How to Dialogue Well with Those Different from You
I’ve noticed a sometimes frustrating theme in my life: most people are different than me and act differently than I do. When I’m asking a store employee about a problem with my current phone, for instance, the employee wants to show me the latest Samsung gadget. Or when my wife (Steph) and I are traveling, I want to take U.S. 41, but she wants to take I-70. Or when I’m trying to help the student leaders I work with see the pros of living in the residence halls, they see a cheaper path via apartments in town.
Apparently, my personality and decision-making style don’t represent the fullness of the image of God.
This shocking realization stirs up some critical questions for us (assuming you’ve also discovered that your personality isn’t the template God created humans from):
How do we dialogue well with people who are different from us?
And perhaps even more important:
How do we find common ground with these people without demonizing them?
I’ve found two related skills to be more helpful than anything else in this arena.
First, I must care enough about people to craft a handful of “back-pocket” questions to mentally carry with me all the time.
I and my fellow introverts need good questions because, without them, we’re likely to drift through an entire wedding reception without actually having a conversation outside of our own head! On the other hand, many of my extroverted peers and friends need questions so that two-way dialogue happens at a coffee shop and both parties become known by the other. The more differences there are between you and the person you’re talking to, the more helpful the questions become in creating quality dialogue and finding common ground.
Philippians 2:3-5 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” One of the foundational ways we can live out these verses is by investing our time and energy into thinking of questions that will help us actually care about the lives of people different from us long before we judge them for being different.
Second, I must constantly get better at asking those questions in thoughtful and engaging ways.
Jesus was a master at asking the right question at the right time, especially when people were different from him. A Samaritan woman who was trying to avoid everyone around her eventually brought the gospel to the very village she was avoiding because Jesus started a conversation with, “Will you give me something to drink?” (John 4:7). Diseases and challenges melted away for people like the blind man Bartimaeus when Jesus asked questions like, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). Even the theological stone walls of the Pharisees were broken by questions Jesus asked, like, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” (Luke 14:5).
If crafting back-pocket questions ahead of time shows people that we care about them, then learning to ask our questions in ways that engage people where they’re at will allow us to actually find common ground.
More Common Ground
Coming face to face with people who are different than us is inevitable, and it’s not going away anytime soon! If you’re anything like me, you are already plenty good at disagreeing and finding uncommon ground with people who are different. I rarely look forward to hearing how I’m wrong when someone thinks differently than I do, but I always appreciate the person who asks me why I think the way I do or how I’ve gotten to the place I am at. When people learn that my goal is less to “convince them otherwise” and more to find common ground, I’m often surprised at how open they become to thinking differently or even to my eventually convincing them otherwise.
Andrew McCarty has completed five years on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Indiana State University. He also serves on the director team for InterVarsity Soul Surf, a spring break evangelism project to Panama City Beach, Florida. Andrew is the husband of Steph and father to Josiah and loves to read and play sports of all kinds. He also labors as a 49ers fan from Indiana.
For more help on dialoguing with others, check out these resources: