I Beg to Differ, Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Building on an understanding of the dynamics of communication, this book develops a strategy for navigating difficult conversations through asking four key questions of those with whom we differ.
Difference is a given of life. Difference can make life delightful…or disturbing. What can be tough is when two people in some form of significant relationship differ and have to figure out how to make life with each other work. It happens between spouses, parents and children, business partners, and political leaders.
Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communications, knows all about this. He begins his book with a married couple who come to him with manila folders stuffed full of documentation of the grievances they had with each other. In various settings, he has worked on communication issues with families, men and women, college students, faculty and others in the public and private sectors.
He begins the book laying out some basic truths about communication. He explores how powerful words actually are. He outlines the various causes of conflict including poor communication climate, differing views of reality, lack of credibility, relational transgressions, lack of small talk, and latent conflict. He discusses the necessity of managing and expressing emotions in conflict. And he considers the role and importance of our spiritual disciplines in helping us with our self-control and self-talk.
All this lays the groundwork for four basic questions to ask in difficult conversations:
- What does this person believe?
- Why does this person hold this belief?
- Where do we agree?
- Based on all I’ve learned, how should I proceed.
He argues that these questions work to promote understanding in difficult situations because of the rule of reciprocity. When I make a sincere effort to understand another person on their own terms and look for the things we hold in common, it often creates a climate where the other sees themselves as obliged to do the same.
The final question is important. He elaborates it in the chapter as follows: “With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the next thing I should say?” It takes all we’ve learned about the person through the first three questions under consideration. It considers timing–is this a good time to have this conversation? It considers circumstances–are they conducive to a good conversation? And it focuses on a very specific goal, a manageable agenda–not everything I would ever want to discuss with this person.
The book concludes with three “case studies” of applying this strategy: a disagreement between spouses about finances, a disagreement between work colleagues about religion, and a difference between parent and teen about video games and grades. The dialogues are believable and illustrate a deliberate effort to walk through the four questions.
I found this one of the most helpful books on communication I’ve read because, while rooted in theory, it didn’t become lost in it, but provided very practical steps and illustrations that helped this reader think about how I could actually practice this in the next difficult conversation I face.
He concludes the book with a quote from The Miracle of Dialogue by Reuel Howe:
Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born. But dialogue can restore a dead relationship. Indeed this is the miracle of dialogue: it can bring relationship into being, and it can bring into being once again a relationship that had died.
Powerful words that seem so crucial for our time. What Muehlhoff does is point us away from the death-dealing discord of our culture to this life-giving dialogue.