Q&R: Responding Charitably

Here’s the Question:

Thanks for posting this on your blog. If you ever have the chance, I could use some direction on learning to respond charitably to fellow Christians who write/say hurtful things that seem to be damaging to the cause of Christ. I was very humbled by the non-defensive posture you take in conversation as evinced in WDJMBMCTR. I’m about 50/50 voice to voice or person to person, but have a much poorer track record in the blogosphere (i.e., commenting/interacting online).Any light you can shed on the subject matter would be great. Thanks for all you do.

Here’s My Response:

This question deserves a lot more than a short blog post. But here are five quick thoughts.

1. Sometimes, no response is needed. People are expressing their opinion, which they are free to do. Sadly, sometimes they disguise that opinion as fact. That is especially hurtful when they declare your motives. (I think of one high-profile author who disagreed with my interpretation of Scripture, so his proclamation? “Brian hates the Bible.” Sheesh.) To me, this is primarily a private, spiritual matter – something we process with God when we pray, “Forgive us our wrongs as we forgive those who wrong us.” It’s not something that needs to be dealt with in public discourse.

Often, especially online, people react in your post to things you never actually said. I felt that about my recent post on the Trayvon Martin verdict that got picked up a sojo.net and a few other places. We all could be kept busy 24/7 doing nothing more than correcting others’ non-sequiters, inartful reading, and unwarranted conclusions (and others could do the same for us). When this occurs, if we respond at all, it’s wise, I think, to agree with them where you can rather than pointing out where they mistakenly disagreed with you, since the latter often engenders defensiveness. But again, I usually choose not to respond at all.

2. It is important to choose wisely in who will be your conversation partners. Some people are paid to represent a cause or view, and for them to engage in honest, constructive dialogue would in a sense violate their contract. Their paid job is to advocate, not communicate. Often, off-line private communication is best with people in this category. When they’re doing their job, they provide a lot of material for you to work with – to say, “Some people say … but here’s how I see it…. and here’s why.”

3. When responding to criticism, I think it’s important to treat your critic as you wish your critic had treated you. In other words – far more important than you defending yourself (a dangerous enterprise) is you modeling a better way of communication. Sometimes a clarifying comment helps – offered non-defensively. Instead of, ‘You misrepresented me,’ something like, “I want to clarify my actual perspective on this….”

4. Often, I find the most realistic goal in an interchange to achieve disagreement agreeably. In other words, for you to be able to express your counterpart’s view in words your counterpart can say, “Yes, that’s what I believe,” and vice versa. This, to me, is an expression of loving your neighbor as yourself.

5. So often, our communication efforts are compromised by our fear of losing. I think we would be wise to cultivate another fear – a fear of winning at our counterpart’s expense. Even though I think many ideas are destructive and need to be confronted directly, I never want to hurt the person who holds those ideas. I would like to be able to feel a sincere smile on my face when I see a conversation partner in person … because I have reached a place in my heart where I truly love and like the person with whom I disagree.

So – those are some starters. I must quickly say that I have only reached these suggestions because I have failed at fulfilling them too often. In other words, I arrived at these conclusions through trial and error, and continue to try and err every day. But that’s life!

About Brian McLaren

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists.


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