Discussion is an essential part of a maturing person’s diet. It enables one to expand on their own ideas, discover the flaws in their own logic, and to find the ideas they hold which they don’t understand as good as they thought. I am an avid discusser. I hunger for more than my fair share. My roommates have come to know this, that Adam loves a good discussion. On occasion our talks will last hours, usually heated to some extent, and almost always instigated by myself. All of our talks contain great content and food for thought, but one thing in particular struck me recently.
Usually a discussion is a kind of verbal melee in which two parties share their thoughts on a subject and, if disagreement is present, there is usually some form of sparring, though rarely a definite winner. Everyone gets a few hits in, and each participant usually walks away thinking they had the best hits of the match.
There is one obstacle and temptation that is most challenging to overcome when it comes to enabling mature discussion: getting over the need, the unnecessary and unhelpful need, to be right, or in more accurate words, to win. Sometimes we confuse winning an argument with enabling our side of the discussion to be true, especially when the topic is dear to our heart. It’s hard to swallow one’s pride, and address the person, not the argument. If the person whom we are discussing with is the priority, then our own wisdom becomes irrelevant as we try to address the needs, confusion, and often times pain of the person in front of us.
I noticed a quality common to all great theologians, poets, and philosophers: they don’t feel the need to respond directly to any accusation, question, or counter argument, but circumvent expectation to approach the heart of a matter. Sometimes they will answer your question with another question; sometimes they will answer your question with a seemingly unrelated statement, which sinks in slowly until clarity strikes; other times, most infuriatingly, they won’t give you any answer at all. Rarely is this silence from a lack of knowledge or inability to respond, but from a deeper understanding of how information affects people.
After much thought I found the telling of Jesus and the adulterous woman to be an excellent example. After presenting the adulterous woman to be stoned, the Pharisee’s try to trap Jesus with a question: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Jesus doesn’t answer their question with “yes, stone her”, or “no, don’t stone her”. He doesn’t refer to Mosaic law, or some loophole they didn’t know about. He merely says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” He provides no evidence, argument, or supporting information. Yet, immediately the angry mob is diffused; Jesus simply turned their attention from their evil plot to the darkness of their own hearts. Voila! They leave, probably still angry, but they leave.
Such wisdom is incredibly difficult! For us mortals it requires incredible insight, patience with ourselves, and a kind of tempered recklessness that laughs in the face of expectation. One must see simultaneously the question or statement at hand, the greater picture, and the heart of the individual/individuals they are conversing with. Personally, I get so caught up in having the greatest response to an argument that I lose sight of all else and focus on “winning” the argument. I would have been three chapters into reciting the Mosaic law, interposing my own “incredible” thoughts here and there, during which time the woman, and probably myself, would have been stoned at the hands of the angry mob.
So to win an argument one quality is needed above all else: to see the heart of the other person in the discussion with love, clarity, and compassion. Only then will we have the proper insight to find the right words to address what really lies at the heart of the matter being discussed.