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Don't Make a Statement When a Question Will Do

Do you struggle to engage in meaningful conversation with people who hold different views to you? These 10 simple questions will help you get started.

Do you struggle to engage in meaningful conversation with people who hold different views to you? I don’t mean telling them what you believe. I mean genuinely understanding and engaging with what they believe, and why they believe it. Christian apologist, Gregory Koukl, makes this observation:

“There are plenty of resources that help Christians understand what they believe and why they believe it — and certainly those are vitally important. But it’s equally crucial to know how to engage in a meaningful dialogue with a skeptic or a person from another religious viewpoint.”

His book, "Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions", provides much needed and thoroughly practical help for Christians to engage in these discussions. Koukl has a modest goal for these conversations - not conversion, but disruption:

“It may surprise you to hear this, but I never set out to convert anyone. My aim is never to win someone to Christ. I have a more modest goal, one you might consider adopting as your own. All I want to do is put a stone in someone’s shoe. I want to give him something worth thinking about, something he can’t ignore because it continues to poke at him in a good way.”

In short, Koukl’s approach is to ask questions:

“…never make a statement, at least at first, when a question will do the job.”

This is so effective because as Koukl says “Many people have never thought through their views and don’t know why they hold them.” This has certainly been my experience. I’m sure you’ve noticed how common it is after someone dies for the remaining friends and family to make comments such as:

  • “He’s in a better place now,” or
  • “She’s looking down on us.”

However, if you ask them why they think that, most people would have no idea what to say. Asking questions is an opportunity to explore not only what people believe but why. The other reason this questioning approach is so useful is that by asking questions we clarify what the other person actually believes, rather than what we think they believe. We can then engage with their actual beliefs, rather than beliefs we’ve assumed they hold.

10 questions you can ask

Koukl’s book is excellent, and I highly recommend reading it in full. For now, here are some questions, drawn from Tactics to help you engage with the beliefs of others.

  1. How do you know?
  2. What do you mean by that?
  3. How did you come to that conclusion?
  4. Why do you say that?
  5. Have you considered?
  6. What are your reasons for holding that view?
  7. What makes you think that’s the right way to see it?
  8. Why would that idea sound compelling to you?
  9. Would you be willing to look at another angle (or consider an alternative)?
  10. Would you take a moment to carefully explain your view and also your reasons for it to help me understand better?

Each of these questions provides an opportunity to understand and engage - without the need to make a statement. Of course, you should be ready and willing to give reasons for what you believe and why, but Christians aren’t the only ones who need to be able to explain their worldview.

When the discussion gets personal

Koukl also suggests a couple of helpful tips for when the discussion gets personal. Firstly, when people ask you for your beliefs and you’re not sure if you’re being set up for intolerant ridicule, you could say:

“You know, this is actually a very personal question you’re asking. I don’t mind answering, but before I do, I want to know if it’s safe to offer my views. So let me ask you a question: Do you consider yourself a tolerant person or an intolerant person on issues like this? Is it safe to give my opinion, or are you going to judge me for my point of view? Do you respect diverse points of view, or do you condemn others for convictions that differ from your own?”

Secondly, if the discussion turns away from reasoned argument to personal attack, you could say:

“I’m a little confused about your response. Even if you were right about my character, could you explain to me exactly what that has to do with this issue?”

I recommend his website, Stand to Reason. And here’s Koukl in conversation with Deepak Chopra: