“What is that? It smells like something died in here,” my friend bellowed after we got in my car.
I’d definitely noticed an odor coming from my car’s trunk before that weekend (though I don’t remember how long I’d been aware of it). However, after my friend Diane and I drove four hours to my sister’s house for Fourth of July and then left my car sitting in the hot Saturday sun, the stench was too much. Upon investigation, I discovered a liquified onion in a grocery bag in the corner of my trunk.
Sometime before, I let another friend borrow my car. She’d texted me to let me know she’d left a bag of food in the trunk for me. She also reminded me to bring it inside. I never did. (I might have a procrastination problem.)
And it stunk.
When I think about the conversations Christians are having about politics, I cringe. No, I actually want to bang my head into some drywall and scream into a void. I also think of the onion in my car, and here’s why: most Christians believe in speaking the truth in love. However, for some reason when it comes to politics, we’re ok leaving that idea in the trunk. We like the idea of love in all areas, but we’re not going to bring it to certain conversations. It’s like we get this selective moral amnesia: we’ll argue for voting a certain way on the basis of morality, and completely leave behind the need for morality in the way we treat those with whom we disagree. Everyone will start taking sides and slinging mud, and it’s like Red Rover but with insults and sarcastic memes. And things are beginning to stink.
He knew that nobody forgets their opinions, but we do forget to bring love out of the dark corners of our hearts and into our conversations.
This shouldn’t be surprising though, since Jesus told us that, as the end of time draws nearer, the love of many will grow cold. But He also exhorted us to endure in love. He knew that nobody forgets their opinions, but we do forget to bring love out of the dark corners of our hearts and into our conversations. So, in light of that exhortation, here are six principles of loving communication to practice as you navigate conversations about the election, and, well, really anything controversial.
1. Affirm where you can
I have become all things to all men . . . – Paul, the apostle
If you want to have a constructive, helpful discussion about anything with a person of opposite opinion, you have to learn to find common ground. People listen and can actually become quite open to critique when they feel understood. You can do this by finding points of agreement wherever you can.
You might be thinking, “Did she just say find common ground with a [insert opposite political party]?!” Yes, because the fact is, that’s how people work, including you. Think about when you express your opinion. If someone quickly jumps in and tells you why you’re wrong, you’re not likely to respond with, “Man, now that I’ve been intellectually bullied into a corner, I definitely feel compelled to change my mind on this complex and highly controversial topic.” So, when you generously correct someone else’s delusional thinking on Facebook without taking the time to find points of agreement, you’re probably not going to get that response either.
Common ground is like grey hair: there’s actually a lot more of it than most of us realize or want to admit, and we usually find it when we start looking at people’s hearts. If you’re a Republican and you think your grandchild has become a crazy communist/social justice warrior, you can say something like, “Wow, you really have a passion to advocate for those who’ve been hurt. That’s beautiful.” If you’re passionate about reforming the police and you’re talking to a friend who believes in Blue Lives Matter, you can affirm the fact that we need to support good police officers.
It takes effort and intentionality to find points of connection, but none of us is above the process, as we have the example of a selfless, all-powerful, all-knowing, omni-present Jesus, who was incarnate for each one of us. No one could have had less in common with you, and yet He came to walk in your shoes. When there wasn’t common ground, He made some. This doesn’t mean we compromise our values or don’t speak up for what we believe in. It means we start by letting people know that we believe they have good hearts, they are intelligent children of God, and we are all part of the same family.
We already know what divides us. Let’s also remember what connects us.
2. Listen to understand, not to respond
He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him. – King Solomon
We all know listening is important, but usually what we call listening is only us waiting for our turn to talk. Or us responding to our emotional triggers instead of what the person is actually saying.
Real listening means you shut up, resist the urge to interrupt, make eye contact, nod your head, and say things like, “Mhmm.” (If that’s hard, just pretend you’re eating a sandwich.) Then think about what they’re actually saying. Don’t think about what you’re going to say back.
Once someone’s finished explaining their point of view to you, respond with something like, “I want to make sure I understand clearly. It sounds like you’re saying [repeat back in your own words what you think they said]. Is that right?” And then let them correct or affirm. Let them keep explaining. Be generous with your attention.
Real listening also means you don’t simplify people. Let them be as complicated and messy as they truly are, because we all are. The media has sold us a lie that in life you can only be one way or another: liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. If you care about the unborn, you can’t care about the environment. If you’re passionate about racial reconciliation, then you can’t care about the unborn. But people are never that simple, and, as one of my friends put it, it’s “intellectual laziness” to think so. God made us all incredibly complex and beautiful. We are each unique mashups of our family history, genetics, trauma, life experiences, culture, ethnicity, and so much more. So, as you listen to someone, remember that they are a person, not a profile. Resist the urge to label or write them off because they said something that sounds like the people or party you don’t like.
By truly listening, not only can you learn new things about the opposing side’s view, but you also help the person you’re talking with feel safe and more willing to hear what you have to say. Remember: God gave you two ears and only one mouth.
3. Maybe don’t respond
So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath . . . – James, the apostle
This point builds on the last one. When you’re talking about something controversial, sometimes the best thing to do is not to share your opinion at all. This is difficult, because if someone expresses an erroneous view on an issue, it’s obviously always our job to quickly correct them, right?
It comes down to treating others how you’d want to be treated. We become the most teachable when we feel the most loved, and people feel loved when they feel heard. So sometimes—not all the time—the best thing to do is let someone share their point of view and save your opinion for another day. This year has been exhausting for everyone, and we all need to be heard sometimes without someone telling us why we’re wrong or picking apart our emotions.
People are drawn to what they can’t have. So sometimes the best way to share your opinion is not to.
Another benefit to withholding your opinion is that it can have a magnetic effect in a controversial conversation. Here’s what I mean. Social media has basically become a chronic case of opinion-diarrhea. Everyone is shouting you’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong! So, if you give someone the space to freely express their views, but you wait for another time to share yours—maybe you listen thoughtfully and say, “Wow, that’s really interesting. Thanks so much for sharing that with me! Do you wanna make baklava?”—it can build curiosity. Why are they not telling me why I’m wrong? Everyone responds to this topic. They’re not saying anything. This is weird. What do they think?
Then, if they ask about your point of view, the conversation dynamic changes. You’re not pushing your view on them. They’ve asked for it, and it’s often easier to communicate something hard if someone has asked for the information themselves rather than you volunteering it. People are drawn to what they can’t have. So sometimes the best way to share your opinion is not to.
4. Don’t be rude, sarcastic, or argue
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world . . . – Paul, the apostle
We live in a society that values comebacks and clapbacks over kindness and courtesy. We applaud the guy with the last word. The irony is our instincts tell us this is the way to win, but, as Bob Goff, author of Love Does, put it, “No one has ever been argued into a change of heart.” The moment a conversation turns argumentative or you start making fun at the expense of someone’s ideals or values, the chances of actually convincing them of the validity of your view drops drastically.
One way you can check yourself when posting and commenting online is to ask, If I were having a face-to-face conversation, would I say this? This isn’t a perfect safeguard, since some of us don’t know how to be kind in person either, but it can help. Think about it. Imagine you just met someone at church and you’re talking and getting to know each other. They share some life advice they find meaningful, but you don’t see eye-to-eye with the philosophy. In that scenario, you likely wouldn’t jump in and say, “Wow! That’s toxic!” or “I can’t believe people say such insensitive platitudes.” Yet this is essentially what we do online all the time. The temptation to become monsters of self-righteousness skyrockets when we’re safely hidden behind our screens, shielded from the real-time reactions and lives of the real people reading our hurtful comments.
So, if you really are as passionate about an issue or candidate as you think you are, don’t be mean. Arguing with someone in a conversation face-to-face, posting sarcastic memes, or ranting in the Facebook comments might make you feel like you’ve won, but you’re really only pulling out the rug from under your own feet.
5. Give more grace than you think you need to when communicating online
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted . . . – Paul, the apostle
This point definitely goes for face-to-face conversations as well, but online communication needs special consideration. In addition to not being mean when communicating online, we need to be intentional about giving lots of grace, both when writing our own posts and when interpreting others’.
On social media platforms, no one can hear our tone of voice or read our facial expressions or body language, which make up the lion’s share of communication. Please read that sentence again. People can’t see or hear you and you can’t hear or see them. So, a post that you think sounds merely informative and non-mean, can easily come off as brusque and dismissive without you ever intending it to. A post you find horribly offensive might not be nearly as bad as you think were you to see and hear the person.
Remember people write casually. They forget to use punctuation when they write a caption. They’re tweeting under the influence of their day-to-day lives and emotions. They’re sitting in an Uber, their boss is yelling at them, they’re trying to juggle screaming babies while making dinner. So when you are offended by a post online, remember there is an Everest-sized mountain of information you don’t know, and let that inform the way you respond.
How much differently would we tweet back if we could see the life stories surrounding the 280 characters we were offended by? Probably a lot. But we can’t see those stories. So, let’s be kinder and more understanding than we think we need to be, definitely in person, but especially online—turn the dial way up!
6. Come with humility and empathy
Love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. –Paul, the apostle
The bus driver who worked for the boarding academy I attended once said in a worship talk, “We sin the most when we’re right.”
As you talk with others, be humble. It is possible for you to be wrong.
We can make an idol out of our own rightness, and when we do, we start treating each other horribly. In her 2011 TED Talk titled, “On Being Wrong,”1 American journalist Kathryn Schulz breaks down three unfortunate assumptions we make about people when they disagree with us:
- They’re ignorant. If someone doesn’t see an issue like we do, they must not have all the same information, because if they did, they would be on our side.
- If they’re educated on a topic, but they still disagree with us, then we assume they must be morons. They have the same information as we do, but they’re just not smart enough to put the pieces together.
- If someone is educated and intelligent, but they still disagree with us, then we assume they must be evil. They know what’s true, but they won’t admit it because they’re terrible people.
Jumping to these conclusions causes us to treat each other in the most un-Christlike of ways. But the big problem comes when you meet someone who clearly loves God, knows the Bible, is intelligent, displays selfless love, but still disagrees with you. What do you do? And what do you do if you meet lots of those someones? Do you write them all off as ignorant, idiotic, or selfish?
The bus driver who worked for the boarding academy I attended once said in a worship talk, “We sin the most when we’re right.”
Or do you start to realize that it’s possible for you to be wrong?
Or that there are usually more than two sides to the issues closest to our hearts?
Or that maybe there is truth in both sides and that there is righteousness in the tension of both perspectives?
And that there is so much you don’t know?
The Bible is full of people who were sure God was definitely on their side only to find out Jesus was on the other side of the line they drew. Peter was sure he would always stick up for Jesus. The twelve were sure that if you weren’t following Jesus with them, then you weren’t following Jesus at all. The Pharisees were convinced there was no way a carpenter’s son could be the Messiah. At some point, the holiest move for each of them to make was to admit they were wrong.
Don’t make an idol out of your certainty.
And even if someone is wrong (because there are absolute truths), believe the best about their heart. Remember it’s possible for someone to have pure motives and make wrong conclusions. But shaming them for those conclusions won’t help correct them.
…it’s possible for someone to have pure motives and make wrong conclusions. But shaming them for those conclusions won’t help correct them.
Take time first to understand their story and empathize. You don’t have to agree with someone’s conclusion to understand where they came from and say, “Yeah, I’ve been there too” or “Wow, I can totally see how you’d feel that way.” If you take the time to understand the journey that brought a person to where they are, you’ll likely find it’s because they’ve been driven by a mixture of faulty human love, fear, and selfishness, just like you.
Let’s prioritize humility and empathy as much as we prioritize voting.
In conclusion, what I’m basically trying to say is don’t let your love be like a rotten onion you forgot in your car and is now stinking up your conversations. Bring love not just into what you believe, but how you believe it.
Don’t just be right in your ideas. Be right in your spirit, your words, and actions.
Let’s endure in love.
- Kathryn Schulz, “On Being Wrong,” TED, April 26, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QleRgTBMX88.
Allie is a 2012 ARISE graduate and on-staff writer and communications assistant for Light Bearers. She is fascinated by the intersection of faith and the creative process and enjoys poetry. When she’s not watching a good movie with her friends, she enjoys narrating life with mediocre accents.