“The first step in our communication strategy is to suppress our desire to persuade or correct the person with whom we disagree, but rather to listen.” ~ Tim Muehlhoff, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love
Waking Up to the World of Others
I must admit that I was somewhat skeptical about reading a book on communication theory. Typically, such a combination of words – communication plus theory – reminds me that we live at a time in history when something that was once common sense is viewed as highly suspect until empirical science has proven it. We have little trust in the wisdom of our ancestral mothers and fathers. It’s as if they have to jump through a set of scientific hoops before their more enlightened children will have ears to hear them. Chesterton was right about what he wrote of the democracy of the dead.
Indeed, what science usually ends up demonstrating is that tradition had been correct all along. Wow, our pre-enlightenment ancestors were actually quite… well, enlightened!
I was determined (thanks to the admonition of C.S. Lewis in his wonderful book on literary criticism, An Experiment in Criticism) to set my skepticism up on the shelf, turn off my own trigger warnings and knee-jerk responses, and truly listen to what Muehlhoff had to say.
Interestingly, the charitableness that Lewis encourages us to strive for as we approach literary art is the same kind of attitude that undergirds Dr. Muehlhoff’s theory of communication. Without it, we cannot cultivate the understanding that is necessary for meaningful conversations, especially among those with whom we differ.
Tim Muehlhoff is a communications specialist at BIOLA and is quite well- known for his work in the field. Do take a look at his credentials.
At the heart of Muehlhoff’s encouragement to cultivate understanding is approaching conversations with people in highly relational and tailored ways. This acknowledges that each person we meet is incredibly unique, bringing with them a set of beliefs that have been shaped by a complex web of experiences, temperament, and relationships. In other words, we must refrain from reducing our conversation to what he calls a “position-centered” level of engagement, “viewing others as a collective whole based on gender, race, education level, social position, political affiliation, religion and so on”.
Instead, Muehlhoff emphasizes moving away from a “position-centered” level to a deeper, “person-centered” level of conversation. While a position-centered perspective is helpful in crafting our initial responses to someone, we must move beyond this “flat and featureless generality” in which we identify someone “by a label.” Otherwise, we risk devaluing “the very thing as Christians we should be interested in, ‘the unprecedented, unrepeatable soul addressed by God.’”
Muehlhoff’s encouragement here is refreshing. I can’t help but think that such a personalized approach to conversation with others provides the balm to heal the wound of our increasingly impersonal age. Our culture is highly fractured along generalities and interest groups, isn’t it? This seems particularly evident when it comes to the deeper issues that we Christians are seeking to address. Our reductionist age loves to classify everything, including people! Add to this the overabundance of information and our decreasing attention spans, and we are all the more tempted to reduce people further in our endless haste. He writes that we often approach individuals the same way we peruse blog posts, “power browsing to quickly sum” them up.
Yet “to deem listening is unnecessary is to communicate that the other person is inferior and that his or her perspective does not matter; all that matters in the conversation is what we have to say.”
In other words, conversation becomes merely a means of self-expression and /or persuasion. This is ultimately dismissive and, therefore, dehumanizing.
The antidote? The apostle Paul exhorts us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” but ‘rather, in humility value others above [ourselves], not looking to [our] own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Part of “looking to the interests of others” involves an unshakeable determination to listen. Nuanced views take time and patience to hear and digest. If we a priori dismiss individuals because their beliefs do not fall immediately in line with ours, reducing their beliefs to -isms, phobias, or any other label, we effectively shut down dialogue. Most of the time, we put them on the defense with this behavior, even though we are not really committed to listening to them defend themselves. In doing this, we devalue and dehumanize them, whether or not we mean to.
Muehlhoff also focuses on cultivating empathy and I agree with much of what he writes. I must add, though, that we should never think we can completely empathize with someone. At some point in the process, we should be brought to the humble recognition that we will never be able to fully step into another’s shoes. I will never have the experiential knowledge of losing a parent to suicide as a teenager. Never. I can only imagine it and such conceptions fall distressingly short.
That’s where compassion must take over. Empathy is only a small start and it must end in a humble recognition of its limits.
More than anything, there are undercurrents of charity and selflessness in I Beg To Differ and for these, I am very thankful. I particularly like Muehloff’s emphasis on the connection between conversation and community. The words we use are an essential tool in building relationships and, being made in God’s image, the supreme relational Being (the Trinty!), we need relationships. Yet I think we’ve lost the art of communicating in ways that build relationships.
We live in a culture without overt rules. We are suspicious of them. We tend to think they are oppressive, contrived, and that they suppress “authenticity”. We do not like formality and anything that might challenge a sense of equality. We tend to look down on traditional forms etiquette as elitist.
Yet we never seem to stop and ask ourselves if the traditional forms of etiquette served any kind purpose. Yes, they could be oppressive and they were abused, but they also established cultural norms that enabled people to understand each other. Rules of etiquette provided the boundary conditions for behavior, creating a way that people could express respect for each other’s humanity.
Yes, we believe in being kind and respectful, but how do we express kindness and respect in any given situation? Rules of etiquette sought to find these. In a way, they were a form of applied ethics.
Most importantly, these rules kept our sinful sides in check. Muehlhoff mentions “framing and feeling rules” in his chapter “Managing and Expressing Emotions in the midst of Disagreement.” He writes about his wife’s family and the particular rituals with their unspoken rules that they practice when someone dies. These reminded me of the value of etiquette and cultural norms, especially in very sensitive situations like death and loss.
Within the rules of etiquette, there is a tacit awareness of the power of words to hurt.
Today, those norms have been thrown out and we are left in a strange intermediate state. Add to this a rapidly changing technology in the field of communication – FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – and we can barely keep up at a time when we lack established codes of conduct to keep us in check.
Additionally, because of a general breakdown in traditional community structures (like the church and family), we are desperate for interaction, yet we are at a loss for how because there are few obvious rules for communicating. It is generally accepted that people should not be offensive. The problem arises from the fact that we can’t seem to agree on what constitutes an offense. Plus, our society is becoming more pluralistic, so there are different standards for communicating.
Without these norms, we tend to focus more on self-expression (being authentic) rather than setting our own needs aside and truly getting to know someone. This is where ancient wisdom is invaluable, and I am grateful to Muehlhoff for returning to it again and again. The answer to how to behave in any given situation is as complex as we are, but with Paul’s admonition to have Christ’s humility and selflessness as our models, we have a starting place.
“Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!”
Again, this is why I am so thankful to see Muehlhoff dedicate an entire chapter to the spiritual disciplines. He writes, “the goal of the spiritual disciplines is to put us in a place where we begin to notice God and respond to his Word before, during, and after the conversation.” Stressful situations, such as discussing significant topics amongst those with whom we differ, have a way of encouraging the worst in us to surface. If we haven’t been cultivating virtue during times of peace, we will not know how to respond virtuously in times of war. It reminds me of Lewis’s discussion of “the chest”, the “indispensible liaison” between our emotions and reason, and the fact that more and more, it appears that he was correct in warning that our culture was producing “men without chests” because of our abandonment of belief in objective morality. Even as Christians, we have to develop this “liaison officer” between our intellects and emotions. Otherwise, our truth will be pitiless or our pity will be untruthful, as Chesterton pointed out in his book, Orthodoxy.
Listening to others with a humble charity that truly seeks to understand, communicates another’s value, a value that is of infinite measure in light of our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. This is the only means by which we can bridge the seemingly infinite divides that plague our modern world.
In the end, we should approach people in a way that parallels C.S. Lewis’s approach to literary art:
Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love, we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously, this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.” ― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 1961
Dr. Muehlhoff’s I Beg To Differ is a straightforward read that could be easily understood by high school-aged students. Indeed, I submit that every Christian school should have it in their curriculum. Filled with numerous scriptural references (from the Book of James to Proverbs and on), in addition to references to recent studies, this book provides just the right blend of ancient wisdom and current science for the modern world. It’s a must read for all Christians.
It is a timely read after the events of this past week, too. May God have mercy on us all as we seek to repair the bridges of communication.
 Tim Muehlhoff, I Beg to Differ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 147.
 Ibid., 148.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 88.
 Philippians 2:3-4, NIV.
 Tim Muehlhoff, I Beg to Differ, 113-114.
 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 34.