I’m really great at getting into Facebook flame wars. I want to say that I am not proud of that, but if I am honest, sometimes I am very proud of it. I like to know that I have gotten under my opponent’s skin. I like to know that I have bested them in the artful way that I can mix logic, metaphor, and personal example until I get them to the point where they know that if they disagree with me, they will look foolish, mean-spirited, and racist, (or sexist, or homophobic, ect). This is not a good part of my personality. As I look down the long road of living in the United States in the intersection of many oppressed and marginalized identities under the Trump administration, I am aware that if I want to survive and thrive through these next years, I am going to need to get better at having productive conversations. I also realize that this is a real growing edge for me, and I hope that I can start to do better.
I’m not as bad as I used to be. Seminary has tempered my progressive rage against the machine. I have learned some nuance, and I recognize that folks who disagree with me may not be the literal devil. But, I still have a long way to go. So I am writing this post to myself, and to all the people like me who need to learn how to have a productive conversation with someone who does not agree with them. I think this is especially important for the Church right now. As a United Methodist, I know there are a lot of difficult conversations in my future. I want to go into them with all of the love, care, respect, and grace that I can. That is how God treats me, and that is how I should treat others. I want to be a bridge builder, not a bridge burner. That means I have to stop starting flame wars.
This isn’t going to be perfect. I am still learning this myself. Hopefully it will be a good start.
- This is the most important one. Go into every conversation with the willingness to be wrong. Especially be willing to be wrong about how you think the other person experiences the world. Also be willing to say things like, “you are totally right” with no qualifiers.
I understand that this is difficult. I am not saying that you should put up with any kind of abuse. I don’t think you should have to concede when someone is trying to tell you about your own life and experiences, but if they are telling you about their own, listen. Listen and try to understand.
When I speak to White people about race, I try to keep in mind that we have vastly different experiences in the world. I have to be willing to hear about their experience of racism and hope that if I take a position of listener, then they will be willing to do that same for me.
- Speak to others the way that you want to be spoken to. Listen with grace, and then respond with grace. Remember that it isn’t just your deeply held beliefs that are on the line here. The other person’s are too. If you don’t want your toes trodden upon, then also be willing to take off your own boots to avoid doing that same thing to others. It takes vulnerability. If you take off your boots, that leaves your feet unprotected, but it is also an invitation for the other person to do the same. That is also the first step in walking in another’s shoes. ( I know I am mixing metaphor’s here, but go with me on this) If you take down your own defenses and speak to the other person without attacking, but only trying to share your own experiences, then there is a better chance that they will open up to you as well.
This could mean that the other person hurts you. This is especially true if that person is used to coming into an argument with guns blazing. If you keep your speech full of grace and try to make it as clear as possible that you are listening, and that you respect the other person, then you have a much greater chance of both teaching, and also learning for yourself.
- If you are hurt by what the other person says, do not attack back. Instead, keep in mind what Michelle Obama taught us, “When they go low, we go high.” Don’t return insult for insult. Stay calm. Or, if the offense was to great and you cannot stay calm, then leave the conversation. Maybe not forever, maybe you just leave until either you can calmly explain why the comments were hurtful, and/or the other person realizes their mistake and apologizes. The most important thing is to not get brought down to the level of a bully.
I hope these few thought have been helpful. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Please add to it and help me and others learn how to navigate contentious conversations with grace, respect, and love.