Four Common Assumptions We Make When Talking to People Who Don’t Think Like Us

Halfway through The Doubter’s Club* training session titled “Death to Tribes and Biases,” I will ask the participants the following question: “What bias does your tribe require you to have?”

In other words, what people would be considered outsiders to your in-group? What worldview are you most dismissive toward? In an us-versus-them world, who is the “them?” From your tribe’s perspective, which ideology was Jesus talking about when He said to “love your enemy”?

Interacting with opinionated people is never easy — especially when their opinions are different from yours. It often puts us on the defensive, causing us to respond by making assumptions about why they think the way they do. Making assumptions about another person is just one of the many behaviors we use to protect our thoughts, beliefs and actions. And while you may be right part of the time, becoming defensive is wrong every single time.

As Christians, there are four common assumptions we have about people who don’t think like us. I hope examining them will help you experience the joy that comes from curiosity and compassion.

1. “Everyone can handle disagreement.” The more certain someone is about their beliefs, the less likely they are to handle disagreements well. In such cases, certainty is an idol that gives people a sense of worth, and to threaten that idol is to threaten their sense of worth. The goal, therefore, is not stronger arguments to cement our stake in the ground. The goal is confidence, not certainty.

In our pursuit of confidence, we find ourselves willing to listen to other perspectives. If those perspectives are true, we can learn from them. If they are not true, we gain further confidence in the direction we are going. In the words of my mentor, “If you want them to admit they are wrong, you have to be willing to do the same.”

You are responsible to love people well, and God is responsible for just about everything else.

A quick litmus test is to ask whether an expressed belief is one that has persisted since childhood. In such cases, rarely have all the complexities of the belief been considered. It was required to be acceptable to an in-group. Changing such a belief might cause someone to feel like an outsider.

When someone questions what you believe, be ready and willing to talk thoughtfully without being defensive. And assure others you accept them regardless of how they think on an issue. People need a long runway for new ideas to take off.

2. “Saving people is my responsibility.” What if the person you are talking to dies in a car crash on the way home? What if Jesus comes back before the conversation ends? What if this is the only time that person has to hear the gospel? In short, the answers to those questions are not your responsibility.

You are responsible to love people well, and God is responsible for just about everything else. And it’s in loving them well that you will find opportunities to share Jesus in both word and deed. In the words of Bob Goff, “I used to want to fix people, but now I just want to be with them.”

One of the modern critiques the unchurched community has of the Church is that we are unable to convene with the nonbeliever without trying to convert them — or make them take a next step so we can eventually see them become a Christian. And while salvation is the ultimate gift we could invite someone to receive, it was never meant to be an ulterior motive within an otherwise authentic friendship.

Some of the people in your life may never become Jesus followers, but every one of them needs to experience the love of Jesus through you. Despite what your in-group may have taught you growing up, convincing your co-workers to pray the sinner’s prayer is not your responsibility. That’s God’s job (John 6:44).

3. “Listening is losing.” Listening is a simple, disarming tool that signals respect and interest to the other person. When you model this skill to others, it will set a norm where all people feel welcome. The problem is, we often assume listening is losing since we didn’t share our Christian perspective on the issue.

I have found that when I listen more intently to my atheist friends, I am able to ask better questions. I’m able to help them see what they wouldn’t see otherwise. Listening leads to good questions, and good questions lead to personal discoveries and inside jokes — all the things real relationships are made of!

This has been most helpful when leading Doubter’s Clubs. More times than I would like to admit, I prepared an apologetic answer to what I assumed was going to be the skeptics’ main objection. However, the times I chose to listen, I realized every objection to Christianity has a story behind it. We need to hear these stories before offering facts. Listening allows you to feel what someone else feels so you can, eventually, know how to say what needs to be said.

4. “The conversation is the goal.” Jesus was a friend of sinners, not just friendly to them. The goal is not to have a conversation with the drug addict and money launderer. The goal is to become friends with them. And lest we are confused about what it means to be a friend, we know the lowest standard for Jesus was to be around them enough to be associated with them.

When I was in youth group, my youth pastor used to tell me, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” While there is wisdom in choosing who is influencing you (especially as a youth), such clichés can negatively impact our thinking. For the longest time, I used to keep atheists and agnostics at a distance by having friendly conversations that would never amount to a real relationship. Why? I thought, If I’m not careful, I will end up leaving the faith like them.

If you show me your friends and they all think like you, I’ll show you a future where you don’t look like Jesus. Jesus made His life about those His in-group wanted nothing to do with, from tax collectors to Zealots. Jesus sought friendship over friendly interactions.

What now?

First, become aware of your assumptions. Identify which assumption is your default when talking to someone who doesn’t think like you. It will take practice for you to stop thinking that way, especially if you have held that assumption for a while. The real work is in being mindful of what is happening, and choosing to hold to a different, more sensible belief.

Second, break free from the pressure. Remember that people are not a means to any end. They are an end in themselves. People are the goal! Free yourself from the overwhelming pressure to make anything happen. They don’t have to change their mind, you don’t have to save them, and listening is a win.

*Influence is proud to partner with Preston Ulmer and The Doubter’s Club on a new series of articles about spiritual conversations with non-Christian friends. The series will appear biweekly on Fridays, beginning today. Ulmer is founder of The Doubter’s Club and director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network of the Assemblies of God.

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