Conflict Advice, Spirituality, and the Need for Nuance

Conflict Advice, Spirituality, and the Need for Nuance

Okay, so on the heels of last week’s Online Listening Café about Listening Across Spiritualities Even When We Disagree, it seemed too, too perfect when I learned one of my favorite podcasts, The Bible for Normal People, took on the subject of “How to Talk to People You Disagree With” in the very same week. As a scholar of stress, trauma, and conflict communication, though, I’ll admit I was sad and disturbed after listening to the conflict advice given in Jared Byas’ solo podcast. And so, this week, before heading back into my series on political disgusts I’d like to talk about why I felt disappointed by the episode’s approach.

I Really Do Love This Podcast, Usually—But…

Before I dive into my disagreements, let me just say, that I deeply love The Bible for Normal People podcast. I love how the hosts, Pete Enns and Jared Byas, both white males, invite people from other less privileged perspectives to have a voice on the podcast. I see a lot of humility in how they deal with their guests, and I honor that.

This episode seemed particularly jarring to me, partly because I am such a fan of most aspects of the usual approach, and also because the episode itself advocated hospitality and listening to others. Unfortunately, from my perspective, neither of those practices were actually demonstrated.

(Update: I’ve chatted with Jared Byas about this on Twitter a bit, and it seems that most of the below was unintentionally communicated from his perspective. That’s what I had guessed. It doesn’t mean we don’t need more said on the issue, though, which isn’t just about him. It’s just a cue that a point he made in the podcast is accurate: we need more voices and dialogue on this issue.)

What Was Good In the Episode

I also want to say that much the conflict advice offered at the end of this week’s podcast was pretty solid—they discussed practices that I’ve taught in my interpersonal communication class.

In fact, there was nothing actually wrong about the primary framing of the issue overall—the problem wasn’t that it was a bad perspective for some people with some problems with conflict in some situations. (I do have an issue with presuming that “teaching mode” is automatically a problem, but that’s an issue for another time.)

I love canoeing. But this image–of someone canoeing and leading without looking back–reminded me of this episode of TBFNP podcast. Sigh.

A Problem of Too-Hasty Advice

The problem was that the approach was incomplete.

The podcast demonstrated the kind of listening problem we just talked about in interpersonal COM last week: someone offers hasty advice-giving “listening responses” to a situation before understanding the full experience of the audience. (Which, ironically, is what the host was cautioning the audience against!)

A Need for a Broader Approach

It comes down to this: the framing of the issue didn’t leave room for others to have different problems with conflict—specifically, it expected the audience to be recovering aggressors rather than recovering conflict avoider-accommodators.

It also didn’t leave room for situations in which someone were to seek to win a debate for the sake of advocacy of those who had been hurt by another’s religious or political views. In presuming that everyone shared the problem of debating in order to be right, the host unintentionally could be seen to trample on other purer motives—say, those, of advocacy for and by groups wounded by particular theologies— for speaking up and debating.

All of that, ironically, felt like it undercut the episode’s message about listening in an unfortunate and potentially harmful way. (It’s that harmful part that compelled me to speak up about this, as regular followers of this blog should know by now.)

A Deeper Look at the Episode

So yeah, here’s what I hear in the podcast, and where exactly I disagree.

In the episode, Jared introduces the issue of disagreement in a helpful way—by introducing his past experience. I think it’s lovely and admirable that he was vulnerable enough to share his personal history with egotism in debating religion and philosophy.

I think many who have, from time-to-time, used their intellect as weapons could relate to the dangers of trying to be right at all costs–to knock someone else down in order to feel better about yourself.

Reaching Out to Recovering Aggressors

For the audience that has struggled with that temptation and background the story was great and illuminating.

And as I said, his advice overall is great: for that audience.

But the bulk of what he says, and the advice he gives, is only valid for those who have the tendency toward competitive/dominating styles of conflict management and the intellect, voice and platform where they can use it.

My Experience with Aggressive Debaters

The episode goes so far as to presume that this is the major problem with religious and/or philosophical disagreements and debates. And that’s where I can’t go along.

As anyone who has read my “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” knows (sign up for the email newsletter in the top bar for that!), I can appreciate Jared’s repentance on this episode, because I was at the butt end of many such loaded debates while I was growing up. These debaters too often, knowingly or not, backed me into a corner where I felt I could never win.

And as a result, I (like many of the students I teach) developed deep wounds.

I also developed a super avoidant-accommodative style of dealing with conflict as a result.

The Healing Part—But Also the Danger

Hearing Jared diagnose his problem and repent of it in the episode was super healing for me because of my past.

But because his talk carried with it the presumption that everyone had the same problem, the episode left me worried that people like me would feel the need to follow the same advice, which would likely be quite detrimental to their own healing.

In my perspective, drawn from both experience and expertise, to someone who has been silenced in intellectual debates for years, being asked to humbly listen is possibly the worst advice you could give.

What I’ve Learned from Teaching Students With Communication Apprehension

I teach a lot of university students who are apprehensive about communicating, which is often associated strongly with both trauma and conflict avoidance. Many of them, though not all, are quite good at listening already. What many of them need is to work to overcome their fears and shame about speaking up assertively. They don’t need to be told to be humble and listen—the world needs to hear their voices and they need to  fiercely advocate for themselves and their group.

Absolutely, those voices who are used to having more say need to humble themselves and listen. But those who have been consistently shamed and humbled and taught that it’s not okay or spiritual to speak up? Those people don’t need a message of humility or of listening. They already have those things in spades. They need a message of empowerment.

Why It’s Not Always Okay to “Agree to Disagree”

One other thing that the episode failed to address was the idea that people don’t always seek to win intellectual debates for ego purposes. It is true that many attempts at traditional debating seek to shame and defeat for the sake of the ego. It’s also true that those uses of intellect can be hurtful, and that it’s unwise and hurtful to try to control others. The tips offered can limit the likelihood that someone will feel threatened and defensive when you speak to them.

But, and here’s a big but, I was surprised, in light of what the show hosts and guests themselves have said on past episodes, that they didn’t make it clear that people don’t always speak up in debates only out of egotism and at another’s expense. Nor did they clarify that it’s okay, and highly appropriate, to seek to use the influence one does have to advocate for those hurt by theologies that exclude and wound.

The Problem with Presuming All Competition Is Zero-Sum

Yes, lifting one’s ego at the expense of the other is the classic zero-sum, competitive version of the fight-stress response. But that’s not the only reason people speak up or compete. To propose that speaking out in disagreement is never the right stance is an extremely dangerous idea—potentially suppressing voices that have a valid and rightful need to advocate for themselves and others.

To presume that speaking out is ALWAYS  the result of an out of control ego is a dangerous idea.  It risks shaming those who have already been silenced from ever disagreeing. It can contribute to the denial of those who don’t see the relational side of their theologies. It can also pour salt in the wounds of those who are using the influence they have for genuinely good motives, and on the behalf of groups that are being oppressed, marginalized, or wounded by biblical discourse and/or philosophies.

The Need for Affliction of the Comfortable

To be frank, I was really surprised to hear this from someone who studies Jesus and the prophets (who definitely engaged in strong religious debates, and weren’t afraid to compete and dominate when vulnerable groups were being wounded). In an age where so many are rightfully fired up to stand up against toxicity, I was disturbed by the limits of the episode’s conflict management advice, along with the seeming unawareness of the ways it could suppress or further wound some of its audience members.

As I said in my article about preparing to talk to those who have traumatized you, it takes a lot of preparation to speak up to those who have spiritually wounded you, I don’t believe it’s healthy or wise to stand up against those who have hurt you in every situation—boundaries are helpful and important.

Why We Stand Up

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need people to boldly stand up against toxic views of spirituality that hurt and traumatize others. As I’ve been discussing in my “Toxic Side of Christian Nice” series, such behavior encourages unhealthy patterns to continue.

The burden of changing the most ardent people’s mind should not fall solely on the people who have been hurt by toxic theologies. But  it is important, though, that those who have come from such toxic theological backgrounds, who truly understand that their points of view damaged others, use their knowledge, and the awareness of their former complicity, to fight the toxic parts of the theologies where they can.

Not to prove rightness and the toxic theology’s wrongness.

But to stop people from getting hurt by creating a healthier communication climate.

To help those who have ears to hear to, well, I’ll use the word—repent. To turn from their toxic ways.

The Problem with “Not Wanting to Disturb the Well-Meaning”

All of this relates to an ongoing theme in this podcast that disturbs me. I often hear the advice given that people ought not “disturb the faith of those well-meaning people” who don’t mean to be harmful to others with their views. A fear of conflict and relational disruption, however well-meaning, lies at the root of such advice. I recognize that fear because I too was socialized that way. But that doesn’t mean it’s the kind or right thing to do.

Here’s my perspective: if you are doing or believing something that hurts someone else, it is worth disrupting your comfort in order to help you deal with that issue. Learning how to appropriately call such things out is the only way we can change our religio-political communication climates into places that are healthier for the marginalized and the oppressed.

A Call to More Nuanced Approaches to Religio-Political Conflict

Again, I understand why Jared offers the advice he does. But I think we need a bigger and more nuanced understanding of spirituality and conflict to get where we need to go.

Honestly, this kind of limited conflict advice” regarding spirituality is why I started this blog. I think it’s so important to note that our own tendencies toward conflict affect so much of how we take on spirituality. And the fact that we often hear more from the voices that desire to take over conversations has adversely affected our spiritual advice-giving in ways I’m still only beginning to grasp. We need the repentance shown in this podcast episode, but we also need better advice and advocacy from those who have been hurt by such tendencies.

That is what I am here to advocate. I hope you’ll join me in seeking a richer, more nuanced way to deal with conflicts and disagreements. May we leave space to draw attention to relational wounds. May we  give people a chance to repent for their part in them. I trust that there is room for that.

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2 thoughts on “Conflict Advice, Spirituality, and the Need for Nuance

  1. Very well said . I gleaned a lot from your reply and it is about what I am learning. Having people who argue to win, seems to be my lot in life. Learning that if we are doing something or believing something that hurts others,it is worth feeling disrupted in order to deal with that sin brought to me by the misunderstanding of former teachers and pastors and relatives and systems . I think looking back to move forward an insightful idea. I think I have a sister who is aggressive an I am a conflict avoid er . Raising well aware adult children , has taught me so much. I have had to stretch and grow a lot. I must no control others only myself. I need to be learning to be an advocate for those who are hurting or marginalized. I need to let others do that too. When you are 64 it is hard to change in all these ways . I will and I must.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your response to the article! I’m so glad you found the article useful! And yes, changing these patterns and learning to do things differently is hard for people at all ages, I think, but definitely takes more courage the more history we have behind us. Having the history can be a benefit, too, though, as you note. I wish you well in whatever changes you make, and hope you’ll keep using this site as an ongoing support as you continue to grow. This stuff is not easy–making the changes requires a support system!

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Conflict Advice, Spi…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 9 min