I’ve been asking readers to write constructive, helpful responses to two hypothetical situations:
1. Imagine that you are a Christian, and an atheist family member sarcastically compares God to Santa Claus.
2. You are an atheist, and your mother says she cries every night because you are going to hell.
In several recent workshops on my book, Bridging the God Gap, I asked people to try this exercise, right after we discussed strategies for communicating effectively about religion. But from many of the responses to the Santa Claus and “going to hell” scenarios, it seemed as if they thought it would be constructive to:
* Lecture the other person about theology
* State their own opinions without responding to what the other person had said
* Manifest anger, sarcasm, and/or condescension
In the future I am going to add a second step to this exercise. After attendees write their initial replies, I will ask them to try again, this time saying something that connects with the other person, responses that join, contact, empathize, and/or establish rapport.
I also tried this exercise in relation to gay marriage. I asked people to take the position of a person who favored such unions, and reply to someone who said the following: “I voted for an initiative that banned gay marriage, but I feel torn. Some of my family members are gay, and I do not think they should be executed for that, even though that is what the Bible says. But my pastor says that God has ordained marriage as being between one man and one woman, and that sounds right to me.”
Very few picked up on the speaker’s ambivalence about homosexuality and Biblical teachings. Many people who oppose same-gender marriage do so because they believe the Bible is entirely (or almost entirely) a set of divine teachings. When someone notices problems with certain Bible passages (such as the place in Leviticus where it says we should stone gays to death), that is an important topic for further discussion.
I did sense empathy in some responses. For example, here are three replies to the mother who worried that her child was bound for hell:
I appreciate your concern for my well being.
I am sorry that my belief brings you such great sorrow. Such is not my intention.
I’m sorry, that must be so painful for you. I love that you love me so much and I have to believe we’ll be okay in whatever is to come.
And here’s a response to the gay marriage statement that seems helpful:
I applaud your compassion … your struggle to respectfully acknowledge the traditions your pastor is espousing, but perhaps you’re feeling God continues to reveal new truths and/or traditions for modern times. Tell me more about your struggle.
In short, after reading dozens of responses to this exercise, I am impressed with how much more we have to learn about constructive, empathetic communication.
Roger Christan Schriner
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