How to speak out—without losing all of your friends
Full disclosure: I am wary of offering this advice (for lack of a better word) because I am far from perfect, and I am afraid someone will show me examples of all the times I’ve failed to follow my own guidelines. Offering opinions is a difficult thing to do, especially now with the heightened emotions and the overall weariness people feel for politics and current events. But if you follow me on social media, you probably know that I keep speaking out.
I’ve probably inadvertently offended people along the way, in spite of my good intentions. Through it all, though, I have followed some pretty strict guidelines for my own behavior. I have intentionally worked to keep my comments aboveboard and kind, and I think it is paying off. I keep hearing from people who thank me because even though I disagree with them, I do so with kindness. People have told me thanks for being brave enough to say things they’re afraid to. For not backing down but not being mean. I’ve even been praised for showing restraint. Well, the last one might be a stretch, but I do feel passionately about things and I’m not afraid to speak up when I feel the whole truth isn’t being told—it’s not so much about changing people’s minds as it is that I don’t want people to be unaware, blindly aligning themselves with a position based on in accuracies. Or ignoring a critical component that could change their point of view.
So, keeping in mind that I have certainly failed at times, and that there are other ways to accomplish the same goals, I thought I’d share some of my personal guidelines with you.
Always start with empathy. There is likely a reason for someone’s passion—maybe their child had an abortion and then couldn’t have children, and they mourn the loss of grandchildren, so the idea of someone being pro-choice is abhorrent to them. Maybe someone was sexually abused and they’ll never stop fighting for people to stop blaming the victim. Perhaps they have a friend who is at risk of deportation, and although she came to this country illegally, they don’t want to see her family’s lives disrupted because of the good they’ve also done here. Try to figure out, when possible, what’s below the surface, and give people the benefit of the doubt that they have reason for their passion. Always acknowledge the validity of someone else’s perspective, if you can, or at least their right to believe what they believe. (This means not adding a dig like “you can believe lies if you want.”)
Find common ground. In order to come to a mutual conclusion, we must build it on the same foundation. Granted, that isn’t always possible. But chances are we agree on something. For instance, one day I talked to a super-conservative friend of mine about politics. He and I have always good-naturedly disagreed on all things political. But when I started asking questions—why does this matter to you, how do you think we should accomplish that—I discovered that in most cases we agree on the desired result. We simply disagree on things like whether it’s already being accomplished or not, or who should pay for it, or which way we lean regarding when we’ve done enough and when we’ve enabled less-than-ideal behavior. Seeing that helps me understand his perspective, which makes it feel less personal and offensive. Even if I still disagree.
Say we, not you. This isn’t always appropriate, but if I say, “You don’t pray as often as you should,” it’s an accusation. If I say, “We don’t pray as often as we should,” I’ve included myself, and it becomes more of an observation than a condemnation, bringing people along with me rather than separating myself from them. As I said in the previous point, look for commonalities, not differences. When you can start there—using we, not you—you’re in a good spot.
Stick to the issues. I’ve watched—and I’m sure you have, too—countless arguments online, which quickly devolve from “I see it differently” to “that’s what’s wrong with people like you” to “you are ignorant and stupid.” And from there it just gets uglier and uglier. When someone is attacked or called names, sparks are going to fly. Don’t get derailed. If you’re discussing one thing, stick to that one thing and don’t bring up what someone said or did twenty years ago or every single thing they’ve ever done wrong. It hurts your argument and ensures that they won’t listen.
Know what you want to speak about, what is off-limits, and when to speak. I’m not afraid to say so when a political position does not match the way I read the Bible. I won’t hesitate to offer an alternative point of view when I think I have a fact or insight that might help another. But when I read earlier comments on a post and see that people are getting ugly, or when the conversation turns to something controversial that I’m not comfortable taking a public stance on, I let it go. I try hard not to simply add fuel to the fire. If I don’t have something new to say, I may not say anything. If I know a person’s friends will start a big firestorm in response to my comment, I might send an explanation in a private message to someone who gets me. There may not be a need to say those same words to everyone. However, there have been times when I defended someone, fully aware that what I said would not change the mind of the original poster but might influence others who read it. (Don’t deceive yourself—people are reading. And watching. And wanting to see the best from those of us who call ourselves Christians, even if they’re not Christians. They often don’t see it; what we say and do matters more than you know.)
Don’t stereotype. See the point above about sticking to the issues. When you tell someone they’re part of a bigger group and then say that group is ignorant (or racist or sexist or whatever it is), you’ll offend that individual. I know from personal experience that it’s hard not to take these comments personally, whether they’re meant that way or not. So just remember that when you lump everyone into one category, you’re denying the truth that there are countless nuances of belief and feelings and that there are other factors you may not have considered—which makes it an unfair assessment. It kind of pains me to say this J… but not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or misogynist. It took me a while to figure this out (I offer a blanket apology to all Trump supporters for this) because those were aspects that I could not see past. My first instinct was to think that because the racist or sexist comments and actions didn’t turn them against him, they must be for that. But the reality is, in many cases, there was something about Hillary they couldn’t get past or else they simply believe more in the traditional Republican platform. Every person’s opinion is a result of numerous value judgments (which issues they are passionate about—and why), so everyone will come to a different conclusion. It doesn’t make them bad people.
If you don’t know something, admit it. Don’t keep arguing when you haven’t read the article in question or you are basing your opinions on someone else’s comments—or you truly just don’t know details. The quickest way to defuse an argument is to say, “I wasn’t aware of that,” or, “I know my logic may not make sense to you, but based on what I know, this is where I land.” Lots of the anger out there stems from people professing great insights when it’s clear to others that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Along the same lines, recognize flaws in your arguments or in the actions of fellow supporters. Admitting that there are aspects of an issue you do not support—or that the behavior of others supporting your cause doesn’t line up with what you believe—doesn’t undermine your position but makes it more credible. And opens the door for others to think, hey, maybe I can support this after all. (For instance, I’m a Christian, but some behavior I see feels inconsistent with Christian values. If I refuse to acknowledge that, non-Christians may judge all of Christianity—and me—and not want any part of it. If I admit that I, too, see what is obvious to them, and do it with the least amount of judgment possible, I’m showing people that you don’t have to take the whole package. You can love Christ without doing ___ (fill-in-the-blank). Because the reality I want people to see is that the authentic Jesus, and genuine faith, are so good that it’s worth fighting for—even if the way others do it isn’t always perfect.)
Know that it won’t always be easy and you won’t always be popular. I act like it’s simple, but it’s not. Every comment I make requires careful consideration—and prayer, and wisdom, and discernment. I don’t want to upset people, nor do I like to be attacked. As hard as I try not to, I often take things personally. It hurts and it’s not fun. But when I can look back at my own behavior and feel relatively confident that it is consistent with my personal ethics, that it is done with respect and kindness, and that I have spent my time on issues and positions that are important to me, I see that as a win.
You may have found different ways to navigate these waters. I would love to hear them. I love stories about lessening the divide between people, about bridges that help people cross an intimidating chasm. I love seeing how God can be revealed in surprising places, how relationships can be strengthened through respect, and how we can love each other better through understanding and empathy. I want to maintain the right to speak my opinion and not cause others to feel silenced.
I just want us all to be friends :-). If you’re still reading this, we must be—so thank you.