” Our response as leaders will directly shape what the other person says next. Our response should demonstrate self-control, grace and wisdom.
Ephesians 4:29 offers guidance on what to say, what not to say, and why:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Notice, our words should be wholesome and helpful, and our words should build others up “according to their needs,” not our preferences. Again, this requires self-control.
If your words run wild without a governor to control them, you’ll undermine the relationship (as well as your witness). Author Brian Johnson once said, “I wish I would have remembered that there were people on the other side of my words.”
Words are powerful — especially when they come from leaders. On the other side of our words are real people, with real feelings, hopes, dreams, struggles and problems. How we respond will determine whether those words build or break, heal or hurt, develop or destroy.
Proverbs 16:21 says, “The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction.” And verse 24 says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”
I realize it can be hard to practice these skills when someone else is expressing views that go against everything you believe and stand for. But keep in mind, strong opinions often mask private pain. It’s possible God wants to use you to listen, care, and respond in a way that allows you to minister to the deeper pain.