How to turn hot topics into relational bridges

Guest Post by Katy Langley

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"What's your opinion on abortion?"

“Gay marriage?”

“Weed?”

“Evolution?”

“Trump?”

“The end times?”

There they are, standing in front of you, casually chatting about their upcoming weekend plans until, BOOM, out of nowhere the question drops. It’s you and them, in uncharted territory, with nervous eye contact and weight in every word.  

Um.

Perhaps it’s the question you dreaded. “I have no idea what I think of that, I’m still figuring it out. I don’t want to look like an idiot right now! What am I supposed to say??”

Or maybe you love those questions, and you excitedly try to summon all your theological wit, all your communication skills, all the hours you spent winning theoretical arguments against friends. “This is it! This is why I’m a good Christian. I’ve got this. I researched this exact question all last year. I have my elevator pitch MEMORIZED.”

Folks. Prepared or not, worried or excited, can we be honest for a minute? 

Are you really going to try to change their mind in one conversation? 

I mean, when you put it like that…. Ahem. 

Here’s the thing. Often, when others ask your opinion on something, they’re masking the question that’s below it. Am I enough? Will they still love me? Will they still love my family? Is there understanding in them? Are they safe?

Your job, in answering the question, isn’t to answer the question at all. Your job is actually to try to figure out what the question behind the question is. “What’s your opinion” is a code that, if understood properly, can unlock some of the most meaningful conversations you’ll have. You can be right, and do wrong. Be careful with the soul in front of you.

To that end, here’s a few things to remember when a friend/spouse/neighbor/coworker/family member (who we totally now are not trying to change in one conversation) drops a bombshell question out of nowhere: 

1) They trust you. (Or, they’re trying to decide if they can trust you.)

If someone is broaching a big conversation with you, they most likely care about the question and they’re looking for safe places to process. Hold that trust carefully. Thank them for sharing, and mean it. Remember this is a conversation and not a lecture hall. Play within their comfort zone of trust -- don’t push “good theology” or “social stances” too much as you get to the heart of what’s going on in their lives.

2) Respond, don’t react. 

Perhaps this is better phrased: shepherd, don’t soapbox. As a Christian, you’re supposed to make disciples, not minions; it’s okay if they don’t think exactly like you. Don’t forget you’re holding fragile trust, and you need to express care here, not a perfectly crafted theological stance. Be slow to speak and quick to listen, and try to understand where they are coming from. You probably didn’t form all your opinions or convictions in one conversation, and neither will they. Take a deep breath, and be willing to say something like, “Wow, that’s a big question. Give me a minute to collect my thoughts so I can respond well to you”, or, “Could we meet up next week to give this conversation the time it deserves?” Don’t rush to fill silence. An intentional pause to form your words or sit in the weight of something shared shows genuine concern. Take your time.

3) Ask good questions. 

Get out your gospels and take a cue from the one and only (um, Jesus), who did a masterful job of dodging opinion questions by asking another question -- thereby helping his listeners to think instead of react (or get the reaction out of Jesus that they were hoping for!) Good news: tact in response to alarming situations is something Jesus had in abundance, which means it’s something we have access to through Christ. You can ask God to help you grow in this area of Christ-likeness. 

And, you know, you can also reference this list of responses I’ve used -- that the Lord has already graciously provided in advance answer to your prayers for wisdom! Wow!

“That’s a big question. What makes you ask that?”

“Is this something your friends/family bring up very much?”

“Wow, that’s a really controversial issue.”

“Are you nervous to ask about this?”

“Thanks for trusting me with that and being willing to ask it. That’s a big deal and I appreciate your vulnerability.” 

“Have you chatted about this with your parents/spouse/friends? Why not/what did they say?”

“Have you been thinking about this for awhile?”

“Have you asked this of other people?” 

“What do you think I’m going to say?”

“What do you think?”

“When do you remember first starting to really think about this?”

As a bonus -- I’ve found humor to be so liberating. It settles the nerves and helps establish a common ground. While not always appropriate, when it’s fitting, I’ve found something a little teasing really valuable: “Wow, this is a big question. Are you trying to start a fight with me?? Where’s the hidden cameras and secret microphones??”

PLEASE remember, when you hear a big question from someone, it's probably not a casual question. It’s probably also not a one-and-done conversation; make sure to follow up over the weeks and months to follow. “Have you still been thinking about ___?” This is probably something that's deeply personal to them or their loved ones. Value their trust, respond well, and ask good questions. Take your time. If you fly off the handle and speak harshly, bridges can burn. If you listen and show care, even if you disagree at the end of the day, you establish yourself as a safe place. That’s crucial in relationships. 

And there’s my opinion, on opinions. You’re welcome.