4 Tools Everyone Needs for Controversial Discussions to Be Successful

  • Julie Davis Crosswalk Contributing Writer
  • 2020 11 Aug
4 Tools Everyone Needs for Controversial Discussions to Be Successful

The year 2020 has brought on a myriad of controversies regarding social justice, politics, public health, and more. Tensions are high, and the complex and emotionally loaded nature of these issues make discussions quickly turn ugly.

While this discouraging reality can make some want to shy away from these hard conversations, it is our duty as believers to step into uncomfortable spaces for the purpose of God’s glory: 

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:8-11

As this verse shows, our duty does not however simply stop at engagement. The methods by which we expose the darkness and replace it with light is essential to both our obedience to God and our effectiveness in the world.

Below are four tools for engaging in controversial discussions so that the Lord is glorified, we are transformed, and our society is positively impacted. 

1. Connect as Humans

As thrilling as they may feel, online debates rarely accomplish more good than harm. If you open up your Twitter or Facebook feed, I guarantee that within 30 seconds you will be able to find one of those black hole threads of lengthy and nasty debates among a mob of commenters. Why do these types of discussions so frequently devolve into backbiting?

Because it’s easy to dehumanize the person behind the tiny icon or handle to which you are responding.  

If you really want to engage in a productive way, don’t do it over social media. If you can’t meet in person, aim for the next best option of a video chat or phone call. The more opportunity to look into their eyes, read their body language, and hear the conviction in their voice, the easier it will be for both of you to receive each other’s words.

I used to work as a project manager for a web design company and would frequently communicate via email with our clients. Despite the fact that this was the fastest, easiest, and most organized method for providing updates, I noticed a pattern of clients responding with far more cold and even combative reactions than the situation called for. Conflict seemed to arise out of nowhere.

However, nearly every time that I picked up the phone and had a live conversation, the clients would prove to be reasonable and gracious, and the relationship would be restored.  

Once you have connected in-person (or as close as possible), it is also important to keep in mind the inherent dignity that you both possess as image bearers of God. We all were made with minds that desire the truth and, while the work of the father of lies Satan and the reality of our fallenness often clouds that pursuit, there is hope for renewal.

As you keep this fuller picture of the human condition in your mind, your heart will fill with compassion and hope, and “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) will become slightly easier, even while in conversation with someone who holds an opposing opinion.  

2. Prioritize Care over Conquering 

There is always a history behind someone’s emotionally charged stance. If you are debating with a close friend or family member, you may already be aware of the aspects of a certain topic which triggers a heightened response. Instead of exploiting the things you know about a person to gain the upper hand, use them as a tool for providing understanding and sensitivity as you engage.

If you don’t know the background of a person’s viewpoints, ask caring questions that equip you with the context of their worldview. Make observations like, “I can tell that you care a lot about this issue. What drew you to it?” 

At the same time, while you want to avoid steamrolling the other person for the purpose of winning an argument, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should feel guilty if they struggle with or feel offended by your viewpoint. Jesus Himself warned that “You will be hated by everyone because of me…” (Matthew 10:22). Just make sure that you are conducting yourself in a way that allows room for your listener to feel offended because of the truth---not because you are being a jerk.

Let the other person’s response inform your approach to the conversation, but not to the degree that it deters your conviction. Holding these factors in the balances will allow you to discern when it’s time to press in, and when it’s time to bookmark a conversation for the next time.

three different multicultural races having a conversation diversity

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

3. Check Yourself 

In the same way that you are remaining sensitive to others, pay attention to your own response in the midst of a controversial conversation. What are the emotions that well up as you discuss a certain topic? As you engage, notice what your body language, any physical sensations, and voice inflection may be telling you.

What is driving you to either engage further or withdraw from the discussion? As Lamentations 3:40 exhorts, “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.”

Take care that, while you are working to defend your position, you are also remaining humble to assess the status of your own heart and mind. 

You cannot productively deliberate with another person unless you are first willing to find out that your own stance may be mistaken. Even if you remain convinced that you are in the right, listen with a curiosity and respect for the other person that allows you to more graciously understand where they are coming from.

Are you asking questions for the purpose of gaining understanding, or in order to prove the other person wrong? One way to practice remaining present as the other person speaks is to reiterate their argument back to them and give them the chance to either correct your interpretation or affirm that you are understanding them correctly. “So, it sounds like you’re saying [blank]... Is that right?” That way, you will focus more of your energy on really grasping their point of view, and less on preparing your next comeback. 

Proverbs 18:2 tells us, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” It is so easy to miss the bulk of another person’s argument because you are busying your mind with your next response. So, ask the Lord to provide the humility to listen and the will to submit to the things that He may be teaching you in your conversations with others. 

4. Lean on God’s Sovereignty

Whether or not the person you are debating with is a believer, rest assured that the Lord is with you in your conversation. There is so much happening internally with two people as they talk; it’s often easy to feel discouraged and like you’re not getting through. Jesus Himself dealt with this same frustration. However, in John 16:8-11, He assures us with the hope of the Holy Spirit:

“When {the Holy Spirit} comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment because the prince of this world now stands condemned.”

Our efforts can only get us so far, but the Spirit is at work in every facet of the mind of man. His acts are often subtle, gradual, and even imperceptible to our eyes; but they are powerful.

I have personally experienced this surprising work: Four years ago the pastor of my church commented on our denomination’s history of complicit participation in racism, and shared his support of an organization-wide apology that was issued in response. At the time, I felt that the call to lament over a sin which I felt I personally had nothing to do with was simply a call for white guilt.

However, though I disagreed with him, his words stuck with me. As years passed, the Holy Spirit chipped away at my heart until it did a 180-degree turn. Now I see the great importance of the church’s humility and repentance -- both individually and corporately -- as an integral part of racial reconciliation. 

It may take hours, weeks, or even years, but the Lord patiently tears down the walls brick by brick—conversation by conversation— as He faithfully works to redeem hearts and minds. In the meantime, keep showing up time and time again, watching expectantly for His transformative work. 

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/AaronAmat

Julie Davis is a retired ballet dancer-turned-homeschool mom of 3 young daughters. Her passion is for walking alongside fellow believers and reminding them of the grace and power of the Gospel in their lives. She loves to ponder and laugh at the adventures of life and motherhood via her Instagram and blog. Julie and her husband George live in Richmond, Virginia and enjoy hosting friends, getting outside, and sipping on moderately priced bourbon.

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