Ten Steps To A Constructive Conversation

Recently I published a post on infant baptism (is it a Roman Catholic leftover) answering a question fielded many times at the HB. I answered in the negative and gave reasons why. Several days later a series of comments were written in response. None of these appeared on the HB, even though some of them reflected some industry. There are several reasons why and I thought it would be helpful to help readers think through how to have a conversation.

  1. Understand how to conduct a conversation. Unfortunately the word conversation has become a euphemism for disagreement, as if disagreement is now a naughty word. What a silly thing to think. How can two people possibly learn from each other if they cannot recognize that they think differently about an issue? Both are perfectly acceptable at the HB. A conversation, even one that ends in disagreement, need not be disagreeable, i.e., it need not be angry and unpleasant.
  2. Listen to (or read) what the other person is actually saying. It is a common temptation to wait until the other person stops talking (or writing) and then to ignore everything that has just been said (or written) and to go on as if nothing has changed. That is not a conversation. That would be two monologues. In such a case, in the absence of true listening 0r reading, the two will necessarily talk past one another. This happens frequently on the internet. It is essential to a conversation to read or listen to what has been written or said, to account for it, and to respond to what has actually been written or said. The spate of responses, which went to the trash, did not meet this basic test. It was clear from the responses that what I wrote refuted what they had been taught or believed. Their first reaction should have been to ask whether what I wrote is true. The second reaction should have been to do some further research. One of the principal aims of the HB is to encourage readers to do their own research into primary sources and into the better secondary literature. In these cases, neither of these two steps seems to have occurred.
  3. Confirm that you (the reader/listener) has understood correctly what is being argued. Can you re-state the argument fairly and clearly and confirm that is what the speaker/writer intended to say? This is essential. Frequently, and this seems especially true in internet disagreements and discussions, it is a temptation to re-state the other’s position falsely or incorrectly. This happens when one changes a term in the premise. Once this happens, true understanding of one another breaks down. It is also evident that one of the parties is not truly interested in discussion.
  4. Contribute constructively to the discussion or disagreement. One way to do this is to ask clarifying questions. Some of the responses to my post simply repeated the very same arguments and claims that I had just refuted without bothering to address what I had written. This is not constructive. It does not move the discussion forward.
  5. Show how my response is wrong. It is not adequate merely to assert that an analysis is wrong or to re-assert the same points to which I have responded. We already know that some believe that infant baptism must be a Romanist left over. That is not in question. A constructive response needs to show how or why an argument is wrong. The response should account for the logic of the argument, i.e., are the premises true? Does the conclusion follow from the premises and the facts of the argument, i.e., is there evidence that the argument overlooked? Failing these there is no real conversation or constructive disagreement.
  6. Recognize that it the one may take time to process the critique, the facts, and the arguments presented. “Let me think about that” are five of the most powerful words that you can ever say to another person. It is a sign of immaturity to think that one must have an instant response to every claim or argument or to think that every question can be resolved in the course of single discussion or argument.
  7. Reject the pretense to omniscience. “I do not know” are four more truly empowering words. I am not sure whence it comes but many American students have the impression that they must have an answer to every question. The truth is that there is a great deal that we do not know. My DPhil (PhD) tutor once asked me a question to which I did not know the answer. Almost by instinct I tried to bluff my way through. He scolded me by saying, “There’s nothing wrong with not knowing.” He was exactly right. I should have said “I do not know” because, in fact, I did not. I was embarrassed. Why? Because I had the false notion that I should know everything. That’s impossible. There is something wrong, however, with refusing to find out. Many times students have asked me questions to which I do not know the answer. Either I look into it or, in come cases, ask them to look into it and to tell me. I cannot research everything for everyone. The pretense to omniscience damages true conversation by introducing dishonesty into the mix. Honesty with one’s self and one’s dialogue partner is essential to progress.
  8. Tone it down. We tend to argue about the things about which we are most passionate, which are closest to our hearts, to our identity. This can make it difficult to keep the argument on a cool emotional plane but it is essential to remain under control. One way to remain under control is to remind one’s self that one’s dialogue partner is also made in God’s image. If it gets heated, walk away graciously and do not resume the discussion until you can do so calmly.
  9. Be prepared to walk away. Are you prepared to learn, to grow, to change your mind? If you are not, then perhaps this is not a good time to have this discussion. It may be that you are settled in your views and there is no evidence (right now) that anyone could present, there are no arguments that anyone could make, that would change your mind. Humans can only deal with so many things at one time. If you’re taking care of an ill relative, you are probably spending most of your energy on that person, that situation. Perhaps things are unsettled at work? Whatever the case, be honest with yourself and others, be gracious, smile, and walk away.
  10. Finally, be prepared to agree to disagree. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, there will be no resolution. Sometimes the best for which one can hope to achieve a greater degree of clarity about what the other side believes and is arguing. Perhaps, in the course of a disagreement, each side can help the other eliminate unhelpful or uncharitable arguments or characterizations. If it is necessary for your well-being or sense of self to “win” an argument then we are no longer pursuing truth are we? If one feels compelled to conquer the other, then that is another problem altogether.

These problems are not mere theory for yours truly. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Grace is a wonderful thing, however. May the Lord grant to me and to you the grace we need to conduct (sometimes difficult) conversations in a way that is honoring to him and edifying to our neighbors. When it isn’t, you and I need to repent and to ask forgiveness (personal offense is a not infrequent cause of breakdown in discussions). Reconciliation and peace are more important than making sure that the other person knows that you are right.

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  1. I could not agree more re “I do not know.” Little doubt many of your readers concur. There have been business conferences during which I used those words — or, in the alternative, “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you” — and at times it seemed to put the questioner at ease, because the questioner just found out that I wasn’t going to bluff, wasn’t going to waste our time, and that my ego was not so delicate that I had to pretend to play know-it-all. Honesty, what a concept.

  2. Great post. A significant part of the reasons for the lack of constructive conversations may well be the general crudeness or coarseness of our culture nowadays, where everyone seems to want to shout their opinions without care or concern for any opposing views. However, this attitude is more than reinforced by the very method of half-duplex communication we’re using in things like these blogs. Though it sometimes seems tough to even carry on meaningful face-to-face dialogs with people, sending something in textual form and then awaiting a reply opens a “attention gap” where the dissenting party is left to think more about how he plans to further reinforce his own opinions (in the next transmittal) rather than what the original poster actually meant and why he said what he said. All of the texting going on with hand-held devices and social media just makes meaningful communication even more difficult. Carried to the extreme, the end result of this crude kind of communication is what Chicago is experiencing with its high (and indiscriminate) murder rate: law enforcement officials are slowly (and it appears reluctantly) admitting that most of the drive-by, gang related shootings originated with someone one being “called out” by a rival gang banger on a Facebook post or a Tweet. It leaves me wondering what kind of future we can expect.

  3. Excellent article, Dr. Clark! If only more of our young people were taught these basic conversation skills in high school and/or college. (Of course, that would give some coddled college students a conniption, since it would push them out of their “safe space” and force them to confront different ideas.)

  4. Great post Dr. Clark. Especially points 5-7 deserve emphasis.
    Regarding number 5: explanations are far more helpful then assertions. This is why I’ve grown increasingly adverse to language such as: “Scripture is clear that…” It seems individuals use that language only to end conversations rather than engage in them. In addition, it expresses an unwillingness to explain one’s position.
    Regarding numbers 6-7: These are good reminders for everyone. I know in my own pride I tend to think I know more than I do. This hold especially true when Im engaged in a competitive discussion with someone.
    Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for this. Agreed. It is appropriate to assert the essential perspicuity of Scripture. That is a basic biblical and confessional Reformed conviction but not every place in Scripture, as the Westminster Confession says, is equally clear. At this point, when we are reading Scripture with the church (as distinct from reading it as isolated individuals), where the church has confessed, we may have some confidence about the clarity of Scripture.

      That does not mean that we should not be gracious nor does it mean that we should not patiently explain why we think Scripture says what it says.

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