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Disagreements in the Church Call for the Backstory

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A photo of Tim Muehlhoff explaining how to get the backstory when disagreements arise in the church.
In his book, Winsome Conviction, Tim Muehlhoff shares a principle that comes from the Harvard Negotiation Project.
"The big problem is, we only trade conclusions with each other. We never share how the conclusions came about. We never get the backstory."

Dr. Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communications at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, apologetics, gender and conflict resolution. He is also co-author of the book, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without dividing the church. Dr. Muehlhoff was a recent guest on the Focus on the Family® Broadcast. In this week’s Pastoral Tip, he offers some advice on how to get the backstory when there are disagreements in the church.

Here’s what he had to say:

Get the backstory

“In our book, Winsome Conviction, we share a principle that comes from the Harvard Negotiation Project, one of the key mediator groups in the entire world.

“Here’s what they say: The big problem is, we only trade conclusions with each other. We never share how the conclusions came about. We never get the backstory.

“There’s a proverb that says a person’s thoughts are deep waters. It’s the work of a conversationalist to draw those waters to the surface.

“When you disagree with a person and you just don’t get it … maybe back off and ask the question, ‘How did you arrive at your belief? Give me the backstory.’

“Who were the people you read that influenced you? Where did you grow up? Who were the people you listened to—their podcasts? Or a Ted talk, or what passages of scripture really inform your thinking?

“Get the backstory on all of this, because if not, you’re arguing in the dark. You just don’t know what’s happening – why this person is so passionate.

“To uncover that is not only deeply affirming to that person—that you took the time to understand what that person is feeling or thinking about this particular issue. Now you know how to communicate more easily with this person.

“Backstory, according to the Harvard negotiation project, is probably the most important thing to do when talking to a person. Don’t just trade conclusions. Find out the backstory, and you may uncover not only empathy, but also points of agreement and points of human contact.”

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