7 tips for arguing with a chance of changing someone’s mind

Daryl Davis is a Black man fascinated by hate groups. In researching the KKK, he sought out members and met with them. Here’s what he learned.

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Daryl Davis is a Black man who is fascinated by American hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In researching the Klan in America, he sought out members and met with them. And befriended them. And was the cause of some of them leaving the Klan. He can prove it with the Klan robes they gave him after they quit.

He has advice for talking with people with a very different viewpoint, which I’m hoping will inform our approach to Christians. To illustrate the power of Davis’s approach, he shares an anecdote.

There are different approaches to dealing with hate groups, and engaging with and befriending them is pretty radical. And we’re talking here about making a Klansman an invite-him-to-your-wedding kind of friend. Daryl got pushback from someone from the NAACP:

[The NAACP guy said,] “We’ve worked hard to get ten steps forward, and here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, and you’re putting us twenty steps back.” I pull out my robes and hoods and said, “Look, this is what I’ve done to put a dent in racism. I’ve got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who’ve given up that belief because of my conversations and sitting down to dinner and they gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?” And then they shut up. (Source)

Philosophy

Daryl’s focus is on members of hate groups, but that antagonism isn’t that dissimilar from what you find in the atheism/Christianity debate. He begins with general advice. (I’m pulling out highlights from the “How to Argue” interview on the Love + Radio podcast.)

First, give the other person the safe space to express themselves. Ask honest questions, but don’t attack. You’re having a conversation.

Respect their right to speak, even if you don’t respect what they’re saying. By engaging, by simply being there, they open themselves up to new ideas that might grow in their minds.

He gives dogs as a parallel. If you beat a mean dog, it becomes meaner. The same is true for a hateful or closed-minded person. Push back directly, and the backfire effect comes into play. You’re attacking not just their ideas but who they are, so they dig in and cling to their beliefs even harder. In other words, leading with hate doesn’t work. Instead, rely on logic, respect, and patience.

There’s cause for hope. A former Westboro Church member said, “Extremists generally are not psychopaths. They’re psychologically normal people who’ve been persuaded by bad ideas.”

1. Know your opponent

Learn your opponent’s position. Know it as well as they do, so well that they would accept your statement of their argument. If you begin without knowing their position well, compensate with humility and listening.

What you hear may be hateful or illogical, but don’t overreact. When in doubt, listen rather than fight back. Remember that you’re playing the long game.

2. Make it a conversation, not a debate

A debate needn’t be angry, but it’s zero-sum. It’s a fight, and you can’t have two winners. You don’t want this; you want a conversation. A conversation is an invitation for someone to share their position, and most people are happy to oblige. Create a welcoming environment.

3. Find common ground

Use small talk and look for overlap in your lives. Do you both have dogs? Are you in similar professions? Do you have similar attitudes about health care, foreign policy, or hobbies? You’re finding common ground.

This is a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t think that chitchat is a waste of time—you’re working on a relationship, maybe a friendship. If Christianity comes up in conversation, that’s great. But if kids or pets or career come up, that’s great, too.

4. Talking is better than the alternative

The conversation may occasionally get heated. It may seem like you’re getting nowhere. But the more conversation, the more common ground you’ll find. (In the case of Daryl Davis’s discussions with Klansmen, talking is better than violence, which can be the alternative, though that’s probably not an issue for those of us in discussion with Christians.)

5. Be patient

It takes time to learn Christian arguments (or the particular variants that this antagonist uses), especially when tangents can be wide ranging—the religions of Mesopotamia, Greece, or Egypt; the role of fiction during the time of Jesus; the history of Israel, including the forced exiles and invasions of Palestine; the religious movements in the Ancient Near East during the intertestamental period, such as Gnosticism, Apocalypticism, and Marcionism; the many Bible stories; and so on.

Knowing the material earns respect, but don’t get overwhelmed. Listen and learn. Let your antagonists teach you—you’ll get smarter, and they’ll appreciate your humility.

Put yourself in the way of a discussion. Attend an Alpha Course. Find an interesting Sunday school class at a local church. Find a local Reasonable Faith or Reasons to Believe chapter. You’ll learn far more by hanging out with Christians than with fellow atheists. And while you’re learning about them, they can’t help but learn about you.

Put some effort into the first impression you give. A Christian acquaintance won’t say, “We’ve got an interesting class at my church—you should come” if you’re a jerk.

Respect their right to speak, even if you don’t respect what they’re saying.

6. Watch your tone

Make your point, correct errors in logic or facts, or get annoyed at rhetorical gamesmanship, but don’t be insulting or condescending. State your correction, but don’t delight in their failure or make them feel stupid.

One approach that I dislike used on me is the Socratic method, where one person (the teacher) walks another person (the student) through a series of questions to a conclusion. To allow the student to discover the conclusion themselves rather than having it forced on them, this is useful, but (unless this information is new to me) it’s condescending to be forced to be the student.

Because I feel manipulated when it’s used on me, I avoid using it on someone else. Maybe there are other approaches that you dislike. Don’t use them.

7. Give them space to make their argument

Give them their turn, and don’t cut them off when they make a point. Once they’ve made a point, ask authentic clarifying questions. They will appreciate your interest, and your questions may force them to confront problems that they hadn’t been aware of when it was just an idea in their head.

Don’t put words into their mouth, and let them explain. Pay careful attention so that you’re responding to the strongest interpretation of their point, not a caricature or strawman version. Try to restate it, and accept their correction until you get it right.

What’s good for the goose … ?

If this approach is useful for atheists talking to Christians, is the reverse also true? Perhaps. It’s harder for you to put a friend into the “Deluded Nutjob” category than an acquaintance. Still, it’s hard to fault and atheist and a Christian working hard to make a mutual friendship.

And Christians engaging in a long-term relationship with the goal of discussing Christianity’s truth claims put themselves in the way of atheist ideas. And that must be a good thing.

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There is a cure for ignorance.
The cure is called education.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for stupidity.
— Daryl Davis

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...