One summer, when we were on vacation, my parents wanted to visit a Lutheran church. They warned me that the service was going to be different from our evangelical church, that it would be more formal and liturgical. I remember being terrified at the thought of experiencing worship that was so unlike what I was used to. I’ve since learned to deeply appreciate liturgical worship. And I still occasionally have those feelings of fear in the face of difference, whether interpersonal, religious, or political.
Dealing with difference is part of human experience. It’s not easy. We feel safer and more comfortable with those who look and think like us. It’s biological. However, even with those we are most like, we struggle with the challenge of difference. Witness family life: Genetic similarity does not mean the struggle disappears. Of course, in a diverse society, we face the challenge of differing perspectives and life experience all the time. From the holiday dinner table to the church council to interfaith dialogue, we encounter people who think, believe, dress, and act differently than we do.
Here are six ways to approach those who have a different point of view. None of them are easy or quick. However, quick fixes don’t work in relationships. You can use these in any relationship: your family, your church, interfaith conversations—and even politics.
- Define yourself. Describe as clearly as you can what you believe and what you want. In some situations, especially in leadership, you start with this step. In others, you will begin with step #2, “Listen.” In highly fraught situations, you may simply show up and listen. As Ronald Richardson says about some challenging conversations about race, “My ‘I’ position was evident in how I was present with them and how I related to them…” (Richardson, “Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life,” 2012, p. 140.) You are saying, “I’m here,” and often that is plenty.
Don’t talk too long. Don’t argue. Don’t try to convince others you are right and they are wrong. Rev. Larry Matthews, a mentor of mine, used to recommend you say, “That’s just how I see it.”
- Listen. Truly listen. Don’t simply listen to see how you can respond to convince the other of your point of view. Don’t listen to see how quickly you can get the conversation over to move on to other tasks. Be fully present with the other. Here’s one technique I’ve been practicing lately: Imagine you had to repeat the other’s words back to them. Are you listening closely enough to remember?
- Make sure you understand. Respond with something like this: “Here’s how I understand what you are saying…” Repeat the gist of what you got. Then ask, “Have I got it right? Have I got it all?” I’ve found in my work with leaders that they rarely do this. When they take the time, people appreciate it and respond, and leaders get valuable information. Don’t jump to trying to convince them. Stay in the place of listening and seeking understanding. This is the part I notice I too often skip in my personal life. It’s harder with those we are closest to.
- Stay connected with people with whom you disagree. We usually avoid them. They make us uncomfortable. Instead, Episcopal priest Ed Bacon suggests when you see the person at the church coffee hour you want to avoid, use that as a sign to connect. Remember, you can connect with people around other topics than the issue at hand. Learn more about their interests and their families, for example. Be genuinely interested in them.
- Don’t chase after people trying to connect or convince them. Both avoiding and chasing are anxious responses. In some situations, you can connect in a neutral way. I’m a big fan of handwritten notes and cards. In today’s world, real mail has a big impact. If you want to connect with someone who is not responding, send them a card. Then let it go for a while, and reach out again later.
- Talk to people who are motivated. Look for those whose eyes light up when you are engaging with them. It’s better to talk to those who disagree yet are motivated to continue the conversation than with those who agree and whose eyes are glazed over.
You can repeat this process as often as you like. Stay curious, stay open, and see what happens over time.
The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.