In high school, one of my favorite movies was “You’ve Got Mail.”
Call it the writer in me, I loved everything from the plot set in a bookstore to Frank’s obsession with typewriters and Kathleen Kelly’s (played by the spunky Meg Ryan) desire to send her online friend a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils on the first day of school.
There are also the quotable lines. Who can forget Joe’s (a la Tom Hank) impression of the Godfather? Or his bit about Starbucks’ orders? I practically have that movie memorized, but the line that has sunk deep in my soul is Joe’s warning to Kathleen about the power of words.
Throughout the movie, the two protagonists war over their respective bookstores, making snarky comments to each other in the process. But at one point, Joe tells Kathleen to watch what she says, because “When you finally have the pleasure of saying the things you mean to say, at the moment you mean to say it, remorse usually follows.”
Don’t you just love that line?
It’s so true!
There are so many moments in my life that I can recall just laying a zinger on someone. You know, those “trump cards” to win an argument or to shut the other person down. Though it might feel good in the moment to truly say everything that I’m feeling, I have always felt horrible afterward.
Sharp, unfiltered words cause people pain.
I don’t care how long I’ve been dreaming about just letting someone have it. I don’t care how many “shower talks” I’ve had where I’ve rehearsed my argument and nailed every word I wanted to say. When it comes to real life, disagreeing with someone in loud, harsh ways never leads to productive conversation.
Like Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail,” I’ve learned the importance of graciously disagreeing with the people in my life.
Christians aren’t called to never disagree with people. But Scripture does call us to disagree in healthy, appropriate ways.
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
I love how this verse puts gentleness and harshness on opposite sides of the spectrum. It’s not that we can’t be angry or frustrated when someone says something we disagree with. Sometimes people really do say upsetting things. But when someone really riles us up, when someone does or says something that just gets our blood boiling, the way of Christ is to respond with gentleness, not harshness.
To be harsh is to be cruel. It’s to position our words in such a way that we hurt the other person, perhaps in the same way that they’ve hurt us. To be gentle doesn’t mean we can’t speak the truth. But when we give someone “a gentle answer,” we do so without aggression or arrogance. We speak in such a way that we show our care for the other person as a human being made in the image of God. And we speak in soft, kind ways for the purpose of better understanding the other person, connecting with them, and developing mutual respect.
One of the ways I’ve learned to be gracious with people I disagree with is by choosing to ask open-ended questions.
For example, if I’m conversing with someone who holds an opposing position, I might ask:
- What got you interested in this topic?
- What do you feel is your biggest fear when it comes to this topic?
- What do you wish would happen regarding this topic?
- Has this topic impacted you personally? If so, would you be open to sharing about it?
- What does the future hold if nothing changes around this topic?
These types of questions help me attune my heart and mind to the other person.
Instead of just blurting out the first angry thought that comes into my mind, taking time to formulate a thoughtful question slows me down, helps me get my breathing and heart under control, and allows me to try to extend an olive branch to the other person.
In fact, the more I genuinely try to get to know the other person, the more my anger subsides. Because as our conversation persists, I learn more about their experiences (good and bad), their hopes, their frustrations, and their dreams for the future. The more I listen, the more I’m able to humanize the other person and see them for who they truly are: a child made in God’s image.
Listening to each other’s stories and needs fosters true understanding, which leads to deeper care and affection for one another. Even if two Christians still have to part ways at the end of a disagreement, they can do so knowing that they chose the path of gentleness, kindness, and respect.
The next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone, choose the path of gentleness and grace. Who knows what doors of connection and understanding God will open for you?!