Ever left speechless on these tough conversations about social issues? Ever think afterwards, why didn’t I say that? Well, here are six questions for your conversational toolkit.
Last week, at a gathering of strategists on some tough cultural issues, a very good point was made: Sometimes the right question at the right time is the best way to have a conversation with someone with whom you fundamentally disagree.
I couldn’t agree more, especially when the topic is something like same-sex marriage, religious freedom, or bathrooms at Target—when you know that to have an opinion counter to the new cultural orthodoxy is to be thought of as hateful or intolerant.
Our temptation is to think, “Oh, they won’t listen.” Maybe they won’t, but I think more times than we think, we can have conversations that are actual conversations. Sometimes we’re afraid we won’t know enough. Maybe that’s true, but in addition to basic knowledge, there are also skills for having these conversations that we can all acquire.
And one of these skills is being a good question asker. The power of asking questions is seen clearly in the two greatest educators of all time: Socrates and Jesus. Both men were master teachers. Both men knew most (and in the case of Jesus, all) the answers. Both men had a unique ability to lead others to those answers. And both men were great questioners.
Here are six questions I’ve found extremely helpful to create the sort of dialogue we should desire about issues of faith and culture.
First, What do you mean by that? The battle of ideas is always the battle over the definition of words. Thus, it’s vital in any conversation to clarify the terms being used. For example, the most important thing to clarify about whether same-sex marriage should be legal is the definition of marriage. So when the topic comes up, ask, “Hold on, before we go too far into what kind of unions should be considered marriage, what do you mean by marriage?” Often, when it comes to these crucial issues, we’re using the same vocabulary as those with whom we disagree, but not the same dictionary.
Here’s a second question: How do you know that is true? Too often, assertions are mistaken for arguments. There’s a vast difference between the two. An assertion is a definitive statement made about the nature of reality. An argument is presented to back up an assertion. By asking “how do you know that’s true?” you’ll move the conversation beyond two people merely asserting what they believe to why those assertions should be taken seriously.
For example, it’s still repeated that ten percent of any population is gay or lesbian, and that there’s a gay teen suicide epidemic. The first stat is based on the flawed research of Alfred Kinsey, and the second has been deeply challenged by a pro-gay researcher.
Here’s a third question is Where did you get this information? Once arguments are offered, it’s important to ensure the arguments are valid. For example, news reports love to shout that same-sex parents are better parents than straight couples—a talking point that’s based on very limited studies, while other studies suggest the exact opposite.
The fourth question: How did you come to this conclusion? Behind the person you are talking with and his/her convictions, is a story, a personal story. If you know that story, it may make more sense why they don’t find your views plausible. Plus, it’ll help you remember the person you’re talking with is a real, image-of-God bearing person.
The final two questions: What if you’re wrong? and What if you’re right? Ideas have consequences that are always worth considering. For example, with so little evidence, what if it’s wrong that kids just need loving parents, not a mom and a dad? That’s a big risk to play with the next generation.
Of course, if we’re asking for reasons, so will our conversation partners. And at BreakPoint.org, we’ve got a list of resources on these topics to help.
(This commentary originally aired on May 17, 2016.)
Sometimes A Question is Better than an Answer: Winsome Conversations about Tough Topics
Why not start a conversation–with your co-worker, neighbor, friend or family member–and use the six questions John suggests? The resources linked below offer direction and encouragement as you engage in dialog with others on real-life issues.
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions
Greg Koukl | Zondervan | 2009
Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage
Sean McDowell, John Stonestreet | Baker Books | July 2014
What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense
Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George | Encounter Books | December 2012
Responding to the LGBT Movement’s Southern Strategy: Truth with Grace
John Stonestreet | BreakPoint.org | December 17, 2014
Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism
Dale Kuehne, Jean-Bethke Elshtain | Baker Academic | July 2009
Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace and Truth
Glenn Stanton | Moody Publishers | October 2014
The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Fully Updated to Answer the Questions Challenging Christians Today
Josh McDowell | Thomas Nelson Publishers | October 1999
Real Answers for Tough Questions with John Stonestreet, CD
John Stonestreet | The Colson Center
Tough Questions about God, Faith, and Life
Chuck Colson | Tyndale Publishers
Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens
Tom Gilson | Kregel Publications | February 2016