Listening With Empathy When Listening is Hard: a book review

Conflict is inevitable. We all have different experiences, beliefs and passions. There will likely be a moment where your ‘silver bullet’ of an idea collides with my hobby horse (most likely while I try to run you over). We have also likely struggled with how to navigate difficult issues where we disagree vehemently with those we love. Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communications at Biola University, has written a book designed to help us navigate difficult conversations. I Beg to Differ describes a process of communication which will take us out of ‘fight mode’ to dialogue

In part one, Muehlhoff describes the power of words, why conflicts occur, the necessity of managing your emotions, and the importance of spiritual disciplines for preparing us to respond to difficult conversations with grace and understanding. Several marriage books I’ve read have stated that better communication alone, equals better ability to fight. Muehlhoff goes beyond this by orienting us to approach each conflict (or potential conflict) with Christlike character. Part two outlines Muehlhoff’s essential method. In approaching difficult conversations, he proposes asking four questions:

  1. What does this person believe?
  2. Why does this person hold to that belief?
  3. Where do we agree?
  4. Where do we go from here?

These four questions enable us to listen with empathy, even where we find ourselves in fundamental disagreement. Throughout this section, Muehlhoff uses an example of a difficult conversation. He was asked by some friends to talk to their son Mark, a PhD candidate in Religious Studies who had walked away from the Christian faith of his upbringing. Muehlhoff’s conversation with Mark shows  how asking these four questions helps foster  a sdeeper and more fruitful dialogue.  Finally, part three describes three case studies (marital disagreement about finances, disagreement over religion in the workplace, and confronting excessive video game use among teens).

There is no formula here for getting your own way and helping you prevail over your combatants as you take your stand. In many cases, we enter into difficult conversations with truth on our side (such as Muehlhoff’s conversation with Mark about his loss of faith). Sometimes Muehlhoff suggests working toward compromise (like in his case study on financial disagreement), but overall his advice is about retooling our approach. By listening for empathy and understanding we are no longer combatants. Our shift allows for a fruitful dialogue because we take the time to hear where the other person is coming from. This does not mean that we waffle on our firmly held convictions, but it does mean that we don’t outright dismiss the experiences of others.

Part two really is the ‘meat’ of this book, describing what Muehlhoff’s approach looks like; however what he says in part one helps us properly orient ourselves to conversation. I particularly appreciated his chapter on managing emotions during disagreements and his chapter on spiritual disciplines. If we are to speak graciously with our words seasoned with salt, we need to make sure we attend to our own emotional and spiritual health. I can point to times where my emotions and defective desires have poisoned the well of good conversation. Muehlhoff offers helpful and sound advice.

I recommend this book for people who are human. Yep, we will all face difficult conversations with others as we seek to love well and live well. Muehlhoff we seek to listen for understanding. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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