At a family gathering, two of your siblings are discussing a controversial topic. Other family members nod their heads in agreement. One uncle shouts out, “That’s right!” Everyone seems to be in agreement except you.
How should you respond when you disagree with family members? What if you represent the minority view and those closest to you passionately disagree with your perspective? Is it still possible to have a civil and engaging conversation without splitting the family apart?
If so, where do we start?
When discussing potentially volatile issues, how we start the conversation is crucial. Do we begin by staunchly presenting our view, or exhibiting a sense of humility? The answer will determine if you are about to engage in a give-and-take dialogue, or dueling monologues where voices and tempers steadily rise. What difference would it make to enter a discussion humbly seeking to not only present your views but understand and learn from others? Sadly, humility has fallen on hard times in today’s argument culture and is grossly misunderstood. Embracing humility does not mean that individuals lack confidence, or will change their position at the slightest challenge. Humility means that we enter a conversation with an openness to the views of others.
Embracing humility does not mean that individuals lack confidence, or will change their position at the slightest challenge. Humility means that we enter a conversation with an openness to the views of others.
The ancient writers of the book of Proverbs advocate the virtue of humility and give warning against its counterpart, pride. While the result of pride is destruction and disgrace, the humble person will experience honor, riches, and fullness of life (11:2, 18:12, 29:23, 22:4). The defining trait of a humble person is that he or she “listens to advice” (12:15). Notice the writer did not say the advice would always be followed, but rather, it would be humbly considered.
How would others describe yourself as a conversationalist? Are you seen as open, or entrenched in your beliefs? Personal humility can be a difficult quality to assess. I recently came across a list of questions that I found helpful to gauge my own sense of humility. Be warned, these questions reveal much about how we view ourselves as we approach others and difficult topics.
Even when you feel strongly about something, are you still aware you could be wrong?
Do you trust that truth has nothing to fear from investigation?
Do you reserve the right change your mind? Or do you feel weak or ashamed to change a strongly held opinion?
Do you feel like you need to hide past errors in your thinking?
Do you approach others with the idea that you might have something to learn from them?*
This last question is particularly convicting to me. When I first started graduate school, I was introduced to ideas that were not only foreign to me, but personally threatening. Having been on the debate team in college my strong inclination was to raise my hand to disagree, rather than ask a question. After a particular class where I voiced my disagreements often, the professor pulled me aside as students were leaving. “Mr. Muehlhoff,” she began, “did you take this class to learn, or set everyone else straight?” That question has stayed with me. Why do I even want to dialogue with others? To learn, or correct everyone who has differing opinions?
Accepting a humble approach to our interactions with others means that we embrace the reality that all of us have blind spots, lack of information, and biases that keep us from seeing and knowing things clearly. As Paul states, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Assuming such a humble position—that in our human limitations we know in part—allows us to connect with family members or a spouse who may differ from us.
* These questions came from philosopher Elizabeth Krumrie-Mancuso. To read the full list of questions, see: https://cct.biola.edu/cultivating-humility-follow-we-know-part/
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.