If you’ve ever gone on the Internet, chances are you’ve encountered an opinion you didn’t agree with. If you’ve ever scrolled through your Facebook feed, chances are one of your thousand friends has posted a status update that actually shocked you.
Confession time: at one point in my life, I loved arguing with friends (and strangers) on the Internet. I liked shoving my religious opinions down the throats of those who couldn’t care less. It was so gratifying to turn someone else’s argument around in a way they couldn’t respond to. I was riding high. I was so smart, and so much better than them. Then I graduated from middle school.
As I matured, I learned that I wasn’t trying to convince anyone else of anything. I was trying to convince myself. I was trying to prove that I was a good person by being “right.” I didn’t actually care about the person on the other keyboard. I wanted to be better than them. That’s not good.
Understand before you try to be understood
In a tough moment of reflection, I saw a very bitter person in myself. I had a lot of anger stored up, and the only way I let it out was through arguing. Arguing can actually be healthy, except the arguments were never what I was really angry about. I didn’t know how to talk about what bothered me, so I took a defensive posture in other areas. I was lonely.
The big shift came when I started seeing so many others who felt this way, too. I’m older, and my opinions are just as strong as ever. But now I actually care about the person I’m talking to more than the argument. I don’t give up on truth, but my priority is someone else’s well-being instead of making them believe I’m right. You can’t force anyone else to believe anything. You can only communicate in a way they’ll understand. And you can’t do that until first you take steps to understand them.
No one wants to hear your opinion if they feel like they haven’t been heard first. And they won’t feel like they’re being heard unless they believe you care. Underneath all the anger, most of us just want someone else to care.
Feelings do not get to decide truth. But the fact that something is felt is absolutely true. You cannot tell someone their feelings are invalid. Someone may hold anger for the wrong reason, but the fact that they are angry must be understood. If you ever want to build common ground with someone on anything, you’ve got to acknowledge and understand their feelings, regardless of whether or not you believe those feelings are justified.
“Wow. I can’t believe you just said that.”
If you’ve ever said the words above, then maybe you’re not emotionally mature enough to have honest conversations. Those words are used to shame. They dehumanize by not acknowledging or respecting another’s right to have an opinion (even if you think their opinion completely stupid).
When you shame someone for their opinion, you don’t actually change them. You just send their opinion underground. There it festers and calcifies. If you see a lot of bitterness in America today, perhaps it’s because fewer and fewer people feel genuinely understood. Those who are isolated and don’t know how to communicate a dissenting opinion feel frustrated. One begins to believe the lie that the other side is only “all bad.” Who wouldn’t?
That does not excuse any malicious behavior. If anything, it calls for the opposite. The person you disagree with the most is potentially the person who you can build the strongest connection with — if both of you are willing to listen without shaming, and set aside agreement as a prerequisite for relationship.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about race. We both love Jesus, we both want peace and unity, and we both have different perspectives on the issues at hand. We dug into those perspectives. I don’t know if either one of us changed their mind in that conversation, but I love this friend so much more. It’s probably because I see their heart so much more clearly, and I trust their why, even if I don’t necessarily align with their how. I trust that they genuinely want peace and unity, even if I see a slightly different way to get there.
So what can be done?
Take time to listen. Listening to someone restores their humanity. It says they are worth your attention. Half the battle to unity is simply hearing and understanding without needing to agree. You can be friends with almost anyone if you understand them, without actually agreeing with one thing they have to say. How else could God call us his friend?
Empathy heals. For me, the trick is believing we’re all on the same side. Then we’re looking at an external problem side-by-side — not squaring off in an us-versus-them. The vast majority of people in the world want peace and cooperation. We just disagree on what that looks like. Anger is easy, but unity is godly (Psalm 133:1). You don’t have to agree with someone to love them.
Check your understanding. Here’s a practical tool: are you able to restate someone else’s belief in a way that feels accurate to them? If you can, it demonstrates your understanding, and tells the other person that you’re not condescending or diminishing their point of view.
Resist the knee-jerk reaction. Are you able to hear another belief without a knee-jerk emotional response? If not, you’re probably not ready for mature discussions. Examine yourself next time you hear or read something you disagree with. Are you able to respond in a calm and even tone?
When you can celebrate the inherent worth of the person you disagree with, and you know their value is not reduced to the strength of their opinions, we might be on the right track. Or at least we can have fewer Internet middle schoolers telling you how wrong you are.