“What we have here is a failure to communicate!” When Natalie and I were in premarital counseling with Dr. Jimmy Agan, he walked us through the different levels of conflict. He said, essentially, there were 5 levels of conflict.
Level 1: Tension
This is something any healthy relationship faces. People sometimes have different opinions and there is tension. The situation is: “We both want to know how these perspectives fit together. What can we learn from each other?”
Level 2: Opposition
This is also something any healthy relationship faces. There are two positions and only one is possible. The situation is: “We both want to discover which of these perspectives is true. How can we solve the problem?”
Level 3: Adversarial Relations
This is where things begin to get unhealthy. Trust and respect is lost. The situation is: “I want to win, and I want you to lose. This means more to me than learning or discovering the truth.”
There are also levels four and five, where things get even uglier, but that’s not where I want to go today…..
What I see happening in a lot of areas of discourse is level 3 type conflict. This “I want to win, and I want you to lose” mentality is modeled by politicians, non-government leaders, and social activists alike. This situation arises when trust and respect is lost. I fear this method of communicating is slowly becoming the norm through memes, soundbite communication, and snarky news/comedy shows.
For example, look at the recent gun control debate which is raging in all corners. On one side, you have the accusation that there is a group of people who simply want to remove the rights of all gun owners to even have guns. On the other side, there is the accusation that “If you do not care about gun control, you are fine sacrificing our children for your gun rights.” Neither accurately depicts the other side’s position. Complicating matters is the fact that there are not merely two sides, but millions of Americans with nuanced positions. Painting others with a broad brush and labeling them is a lot easier than learning and discovering the truth, fostering trust and respect, and moving forward to a better future.
When I was in high school debate class, we were told that if we could not accurately state the other person’s position in a way they would agree with it, then we could not engage their argument and would automatically lose the debate. Yet it is so much easier to misrepresent the other side and tear down ideas that really nobody believes.
Here are some thoughts for fostering positive dialogue, in your own personal life and even within societal conversations.
- Labor to understand the other side. If you can’t communicate the other side’s position in a way that they would agree with, then listen more. Learn more. Research more. Read their own sources, not summaries of their positions by snarky comedians and those who disagree with them. Jesus is a great example of understanding the other side. Look at how he engaged with the Pharisees’ position in John 5:39 – “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…” Jesus was able to say what they believed in a way they could agree with. Because of this, he could gain ground in winning not only the argument, but the people he was talking to as well.
- Know the people on the other side. The other side is composed of human beings. They have stories, emotions, families, and lives. They are rarely the one-dimensional monsters we can make them to be in our minds. Jesus sat down with people of every stripe in order to win them. He ate with them, walked with them, stayed up late talking to them, and extended a relationship to them. No surprise that so many willingly followed him. No surprise that he was able to speak to the issues they were concerned with!
- Craft your argument to engage the other side. Too often, what passes for dialogue is simply people talking past each other to people they already agree with. It’s an attempt to rally the base. What if instead of saying, “You want to take our guns away,” you said, “I hear you desiring the ban of 30 round mags. Here is why I find that particular suggestion ill-advised?” What if instead of saying, “You are going to sacrifice the lives or our kids so you can keep your guns,” you said, “Here is the connection I see between certain types of gun ownership and mass killings of children?”
I’ve used the gun debate as an example, but this can pay dividends in every area of life. When actual communication takes place, trust and relationship are fostered, solutions are reached, and the future looks better than the past. But when one group gains power over the other and squashes them to the ground in an adversarial contest, the conclusions reached only further the divisions and hostility of the two groups. This is never the path forward for a healthy family, church, society, or organization.