Much of the bad communication we see online as well as in person could be improved by asking a simple question: “What is my purpose in saying this?”
We like to think that the purpose of every post we write or every debate we enter is to illuminate the truth and persuade others. But that’s not always the case. More often than not, social media posts are used as rallying cries for your own base or virtue signaling for your side of the issue. When controversy is more expected, online and in real life, we’re frequently more interested in proving we’re right than persuading others. How can we combat these tendencies? To put it rather simply, be purposeful.
Pick Your Battles
I’m the younger of two boys, and like most younger brothers, I liked to pick fights. Many of these were about unimportant things and my brother, being the oldest child, was determined to prove me wrong. But of course, this never convinced me. My mother, tired of the arguing, told my brother, “Just let him be wrong.”
While we could all use a dose of humility (“Maybe I’m the one that’s wrong”), there’s a lot of wisdom in that approach. It forces us to ask not just, “Is Karen wrong about her interpretation of Revelation?” but, “Is it important enough for me to point out the problems I see with her view?” Some issues are worth pursuing, while others are best tabled for another time, if they even need to be hashed out at all.
What is My Goal?
Once you determine whether or not a certain topic should be discussed, the question of goals enters the picture. My goals are not the same with every conversation. Am I aiming to entirely change their mind in one conversation? That’s about as common as a snowstorm in July. Am I trying to give them a challenge? Get them to see my view more accurately? Do I want them to respond so that I understand their view more accurately?
What I always notice the most about this topic is that none of these conversation goals are served by statements like “you need to open your eyes to” or “you’re being blinded by” or “you just don’t want to accept that” and so on. Our tone and approach often reveal our motives, and the other person can see that as well. We may not explicitly think, “I’m going to make sure everyone knows that I have the virtuous opinion on this.” That may not even be the motive we have. But when we don’t establish a purpose, and think about how that purpose works out in conversation, then we engage in reactionary ways rather than purposeful ways. A post written or a conversation started out of reactionary frustration can be just as damaging as the “rallying the troops” mentality.
The Order of Persuasion
As trite of a statement as it is, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I can only think of a small handful of times that a Facebook post led me to seriously reconsider a position I held. In every case that it did, I had an existing relationship with the person that went beyond Facebook debates. We must be willing to invest in hearts if we expect to change them.
This has an added benefit, as well. The more we invest in relationship, the more thinking about the other person in our conversations will come more easily. It’s easy to get caught up in the mentality of “I just have this one shot with this person, I have to make sure they know they’re wrong.” But when a conversation is happening in the context of a relationship, then these things become a little bit easier. They will never be easy, per se–sinful nature weasels into every human relationship–but you may find it less difficult.