For Less Rancor and More Reconciliation: Questions Convict, but Assertions Harden the Heart
When I was in seminary, I learned a lot of helpful principles for relating to other people. But one of the most practical principles I learned, I learned in a pastoral counseling class. And if people all over the United State and the world learned and adopted this simple principle, there might be less rancor and more reconciliation—in personal relationships, in political and religious debates, and in all of life. What is the principle?
Questions convict. Assertions harden the heart.
Imagine two women are at the auto repair shop, waiting for their cars to get fixed. On the television in the waiting room, the FOX News channel broadcasts the headline, Gay marriage proponents score victory in Maryland.
The first woman is a lesbian and exclaims, “Yes! I’m so happy! I support gay marriage!”
The other woman is a conservative Republican. She folds her arms, grimaces, and retorts, “well, I’m against gay marriage!”
The lines are drawn. The defenses are up. The chances of this leading into a respectful, fruitful discussion are pretty much zero.
In other words, the Republican woman responded to the lesbian woman with an assertion. Assertion was met with assertion—and you can bet there was a hardening of both hearts.
But there is a better way.
This scenario would be much more constructive:
Lesbian: Hurray for Maryland! I support gay marriage!
Republican: Gay marriage is obviously a very big, contentious issue in our day. I admit, I don’t completely understand the reasons why people would favor it. Would you share with me how you came to support it? I would really appreciate it.
By responding this way, the Republican honors the lesbian. She pursues a dialogue with her, which demonstrates that she (hopefully) cares about engaging the lesbian as a person, not just spouting off her opinions on political and moral issues.
Second, she invites the lesbian to share something of her own thoughts and feelings on the matter. The Republican woman has provided her with an opportunity to be heard and understood. She has shown that, while she might not be convinced to support gay marriage, she is open to considering the lesbian’s opinion. She’s put herself in the position of “learner” and, as such, humbled herself and honored the other woman.
In this way, the Republican woman makes it far more likely that the lesbian will return the favor. She might influence the lesbian to reconsider her own position, as well as objectively evaluate the merits of the Republican woman’s position.
Now, there is still a chance that the lesbian will react defensively, just as there might be a chance that a conservative Republican might respond defensively if you asked her, “Why are you pro-life?” Too often, both sides fly off the handle emotionally, and justify their response by saying, “this is a profoundly important issue! It’s a no-brainer! And it means a lot to me personally!”
These are not good excuses. It is precisely those issues about which we feel the strongest that we need to learn to express ourselves in gracious, winsome ways. After all, do we want to influence others to embrace the truth? Or, do we just want to beat people over the head with our opinions and tick them off?
If we want to exercise influence, we won’t do it by flying off the handle and getting angry with others. We’ll do it by engaging them as people and allowing them to express themselves.
Remember: Questions convict. Assertions harden the heart.