In formal debate, participants prepare themselves to be able to articulate and defend a certain side of an argument. But they often are not told until right before the debate which side they will need to argue. For example, they may know that the debate is about the death penalty, but they may not know whether they will be arguing for or against it.
Because of this, debaters are forced to learn both sides of an issue. In fact, they are forced to know both sides so well that they would be able to effectively argue for positions with which they disagree.
This skill—the skill of articulating both sides of an issue—is one that is in short supply in American culture. Most debates that we observe on television consist of two people trying to outshout and demonize each other. This is because it is much easier to dismiss opposing arguments than it is to understand them.
And most of us opt for the easy way more than we realize. We do this by listening to podcasts, reading books, and watching shows that reinforce—rather than challenge—our beliefs. It is more comfortable to think that the other side (politically, theologically, or in relationships) is immoral or foolish than to think that they may have arguments that would challenge us.
Proverbs 18:17 says, “In a lawsuit, the first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” In this verse, Solomon says that wise people make sure that they know both sides of an issue before drawing a conclusion. Because this practice is so rare in our culture, I want to offer four ways that we can follow Solomon’s wise words and pursue understanding both sides.
1. Assume there is more to the story.
I have three sons. When one of them comes to me with a story about how his brother attacked him, I find myself being skeptical. I am not skeptical that a conflict occurred. I am simply skeptical that the conflict arose because of one completely innocent victim and one unprovoked perpetrator. So I ask questions, and I listen to both of them give their explanations for what happened. This is a good practice not only in parenting, but in life as a whole. If you find yourself saying something like, “Why would anyone vote for that candidate?” or “Why would any thinking person be an atheist?” I suggest that you begin with the assumption that your perspective would change if you had more information. This would not necessarily mean that your opinion about politics or religion would change, but you may end up having more empathy and respect for those who hold differing viewpoints.
2. Listen to the other side’s best case.
We can all find YouTube videos of our favorite debaters ripping their opponents to shreds. However, many of these videos exist because the debate is a mismatch. My suggestion is not simply to listen to a liberal if you are a conservative, or to a pro-life person if you are pro-choice. My suggestion is to listen to the most articulate liberal or the most intelligent pro-life person. Listen to the other side make their best case and see if your belief stands up to this. In saying this, I am not suggesting that Christians should only read books by atheists (I think this would be a bad idea because we all need encouragement from other believers). I am simply suggesting that it is best not to draw a firm conclusion unless we have heard the other side give their best argument. I personally read a lot of books by people with whom I agree. But I also read books by people who disagree with me on foundational issues, whether relating to God, to politics, to the Bible, or to human nature. Listening to the other side gives me a great chance to (a) be more secure in my position or (b) change my mind when presented with a better option.
3. Ask questions.
Social media thrives on each person expressing strong opinions. While strong opinions may get clicks and likes, they are often uninformed. If wisdom is found in knowing both sides, cultivate the skill of asking questions. If someone says something that you find outlandish, ask them about it instead of simply concluding that they are a fool. We would all do well if we had less name-calling and more question-asking.
4. Offer conclusions humbly.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have strong beliefs and convictions. We absolutely should. G.K. Chesterton—one of my favorite authors—said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” So draw conclusions. I personally have very strong beliefs about God as the one and only Creator, about Jesus Christ as God’s only Son, about our need for salvation through Christ alone because of our sins, about the resurrection of Jesus, and about a number of other issues. And when we come to strong conclusions, most of us want to share those conclusions with others. But we should do this with humility. After all, if you have arrived at the truth, the great thing that you have to offer is not yourself, but the truth.
This article originally appeared here and is used by permission.