Modeling healthy disagreement as leaders
We are living in an argument culture. According to linguist Deborah Tannen — who coined the term for her book The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words — we are becoming more adversarial, and, as a result, our communication is growing increasingly hostile. We perceive others who disagree with us as not just wrong, but as enemies we must defeat.
Yet Jesus challenges us to engage in enemy-loving, rather than enemy-defeating. So how do we, as leaders, model civility in our discourse without compromising our values? What can we do to demonstrate how to disagree well?
Take Care of Our Own Stuff
To model civility in disagreement, we must first recognize issues that may exist in our own lives. Disagreement is not inherently poor communication, but disagreement that dehumanizes or delegitimizes another human being is contrary to our call to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It is important to search our hearts and examine our motives. Ask: What is happening inside me that I feel compelled to engage openly with someone about a disagreement? Is there unresolved hurt or anger? Am I speaking from a place of personal pain or insecurity? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” pray and seek healing for unresolved emotions.
This does not mean ignoring issues that led to hurt or anger. However, we must bring our motives under the authority of Jesus so we can confront disagreement and seek restoration for brokenness.
Recognizing and acknowledging what brought us to our positions on hot-button issues can also help us as we communicate with others. Consider: What experiences or circumstances might they have encountered in their lives? How would I respond if I had faced such a challenge?
Mirroring our own reactions to issues in our consideration of others helps create empathy and compassion. When encountering disagreement, these actions keep our own communication in check and limit the possibility of the disagreement escalating to a place of incivility.
Choose Your Words Wisely
As leaders, we must consider the words and metaphors we use. The language we use is an indication of our perception of those with whom we disagree.
Using war or battle imagery or phrases that imply persecution creates an “us versus them” atmosphere. Poor word selection can draw lines of opposition that become difficult to dismantle as the conversation unfolds.
People are desperate to see examples of healthy communication and positive relationships.
Avoid falling into language patterns that lead to confrontation. Instead, ask clarifying questions to discern the other person’s position. Then respond thoughtfully rather than reacting with hostility.
Employ “I/you” language instead of making accusatory statements. For example, say, “I am sensing that you have some experience with this issue. Would you mind sharing that with me?”
Asking these questions helps establish common ground rather than oppositional language that encourages an equally oppositional response.
Right or Relationship
Don’t fight just to be “right.” There will be moments when you know the truth is on your side. However, what is more important to you as a leader: to be right, or to be in relationship?
In most cases, preserving the relationship is the best choice. This means that even if we are right, it is our responsibility to back off from the disagreement and to do so with honor toward the other person. As leaders, we must model to others how to bow out gracefully and to choose the other over ourselves. Not every issue, right or wrong, requires an argument.
Recognizing when to engage and when to remain silent is a mark of spiritual maturity. It is the Holy Spirit’s work to convict; we need to get out of the way and stop playing savior. When you know you are right and that you spoke the truth, make the choice to go silent and stop talking. Silence can be a powerful means of expression and one we should employ more often.
Finally, take seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies. This is explicitly contrary to our human nature. The hearts of humanity are sinful, and there is a human tendency to treat those with whom we disagree as less than human. Jesus often spoke in opposition to the leaders and influencers of His day, but with each interaction, He demonstrated how to confront in love.
There is a difference between presenting an argument and arguing, which is often a contest of words — or, worse, verbal assault — rather than conversation. It is civil to communicate our beliefs, but it is only communication if we are willing to listen as others communicate theirs.
To change the incivility that is mounting in our argument culture, we must reclaim civility — not through verbal sparring and fighting to be right, but through choosing to hear someone else’s heart, even if that heart is broken. It is a reminder to us that our own position often comes from a place of pain. Such awareness helps us show grace and receive grace in return.
People are desperate to see examples of healthy communication and positive relationships. It is incumbent upon us, as leaders who claim to represent Christ, that we model for one another how to engage in civil discourse that honors who we are as people created in the image of God who are all in need of healing from our argument culture.
For more on this topic, listen to the Influence Podcast featuring Joy Qualls: “How to Debate Hot-Button Issues Well.”