The Nature of Respectful Conversations

Although a focus on orchestrating “respectful conversations” has permeated my website since its inception, my understanding of the nature of such conversations has evolved in the process of my hosting multiple eCircles and writing books intended to capture the highlights of these eCircles. What follows is my summary, as of early November 2018, of the essential elements of “respectful conversations” among those who have strong disagreements. 


UNERLYING PREMISE: An oft-neglected dimension of the call of Jesus for me to love others (Mark 12:31) is for me to create a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with me to express and explain their beliefs. You don’t love someone who you have silenced. 

THE RARE COMBINATION OF COMMITMENT AND OPENNESS: Holding to Your beliefs with strong conviction while being open to refining your beliefs in light of the differing beliefs of others (A “Convicted Civility”)

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.

Ian Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms, 136

One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility … We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.

Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency, 12

A MIDDLE GROUND BETWEEN RELATIVISM AND FANATICISM: Believing in “truth” but not willing to resort to violence in light of your understanding of the “truth.”

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs about what is “true”; you have your beliefs; end of conversation). 

Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.” – Reflections on the Psalms, 28).

One of the most pressing needs in our world today is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness; giving living expression to “convicted civility.”


All persons wishing to engage in “respectful conversation” with those who disagree with them should personally agree to abide by the following ideals.

  •  I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
  •  I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective
  •  I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me
  •  In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
  •  In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love

A POSSIBLE OBJECTION: Aren’t you limiting my “free speech” by expecting me to abide by these ideals for conversation?

Yes! Freedom for speech, or anything else, is not “license” (doing as you please). As proposed by Mark Douglas, there are three conditions under which “free speech” needs to be restrained.

RESTRAINING FREE SPEECH TO AVOID VIOLENCE: “Where speech is used to incite, encourage, or valorize violence, it can be restricted or prohibited.”

RESTRAINING FREE SPEECH TO AVOIDS SILENCING CRITICS: “Where speech is used to end conversations, to silence critics, to shout down unpopular positions, to harm through deception, or to reject the diversity of voices, it can be restricted or prohibited.”

RESTRAINING FREE SPEECH TO AVOID TRIBALISM: “Where free speech is used to categorize people, to generalize and then demean people, to reject and then to dehumanize people, it can be restricted and prohibited.”

Speech guided by the above “ideals for conversation” will avoid violence, the silencing of critics and the us-versus-them Tribalism that is so rampant in contemporary American culture.