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How to Disagree Without Blowing Up

by Joani Schultz


I don’t know anyone who likes conflict.

But if someone from another planet dropped in on our country these days, they’d think us humans thrive on conflict like oxygen.

How do we talk with someone we don’t agree with? How do we keep relationships intact? Is it possible to argue and get close, rather than blow apart? Where do we go for advice?

Two topics our mothers warned us NOT to bring up in polite company: Politics and religion. I guess mom knows we’re not very skilled at navigating such volatile topics.

But I learned something about disagreements last week. And my discoveries didn’t come from my mom.

They came from an atheist.

WHAT MY CONVERSATION WITH AN ATHEIST TAUGHT ME…

Coincidentally (or not), I, with my husband Thom and our friend Larry, asked if we could join a table occupied by a man I’d not seen before at Lifetree Cafe*. We gathered around our table of four for an hour of conversation. About… Atheism.

Deep breath…

Jeff, our Lifetree Cafe host, welcomed the packed room of regular attendees and newbies anxious to spar over atheism. He thanked everyone for taking on a topic our moms told us to avoid. He led us through large group discussions and table talk conversations, all interspersed with a fascinating video of a former Christian, now atheist, and a former atheist, now Christian. (The now-Christian, Holly Ordway, wrote “Not God’s Type.” Check it out.)

Jeff reminded us of Lifetree Cafe values:

You’re welcome just as you are. (A prerequisite to a civil conversation.) Your thoughts are welcome. Your doubts are welcome. (Another good reminder.) We’re all in this together. (The atheists were wondering what kind of place this was.) God is here, ready to connect with you in a fresh way. (“Is this a church or something?” our new atheist friend asked. We assured him this was a conversation cafe.)

After that, Ken leaned in. “I’m an atheist.” He squinted suspiciously. “Are you all Christians?”

WE AGREED WE HATE LABELS.

Yes, we nodded. His arms folded. He already knew everything he needed to know about “Christians.” Of course, we were guilty of the same label. We thought we knew what it meant to be an atheist, too.

Labels, like armor, either protect us from hateful hurls or hide the humans underneath. Human nature uses “label shorthand” to convince us we already know what’s underneath. But we really don’t.

In relationships, armor keeps everyone in their protective shell.

Surprise. When we talked about labels, we ALL agreed we despised it when we’d been labeled in the past. (White men are racists. Americans are Christian proselytizers. Women are homemakers.)

After the hour, we all relaxed. We were wrong. None of us lived up to the labels we were assigned. We enjoyed the conversation so much, we stayed nearly 20 minutes after everyone else had left.

Labels aside, I discovered we could talk together without war breaking out. That insight could be transferred to other contentious situations.

WE RESPECTFULLY LISTENED TO EACH OTHER.

That means each of us bit our tongues. Resisted the urge to roll our eyes, cross our arms, or snarl in disagreement. No, we leaned forward, smiled, and opened our hearts to treat each other the way we want to be treated. Remember what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a finger wagging? It doesn’t feel good.

Jesus’ wisdom really works. “Do to others as you would like them to do to you” (Luke 6:31).

WE SHARED PERSONAL LIFE STORIES WITH EACH OTHER.

Granted, Lifetree Cafe provided the environment for respectful, guided conversation, but its ethos works in every kind of relationship.

When discussing tough topics (any topic, for that matter), stories become emotional super glue that bonds friendships.

To break the ice, we—Thom, Larry, Ken and I—told stories about times we experienced another culture. We all had personal examples. Laughable, embarrassing, or touchy situations that showed us we “weren’t in Kansas anymore!”

I discovered “Tell about a time…” is a golden phrase that opens up personal stories. (Try it this week!)

We told our personal stories and what experiences led us to believe in God or not. We learned about our lives—everything from cross-cultural experiences to pro and con church experiences.

Whenever the conversation veered toward factoids, intellectual arguments, or spewing quotes from the Bible or famous atheist authors, the conversation shut down. But when we used personal life stories, something wonderful began to happen.

For example, I shared from my heart that relationships brought me into a close relationship with Jesus. From my experience, I discovered faith was not about facts and figures or a head thing, but for me it was a heart thing. Faith is not a subject to be studied, but a relationship to be nurtured.

Ken admitted his relationships with other Christians had pushed him away from God.

(Consider how much Christians make a difference in how people experience God.)

Intuitively, we love to hear and tell good stories. Jesus knew that. And now science confirms why and how stories work.

In his blog, Fred Smith boiled down the fascinating science into something I could understand. In Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative,  Dr. Paul Zak traces the neurochemistry of how stories literally build trust by generating the chemical oxytocin. There is something about stories that not only lights up receptors in our brains, but our minds, when stimulated by oxytocin, send a signal that good narratives (rather than hard facts) tilt us toward trusting the people who tell them. Also, raised levels of oxytocin create empathy, which makes us lean toward helping people in tangible ways.

Our brains light up and miraculously create trust and empathy toward others when we hear their stories!

Instead of lobbing “I’m right and you’re wrong” grenades, we listen with our ears and hearts. Through understanding stories, we can grow together, not apart.

“Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

Apart from our Lifetree Cafe conversation that day, I reflected on my own life and what’s shaped me and my relationships. I realized stories fill my every day. That’s because:

Stories work everywhere. My coworkers know I love their stories. I’m always asking for them to share their stories. (Hey, I’d love to learn YOUR stories! Share them at jschultz@group.com.)

Our family even uses the intentional word “stories.” (Although we didn’t know the science of why, we just knew it worked!) Every day would include the familial conversation starter: “What stories happened to you today?” Or “What stories did you collect today?” Or when faced with a new experience, we’d say, “Let’s try this, at least it’ll give us some great stories to tell!”

Stories just might be the secret to disagreeing without blowing up.

WE PHRASED OUR THOUGHTS IN QUESTIONS, NOT MANDATES.

Ken knew the Bible. He could spout Scripture references better than I could. He had read everything he could get his hands on from famed atheist authors. He gleefully lobbed scientific facts and historic references to show his newfound “truth.” He was no dummy.

Thom shared that the Bible was never meant to be a science or history book, but rather a story of God’s love for us.

Our conversation went really deep when Larry asked, “How do you explain love? I can’t scientifically explain my love for my wife or understand it all.”

We all nodded. And wondered.

“How do you explain courage? Honor? Patriotism?” he pondered.

Then our atheist friend added, “How do you explain altruism? I’ve never come to grips with that. Who’d give up their life for someone they love? Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest…it doesn’t make sense to me…”

Maybe God just opened the door to another conversation….

If you don’t know about Lifetree Cafe, this unique venue that invites people from the community to talk about issues of life and faith, check it out at www.Lifetreecafe.com. It’ll rock your world. It did mine!

2 thoughts on “How to Disagree Without Blowing Up

  1. Avatar
    Pastor Rob

    Great article! I especially like the part about questions not mandates. It really works! The truth does not need mandates, it needs open hearts. Modeling an open heart bring out the same in others.
    I have never counted but I think Jesus asked more questions than he gave mandates.

  2. Avatar

    Joani: As always, great article! I am still learning from you as I did in high school! I love that you added the science of why stories work and what happens in our brain! I experience the transformative power of stories frequently in ministry. Dan had a preaching professor tell him, “ain’t nobody been saved by what they know!” You’re right, it’s a heart relationship with God in Jesus Christ. You were one of the first people who embodied that relationship for me and helped me begin to experience for myself! Sending hugs to you and Thom and love you bunches!

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How to Disagree Without Blowing Up

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