Public disagreements are quite common these days—especially those taking place on blogs and even newspaper articles on the Internet. Read the comments that follow most e-articles and you will find a wide range of responses, from thoughtful to ridiculous.

Whether you wish to disagree in person or on a website, consider these five reminders as ways to keep the first and second greatest commandments:

1.  Listen first. Give the benefit of the doubt. Validate.

Unless a person clearly states that they are giving a full-orbed defense of an idea, recognize that what they say or write is only a portion of their beliefs or ideas. When we make a point, we usually do so to highlight something that we think has been neglected or needs emphasis. Just because we emphasize this one thing, doesn’t mean we think the point we just made is the ONLY point to make. Example:

Speaker: Psychiatric medicines can be very helpful.

Response A:  Drug companies push meds and everybody thinks they need them.

Or, a better response?

Response B: True, many are helped by meds. How do we address the problem of over-prescribing?

Notice in this simplistic example, the B response validates the speaker’s response and extends the conversation into new areas. If you really want to engage in dialogue, go even further: discuss what seems to be important to this other person. Find out why they defend their point of view. What assumptions, values, or concerns lead shape their ideas.

2.  Be able to summarize your opponent’s point as they would.

Can you articulate the other’s position in such a way that they would agree, “Yes, that is my opinion”? If you cannot, you have not listened well enough. Go back to step one.

3.  Raise concerns without using the slippery slope technique.

Disagreeing is a good thing—when done well and for the right purpose. Start raising your concerns and bolster, where possible, with some kind of data. However, work hard to avoid anecdotal “evidence”, the slippery slope argument, or taking their points to the extreme conclusions to illustrate the problems of the point. Further, engage the person to help you understand how they might handle a concern you raise.

4.  Put forth an alternative idea.

Put forth your alternative position in a way that still treats the other as kingdom citizens or guests. Do this especially if YOU are a guest on their turf (website or in person). It is not wrong to tell another their beliefs do not appear to jive with your understanding of the bible but be sure to back up your viewpoints with real data. Avoid all slanderous, libelous labels. They do not help promote understanding.

5.  Recognize when to bow out with grace.

Not every comment, belief, position, or question is an invitation to a conversation. We need to know when the other person is not interested in dialogue or listening (or when we really aren't open to it either) and gracefully back out. That said, there are many times when emotions are high because of prior wounds or battles. You might try to find out where the emotional energy is coming from. It may be someone with your position or title hurt them in the past. If so, you may be able to validate those hurts and re-engage the conversation at a later time. There are other times when you cannot move forward and so then find your exit.

Following these steps should help us disagree with and love others at the same time. They won’t remove all strife or attack. I had an experience once where I was talking to a very large crowd about some theological concerns I had with a particular counseling-type model. In the audience were both supporters and detractors of the model. I did my level best to represent the ministry in a way that was faithful to what they did and said about themselves prior to my critique. I found places where I affirmed their ideas. While I did have a couple of supporters of that ministry thank me for my care during the talk, many more were vicious in their attack, one even threatening. Some desired further dialogue. Some only wanted to destroy. Ironically, some who agreed with me attacked me in print for being too nice to heretics.

Sometimes, when you exhibit Christian character in dialogue you get shot at from both sides. These steps won’t avoid attack, but I believe you will sleep easier knowing that you listened, loved, and spoke in a manner that honors God.

Phil Monroe is professor of counseling & psychology and directs the Masters of Arts in Counseling program. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates. You can follow his counseling blog here or read his faculty bio here.


0 # Fran 2012-05-01 10:46
Excellent! Thank you.
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0 # Dave Fessenden 2012-05-03 14:48
Can you explain why you are opposed to the "slippery slope" argument? I will grant that it is often abused, often posited when there is no basis for it, but I don't see an inherent logical fallacy to it. (There may very well be a logical fallacy to it, I'm just saying I don't know what it is.)
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0 # Philip Monroe 2012-05-03 16:38
Thanks Fran. Dave, I'm opposed to the slippery slope argument not because there is a logical fallacy to it but because of 2 other reasons:
1. It accuses a person for an outcome that most often isn't assured. It works backwards. For example, people who drive get into accidents. So, if you promote driving you are promoting accidents. There is a difference between causation and correlation.
2. Taking a person's point to an extreme position (at least early on) rarely encourages dialogue and often shows our own laziness.
As dialogue continues, I'm not against engaging in conversation to see where a particular point of view might conclude (notice, "might" over "will").
Thanks for the question as it gives me time to clarify my reasons for avoiding the slippery slope technique.
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0 # Ron Franklin 2012-05-10 00:42
I have a question regarding "taking their points to the extreme conclusions to illustrate the problems of the point." I've tried that in online exchanges with atheists, and found that their responses never really dealt with the issues I thought so compelling. It got to be frustrating and not worth the effort. I'd be interested in your reasoning about why to avoid that line of discussion.
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0 # Phil DiLernia 2012-05-10 14:02
Good stuff Phil!

About #2: I was interested in your conclusion. When I engage others and they cannot summarize my views I usually blame my lack of clear communication and not their lack of listening.

I'd be curious to get your take on this.

Thanks in advance

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