80: How to Listen and Disagree

In this episode John and Gregg discuss how one can or should disagree, in situations where others raise viewpoints that one thinks are questionable or does not believe.   John gives the example of being at a party and someone making an offhand comment about the human soul after death. Several people added supporting comments and John observed a number of “courtesy nods.”

John thought something seemed amiss in the comment but didn’t think that he could unpack all his thoughts (or perhaps even be as clear about them as he wanted to be) and so chose to remain silent. Yet he raises the idea that having integrity can also mean being honest about the fact that one doesn’t agree with something. So John wonders: How can we be constructive while disagreeing?

Gregg replies that it is rare to find himself expressing his disagreement with a particular perspective or person and, out of that, for a real conversation to develop. Instead, the assumption seems to be that deep subjects are “dropped into” casual conversation, much like we would discuss sports or the weather.

Gregg explains that he seeks both to assess the context he is in (is a party or a discussion group; does he know most people well or nearly no one) and whether, given both the context and his how state of mind, fatigue, etc., this is an engagement that he wants to pursue. When Gregg does decide to engage on the subject his main approach is to understand the other party’s viewpoint and then to raise only a few points, and he is prepared for his points not to be understood well.

In his experience Gregg notes that if the conversation continues long enough then there is typically some discomfort, because Gregg may be expressing views that are new to the other party. So Gregg is all the more excited by his interaction with productive Tommi and Anna because, most often, the other party becomes fearful when faced with different ways of understanding God or themselves, which can make them shy away or even become reactionary.

John wonders again: is there a place for the courtesy nod?

Gregg maintains that his first approach is to determine what type of engagement the other person is looking for, coupled with just how new or unfamiliar Gregg’s views of Christianity, the Christian life, etc. will likely appear to that person. Gregg often proceeds by offering a little of his thought on a subject and, if the other party seems interested or curious, offer more. When it comes to close friends, Gregg gauges his response based on the situation. So the more difficult the situation his friend is in, the more that Gregg will seek to understand the details of that situation and the person’s life before ever engaging about what s/he thinks about certain topic.

Gregg goes on to note that the mode of interaction most typical of Christians faced with non-Christian viewpoints that question or challenge their beliefs is not dialogue but dispute. Not only does Gregg greatly disagrees with this inclination but also thinks that it is likely the reason why Christians may seem to be looking more for courtesy nods than deeper engagement on such topics, because where we find the views of another to be unbiblical we have been trained not to discuss but to debate!

So rather than a heated dialogue (which seeks to advance the matter to its best conclusion) a dispute already knows what is right and what is wrong and is only focused proving this, or having one’s opponent back down. And this, to Gregg’s mind, is not Christian. Further, Gregg notes that “critical listening” is not waiting patiently or politely before firing back. In fact, when it comes to Christians employing this in discussions, there is often far too much “critical” and far too little “listening.” Rather, listening means attempting to bring out the best and fullest within the other person’s perspective and attempting to strengthen them and doing so because I hope and believe that, through our discussion, we are on a joint venture for truth.

John asks a practical question: What are three ways that we can become better listeners in the coming week?

Gregg answers that the first step must be to consider our theories on the mater, because until there is an understanding of the differences in theoretical approach between Gregg and those he may be addressing, his practical advice is much more likely to be misunderstood (and so misapplied). So Gregg’s three ways amount to asking ourselves three questions that will put us in the right position to listen best to others:

1) How well are you able to consider that the other person’s perspective may have merit (and so draw out the strengths in their perspective)?
2) How are you understanding where the other person is coming from (or what are you actually doing / how are you actually disposed to the person when you are listening to them)?
3) How are your balancing listening and critiquing (or how are you developing the other person’s comfort and trust so that they are able to hear you when you speak critically)?

So Gregg notes that his goal is to bring understanding but that he will not engage in conversation where it is clear from the setting or the person’s demeanour that s/he is not disposed toward understanding.

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