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How to Talk About Divisive Issues

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

How do you talk about divisive issues with people that disagree with you? Chris and Tim got together this week to talk about healthy tactics that facilitate healthy conversation on controversial topics. 

Speaker 1:    Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. We are grateful for listeners like you. Let's get right into it.

Chris Grace:    Want to welcome you to another Art of Relationships podcast. We have with us, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff from communications, and my name, Dr. Chris Grace. And Tim, it's so fun. We get to put this together. We have to give obviously credit where it's due. It's produced by Biola University's Center for Marriage and Relationship that just allow you and I to kind of cover some topics, but it's always fun to have you, and or to be together on this.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, Chris, it is a blast we've been doing it for a while, we're amazingly heard in over 140 countries, we don't take that lightly. It's amazing, we have that kind of a platform, and we just feel like there's times we just need to bring up issues that may be somewhat sensitive. And so, we're going to do that today. A lot's going on in the world, Chris. It is really interesting just to watch the nightly news, to open up your computer, check out, CNN, MSN. And it just seems like there's so many issues today that are pressing upon us and that we need to have conversations about them. It could be the race issue today that seems to be dominating the news. COVID-19's not gone anywhere. And surprisingly, there's a debate about whether to wear a mask or not. Should we?, Should we be forced to do that?

    And so, these are volatile topics and a lot of people just shy away from them. They may want to talk about it, but we kind of lack a strategy of how to do it. How do we do it in a way that doesn't mirror what we're seeing in the argument culture today? And so, I think a lot of people want to process this powerful issue of race or, individual freedom versus collective freedom when it comes to COVID-19, but we just don't know what to do about it. And I think you and I both have felt that at times. And so we had a conversation where we thought, I wonder if one area where we feel more confident in talking, which would be relationships and interpersonal communication. You come from a psychological background. I come from a com theory background.

    Couldn't it be interesting to take some principles from talking to each other about relationships, and apply them to potentially volatile topics?. So that's kind of what we're going to do today. We're going to take some well-worn principles that we've advised couples, we've been advised groups to use, and we're going to apply it to race particularly. How does that sound, Chris?

Chris Grace:    Yeah, it sounds good, Tim, it's a topic like you said, that's at the forefront, and it's always good to recognize. There's been some good thoughts that have gone on before and some good ideas that people maybe having committed as strongly to. But I think it's such a great topic. And I think showing it, Tim is a matter of the same way we would deal with other issues, beliefs, and systems that a couple may have in it. And so we'll just use those same principles. Sounds good.

Tim Muehlhoff:    All right. I mean, Chris, who would have thought about two months ago, if you would have told me something is going to happen, that's going to knock COVID-19 off the headline. I would have been like, "What the Detroit lions win the super bowl?" I mean, what could knock COVID-19 off the headlines? And then of course we've seen this issue rise up, the flash point was the tragic killing of George Floyd. And it seemed like to be a flash point. And now this race discussion has become an important one, but it's also been a volatile one in many different ways. So what can we do to help? Okay, here's my first, we're going to kind of alternate with each other a little bit, but here's my first one that I would say to any couple who came to me and said, "Hey, we want to talk about an issue. Let's say finances, but man, every time we do it just evolves into an argument."

    So here's the very first thing I would say. And Chris, you're going to laugh at this. It's not new. And those of you who have been listening to our podcasts any amount of time. This is not going to shock you. But I would first say to that couple, "What's the communication climate like between you? Generally speaking, how strong is the climate? Because you're about to talk about a really volatile topic, finances." So again, for listeners, you know this a communication climate is made up of commitment, trust, expectations, and acknowledgement. So I would first say to that couple, "What's the commitment level between you, do you trust each other?" And if that trust is lacking or the commitment's lacking. Then I would say, you need to build up that climate stronger before you go on to potentially divisive topics like sexual intimacy or finances. That's what I would say to any couple. Make sense, Chris?

Chris Grace:    Yeah, I would say the same thing, Tim. I think it's exactly right. And you also, at that same time, we have to recognize that it may not be an issue a couple can handle if it's too deep and it's too much emotion, we just covered that. And so having an outside person, that they can process this with counseling, especially Tim in some of these areas that man, you double down on the emotions here, which is why all of this is going on. But I think you start with that. What's that com climate like, then Tim, as that goes through, I would add another one in that is make sure that you guys are willing to tackle these hard issues and just affirm each other in that. And just say, "Hey, thanks for being willing to do this." And I know that's a strong part of speaker listener or being able to be there in my field in psychology then in com studies as well. Affirm, and that usually will go a long way.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And so Chris, let's just take these first two and now apply it to talking about race. First if it's within your church, let's say, that you want to have this conversation. I think the very first thing to do is make a commitment to each other, to say, "Listen, as a church, we're committed to each other." If this is a conversation you're having with neighbors, the first thing you want to do is affirm the commitment to each other. Hey we are neighbors to each other. We're important to each other. This is our church. And I just want you to know, regardless of your opinion. And if we disagree with each other, I just want you to know that we are absolutely committed to each other. And then Chris, I love what you just said. Affirm each other. That you're about to tackle a hard topic that has no easy answers.

    And I would say this speaks well of our church, that we're going to do this. We're not going to do it perfectly. No doubt there's going to be mistakes. I think it speaks well of us as neighbors or family members, that we're going to sit down and have this conversation. So again, we're trying to start on a positive aspect. And just to mention that a lot of churches aren't choosing to do this, Chris. There's a brand new Barna Study out that says roughly only 30% of us churches are tackling the issue of race. Other churches are choosing not to do it, because honestly they just don't know how to do it. They're fearful that it'll become overly political. So I think the first step is affirm commitment to each other. And I would say, praise the other person. I'm so glad that you're willing to take the risk and talk about this issue. This is what Gottman calls a positive startup. We're affirming each other as we head into what could be some difficult territory.

Chris Grace:    That's good, Tim, another kind of tip I would say that's extremely important in the area of counseling and psychology. And I know it is for you guys as well, Tim and that is when you are going to have these conversations, you have to allow that other person to be able to find a safe place so that they can go deeper. They can share a deep hurt or a deep emotion, but there has to be safety in that environment. There has to be a good, like we talked about, good climate where that's available. So the suggestion, Tim, whenever your partner or your spouse and you agree to take on something that's going to be a little bit deep. It kind of comes with the assumption. We'll hold each other in our trust. We won't belittle. We won't even do something as countering their emotions with like, oh, everybody feels that way. So a dismissive attitude. And so we need to come together with things like that. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Oh, Chris, I think that's imperative what you just said. Hey, so my students asked me an interesting question just last year, they said, "Of all your grad work, a master's and a PhD. What classes do you remember the most?" I thought that was a great question. And you know what comes to mind immediately, Chris? I took a class with Michael Eric Dyson, who was named by the New York Times, one of the top African American intellectuals writing and speaking today. And the class was on race.

    So here he had a mixed class, and we're all sitting there and he got up and did something Chris, I thought was beautiful. He got up and said, "I absolve you all from having to say it perfectly. I absolve you from having to say it perfectly. We're all going to make mistakes, but you have freedom in this class to make a mistake, to say something that wasn't probably phrased the best way.

    So he made the classroom exactly what you're talking about, Chris, a safe place. I really think a church can do that. Or a family can do that. Or neighbors or friends, roommates. To sit down and say, we're going to give you grace that listen, that could have been said better. Or maybe I wouldn't use a word like that, but here we're all learning how to talk about this. And you have the freedom not to say it perfectly. When Dyson said that to us, it really freed us up to offer our thoughts. So I love that Chris is to give each other grace, as you have this conversation with each other, I think that's incredibly important. Hey, can I add one more?

Chris Grace:    Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Okay. So we know this from marital counseling, from a psych from com, is that when a person is sharing their emotions, that is not the time to counter with facts. It's like when a person's emotional and let's say your roommate says to you, "I'm so tired of feeling like I'm the only one who cleans this apartment. I feel totally taken advantage of. I come home from busy classes, I've got a job. I walk in here and the place is a pig sty. I'm the only one who does anything."

    Now, that is not the time for you to jump in and say, "Well, that's just not true. I remember last week I helped. I remember two weeks ago I vacuumed." That is not the time to counter with facts. Although Chris, you and I both know how easy it is to do that, right?

Chris Grace:    Yeah, it is.

Tim Muehlhoff:    We want to give the exception.

Chris Grace:    That's right, no that's good.

Tim Muehlhoff:    So here's how I think it applies to race. Okay. There are a lot of powerful emotions being shared today. On the internet, on the news, through a lot of different vehicles. I think it's good that these emotions are being shared. Now is not the time I think for you to immediately counter with facts. If a person says, "I feel like my community is being disproportionately targeted by white police officers." That's a powerful emotion that person's sharing. That's not the time for me to jump in to say, "Well, I got to be honest with you. I read a story in the wall street journal that really disputed that. And it actually showed that that's not true." Okay. That might be a perfectly valid thing to eventually bring up. But in that moment, I would just say to that person, "Boy, I can't imagine how I would feel if that's how I felt about a police department that is meant to protect me." You're not condoning the perspective. You're acknowledging the weight of the emotion. Does that make sense, Chris?

Chris Grace:    Yeah. And I think that's exactly where healing starts, is at that place. I mean, we have to be taken to a deeper emotional place, and because of that, Tim, I think it's where God's greatest work is oftentimes seen and done. It's in those areas in which there's a lot of emotion and it can be a really powerful place to be. And so to share that with somebody who takes it seriously and doesn't counter with facts is good. Tim, this also begs one more thing. It sounds like finding the commonalities is a way to make a safe place, where you have common ground. What do you think about that?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, I think that's true Chris. And again, here's the commonality I think we can bring up. And it goes back to the very first point we mentioned, which is cultivating that commitment. Here's the commonality I hope all of us can affirm when it comes to an issue like race. We're all in this together. We are a neighborhood. We are a city. We are a community. We're a family, we're a marriage, we're a church. So when one person's hurting, when one person is feeling these deep emotions, we pull together, and listen, and empathize, and do perspective taking.

    Paul would put it in this kind of language when one person weeps, we all weep with that person. So I think the commonality Chris would be, hey, listen. When one person in our community is feeling neglected, feeling hurt, feeling targeted, all of us agree, we should come together and talk and empathize and listen. Yeah, we can have a debate later and talk about it. But first, if somebody's hurting within our family, I would hope all of us come together. And the commonality is, hey, families stick together. And we listened to each other, and we try to support each other. So I love that commonality Chris. And I don't think that's particularly controversial. Reaffirm the fact that we're all in this together.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. I do believe that's exactly what the message has to be. That we just want to find similar situations that we've been in that help us navigate something different this time and something deeper and harder. And I think Tim, I think getting that idea of finding a place where we share something else in common, let's say where we find, hey, we both agree that this has been part of our family heritages. Let's agree to that. And let's both agree that we don't like racism and we hate it and we want to do everything we can. And that's kind of what you have.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Yeah. Hey, let me add one other one. And this is going to surprise people I think, because I've written actually two books that talk about the power of listening. But there comes a time when listening alone starts to become counterproductive. So let me give you a for instance, you know, Chris, I am not a Mr. Fix it kind of guy. If there's a problem with our car, I think we should sell it. Just put it on Ebay. Let's get rid of it. I'm not a Mr. Fix it kind of guy. My wife's dad was a Mr. Fix it guy, he could make anything out of... I mean, he was amazing.

    So Norine and I for over 30 years have had this conversation. And the conversation is, "Tim. I would like for you to take more initiative around the house. Now if I say to her, "Honey, I just want you to listen to me. I feel inadequate about that. My dad, he wasn't a Mr. Fix it kind of guy. So I didn't learn how to do that. It's a mystery to me." I think that's fine in year one, year two, year three. But if I'm still saying that in year 30, I think there comes a point where Norine says, "I need to see some action. I need you to do something and not just listen."

    Here's what I hear a little bit about this race discussion is some of us are saying, "I'm not going to say or do anything. I just want to listen right now." And I applaud that. I think that is a great thing to do, but if parts of our community feel like, I need action. You've been listening for a long time about the concerns of my community. I need to see tangible action from you. I think that's a perfectly reasonable request. Now what that action is, is going to have to be agreed upon in the marriage, the family, the community, and the city. But I think it's fair for my wife to say to me, "Honey, I need you to act, do something." And I think it's fair for a community that feels neglected to say, "Okay, I need not just listening. Thank you. I appreciate that. Now I need to see you do something." I think that sounds fair, right, Chris?

Chris Grace:    Yeah, it does because we're always, in our field, just dealing with this dissonance between what I believe and what I do. And, that's just such a part of the common foundational findings that have... It's probably one of the strongest findings in all of social psychology. And that is we don't always live out our attitudes. We don't always behave in a way that's consistent with our other ones. And so that gap between those two. But it comes into play in this case where you really honestly have to figure out how can we navigate this conversation, so that we're at least understanding each other. And what side of, where you're at and what you each individually believe. And Tim, I think being able to do that is similar to maybe another one we can talk about.

    And that is, there's still, at times some conflict that's latent, it's hidden conflict. And sometimes those things fester don't they, like a virus or a bacteria. They just sometimes find the proper host, and the proper setting and all of a sudden, it's festering. And that's what this is, it has been doing. It seems like it's festering a long time. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, Chris, again, my last point I made about listening, I don't want to minimize listening. I think it needs to be accompanied by something, but I think we need to understand, talk about latent conflict, that there's members of our community who feel like this has been going on for a long time. This didn't just start with the tragic death of George Floyd. There's a context to that death that made it so powerful, such a rallying cry.

    So Biola University did something I thought was wonderful. We all watched the movie Just Mercy, which talks about how African American men are disproportionately on death row. And we watched that movie. And then Biola had a panel discussion about it, and I thought it went incredibly well. And I learned a lot, Chris. And from that, my wife and I watched this documentary called 13th, on the 13th amendment. And learning about how African Americans were treated after the civil war officially ended. I didn't know that Chris, I honestly didn't know that. Talk about a failure of my high school education. But so there's still things I'm learning that makes me realize this conflict has been going on for a very long time in our country.

    And it's good for me to realize a lot of people in my community feel like there's a lot of latent conflict, conflict and issues that have not been fully addressed. And it's good for me to realize that's where frustration's from. So to get the context of a struggle, a context of an argument within marriage is key. And I think it's key when it comes to something as volatile as this issue of race, let's get the context. That this has all been put in a long context for a lot of people. I think there's real value in that.

Chris Grace:    Yeah, there is. It's always the breakthrough Tim that we see in marriage work, is when some of these principles, if they just start doing them, they're not easy all the time. And sometimes you have to go back and read it. But I know you've seen it, and we've seen it as couples that employ some of these tips that we just gave. The affirmation and finding your communication climate, allow the other person to share deep emotions. Don't counter with... All of those, Tim can transform a relationship. And so I think it's a very interesting notion to tie it into a broader systemic or whole cultural conversation with racism. And I think you did a good job of thinking through those thoughts.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Well, now Chris, here's another key point. So one mistake I make in marriage is Norine and I will have a conversation, about let's say me doing more around the house, taking the initiative, buying a power tool. I don't even know what different kinds of power tools there are. So a power tool. I feel good about having the conversation, but then a month, two months, a year goes by and we need to have another conversation.

    Here's what scares me about the conversations we're having about race today, is we're going to have them, and then we're going to set them aside, some of us, and then move on to other things. And that can be very hurtful within a marriage, and it can be hurtful within a community. So I love the fact that we're talking about this. We're witnessing protests, we're talking about it, but this conversation needs to continue. We need to be having a podcast a year from now, Chris, still talking about these dynamics. We can't just have one conversation and then think that we're done with a complex issue.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. And complex is the right word. It's tangled up with so many things, which again, in any intimate environment, that's exactly what you expect. Greater intimacy, greater likelihood of uncovering some of these things, tough issues that are hard to tackle. So I agree, Tim. I think once this conversation fades from the collectiveness of us in a month or so, we have to remember that this is going to go on for a while. There's just a lot of things that still need to take place in some of these conversations that we're having.

Tim Muehlhoff:    And CS Lewis had a great comment about that. He said, "For every new book you read, go back and read an old one, reread it." So I think, Chris, that applies to this is, yeah, there's going to be other issues coming our way, but we cannot forget about the centrality of race relations, is incredibly important in the history of our country. And it needs to be a conversation with action that needs to continue the momentum that we're seeing today. And we need to have these difficult conversations. And we're just suggesting that maybe we borrow from marital communication, com and psych in order to structure this. So our pledge to you is this isn't going to be the last time we talk about volatile issues. It's not going to be the last time we talk about race. I think it plays a huge part in the fabric of America. And so we're going to continue to talk about this. And Biola is going to continue to talk about it and has done some great things already, I think, to bring this issue and maybe hopefully some healing.

Chris Grace:    Yeah. Good, good final thoughts, Tim. Thanks. And then for all of our listeners, Hey, tune in. Remember just mark that you like this podcast if you want. Give us five stars, subscribe and comment again with your feedback, and we'll get to your topics and your questions. So get your feedback in. And we love that. So Tim, it's always good being with you.

Tim Muehlhoff:    Thanks Chris. Take care.

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