Disagreeing Without Being a Jerk: Tim Muehlhoff
About the Guest
- You can find us here on our social channels.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
What if you weren’t a jerk in your faith conversations? Author and professor Tim Muelhoff makes the case for compassionate understanding of those we disagree with.
Disagreeing Without Being a Jerk: Tim Muehlhoff
Tim: I'm a migraine sufferer, so I have prayed to be delivered and I have not been delivered. I've been dealing with them for about 20 years, but guess what? I have a talented neurologist who's not a Christian. I take migraine medication - and I want to make the argument in my book that's as much as God acting as if he supernaturally healed my migraine. Now I get that, that's not as satisfying. Right? When I'm having a blistering migraine, I want God to just step in and deal with it. But my migraine medication works. Don't place limits on how God can act.
Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading. I'm your host, Shelby Abbott and this podcast is called Real Life Loading dot-dot-dot. Those three dots at the end of our title describe being in process. We haven't arrived. All of us are very much in a state of loading. I'm excited because today, I'm talking with a man who's kind of like my spiritual relative, Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim worked with and mentored a guy named Dave when Dave was in college, and he even helped lead Dave to Christ. Well, Dave went on to lead eventually a campus ministry at Virginia Tech and ended up helping a freshman kid named Shelby learn what it meant to walk with God. Yes. I'm referring to me, so it's Tim, to Dave, to me.
Well, Tim Muehlhoff ended up becoming a professor writing books and speaking all over the country. He's currently a Professor of Communication at Biola University In. Southern California where he teaches classes in conflict resolution, apologetics, and gender communication.
Today we're going to talk about what it takes to have healthy two-way conversations and why it's important to listen to opinions and perspectives that you don't agree with.
If it kind of feels like you're getting a great lesson at first, well remember, it's because Tim is a professor, but don't worry, there won't be a quiz at the end or anything like that. He's just going to give some really practical applications for the concepts he's talking about, so you won't want to miss what he has to say. Let's get into my time with Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim, I remember a long time ago you speaking about this thing that really stuck with me called communication climate. To have a productive conversation with another person, especially someone you disagree with, you've got to have a good communication climate, but you don't think we really have that in our culture right now. Can you explain more about actually what a communication climate is and basically what goes into it?
Tim: Yes, it's made of four different elements. The first element would be mere acknowledgement. Do I acknowledge your perspective, the weight of it? Now, it doesn't mean I have to agree with you, it just means that I'm acknowledging your perspective.
It's an important perspective and we're not doing that today, right? We diminish other people's perspectives as fast as they can say it if it doesn't agree with us.
Second, what are my expectations of you? And we know from communication, research expectations, that's what produces happiness. My expectations of my boss, my spouse, my neighbor, coworker. If those expectations aren't being met, then the communication of climate suffers.
Next would be commitment. How committed am I to this relationship? If we have a conflict? Is the relationship over? If you don't agree with my perspective, am I ready to bail on the friendship or the relationship?
Then last and probably the most important, do I trust you? If I don't trust you, then the whole communication climate is at risk. Because I don't trust anything you do. You say, “Hey, let's talk about this issue.” And I'm like, you don't want to talk, you just want to lecture me, so I don't trust your intentions.
And Shelby, today in the United States, we are seeing what Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist called the argument culture.
Tim: Our climate is so toxic right now. Shelby, if your communication climate is a mess. You have to step back long enough to begin to repair the climate, or every conversation you're going to have is going to end in an argument. You have to do climate work before we can talk about race, sexuality, gender, politics.
A lot of us just don't want to do that work. We just want to jump in and give a monologue. I don't want to engage a person; I just want to tell them what I think is right and we have to do the hard work of building up the communication climate. The book of Proverbs says, “a word spoken in the right circumstance is compared to fine jewelry.” [Paraphrased] Well, we have to create that right circumstance, and let's work on repairing the communication climate between me and my friends, me and fellow Christians, me and non-Christians. We can't move past the communication climate.
Shelby: That's what I wanted to ask you because it's a really accurate diagnosis of what's happening right now. But if you have an MRI and you can see the problem, then you need to act to move it. Is it one conversation at a time? Is it leading by example? Is it teaching about it or is it all of those things?
Tim: Well, you have to do the work before you have a conversation. What we've discovered at the Winsome Conviction Project, it's a five-year project aimed to restore civility, compassion, empathy into our disagreements - it's housed by Biola University - if we don't do pre-work, if we don't have a pre-conversation with ourselves to figure out why is it when a person mentions this issue, I feel like they just tripped an emotional wire. Why is it that when this is brought up, I get angry?
Tim: Right? If we don't do that hard work on the front end, then we know that middle conversation is just going to be a nightmare. Like King David, “Search me, oh God, and let me know are there any ways in me that you find unpleasing?” And Shelby, if we don't do that, the middle conversation does not work.
And we add a third conversation. That's why I'm calling it the middle conversation. We believe there's another conversation after the conversation that if you don't work there, that middle conversation goes nowhere. So, let's pick one thing and be practical. What about acknowledgement? Okay. How do I work up my ability to acknowledge a perspective I might even disagree with?
We like to recommend a website called allsides.com. It's where you go and read about an issue, but they pick the center, the left, and the right and they give you the best of those perspectives. I would say to your listeners, go to allsides.com. Read about an issue, and if you find that you're really having a hard time with one of those conversations, that's where you need to do some hard work. Like why am I reacting so strongly against this position? Can I at least listen, be charitable, seek to find common ground even as I disagree with one of those perspectives.
Shelby: Yes, that's good. And practical application too. A lot of times I think just in general we - and you know outrage culture has contributed to this certainly is the problem is them. The problem is they’re - the problem is what they're doing. Rarely do we look at ourselves and go maybe part or all the problem - my biggest problem is within me first - because we drag ourselves into all of these conversations, and if they end up being like non-beneficial for anyone at best, but like knock down drag out arguments at worst. We're the common denominator every single time. I wanted to ask you about this too. How has the whole concept of communication climates changed since the rise of social media?
Tim: No, that's really good. I'm not willing to place all this blame on social media. I think social media gets a really bad rap. Let me just say to your listeners, we have to learn how to communicate within social media. I am not one of those people who advocates, “let's get off of social media.”
Shelby: Okay. All right.
Tim: I think I would agree with Alan Jacobs, who's a cultural critic who says, “What the internet has done is make me perpetually irritated.” I like that.
Shelby: That's true. Yes, I think that's true.
Tim: So, when I go online, I just get irritated. That by the way, makes me do something that is a massive mistake. Like if I go to a website that I just don't like and it gets me irritated, well, it makes me go back to the website that doesn't make me irritated.
Now we know based on algorithms that the more you type into your search device, the more it's going to give you what you already believe. If people have not seen The Social Dilemma [movie/documentary], -
Shelby: Yes, it, I saw that.
Tim: -it will scare you straight. So, we need to exercise the muscle. That means I purposely go to websites that I know I disagree with. I purposely watch news programs I know I disagree with. Why? Because I have got to work that muscle of listening to a person and saying, okay, I do disagree with that and that, but that surprised me. Like I actually would agree with that.
I would say to your listeners, if you listen to a person and can find no points of contact, no areas of common ground, we call that Myside Bias - which is I've been so influenced by my perspective, I literally see nothing good about what you're saying. And boy, that's a dangerous place to be with a friend, coworker, spouse, professor, roommate. That's a hard place to be. We have got to work that muscle of seeing points of agreement and that's going to cause me to have to break out of my algorithms. Break out of my echo chamber and go seek out these opportunities.
Shelby: Someone told me a couple of years ago, I could tell a lot about you by who you follow on social media. Be intentional about following people that you know you disagree with fundamentally. And I did intentionally. I started following people who were a lot more, for lack of a better term, liberal, and I don't mean that politically per se, just liberal theologically and that kind of thing. I found that I disagreed with a lot of things, but at the same time I saw the humanity of who they were - and there was plenty of overlap lots of times where I didn't think there would have been.
Tim: I do an exercise at Biola, and probably this is a good time to say the views represented here do not necessarily represent Biola University. But in one of my classes, I have students read the Quran.
Tim: They read the Quran cover to cover. Now listen, when they're done doing that, they are part of 1% of American Christians who have ever read a book outside of our faith tradition.
Now, what I find interesting, Shelby, is the reaction I get from. Parents call me and they're like, “I did not send my daughter to the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, Biola, to read the Quran.” But think about that, Shelby. Why not have her understand a book that informs one out of five people in the entire world? Right? That's why I think we're in danger of being in an echo chamber.
Tim: Is we only read stuff we agree with. And again, if we're going to take Jesus seriously, the Great Commission is at play - and that is taking His Word to the entire world. Well, it'd be really good to know what Muslims believe and what's informing their perspective.
And again, we critique the Quran, but we don't start there. We start the very first paper they write is - I want you to find 15 areas that the Bible and the Quran agree on.
Tim: And then Shelby, guess what? I get more calls from parents. Yes. Yes. What do you mean? And I'm like, trust us. See, this is the trust part of the climate. Trust. Trust me.
Shelby: Trust. Trust the process.
Tim: Yes. Trust the process. They do not want the process.
Shelby: Yes, that's not surprising. Well, it actually makes me think of my next question, which is basically, it's one thing to read something that we disagree with. It's a whole other thing to talk to and have a relationship with an actual person who we disagree with, or a whole different religious view or whatever. Can you give me some practical tips on really just how to do this well? Like how do we talk with someone who is different than us, where we want to share our faith with someone who believes something different than we do?
Tim: Yes. We know in communication research, there's two broad types of communication. One is what we call emphatic. These are the big dramatic, let's talk about race, let's talk about politics, let's talk about, right. Those are pound-the-table, emphatic.
But we know there's also something called phatic, which is the day-to-day stuff. It's the goofy stuff. It's the daily jokes. It's texting each other, saying, “Hi.”
I do martial arts and I do Krav Maga, which is Israeli's Self-Defense System. And I belong to a school made up of predominantly non-Christians. And Shelby, we laugh every day, as we're hitting each other.
Shelby: [Laughter] Right, yes.
Tim: Yes, we're talking about Netflix. We all love martial arts. We're all dedicated to doing it. We all have injuries and we're all laughing about the different injuries and what do you do for this injury, right? That's the phatic, and that stuff is worth its weight in gold. And we know the phatic sets up the emphatic. Now after two years, I can have religious conversations with them, and they don't shut me down. Why? Because I've done the hard work of working on the communication climate, and it's all the goofy conversations that have set up the big ones.
Now after two years, we're starting to have some big ones about politics and why I believe what I believe, religion, God. So, I would say to people that my biggest piece of advice is you have got to do life with people. CS Lewis is very famous for saying, “friends look in the same direction.” So, we need to do things with people. It can't just be, “Hey, let's sit down and have a religious conversation.” Lost people aren't ready to do that, so I'd say to your listeners, how many non-Christians do you. And if you don't know at least six, you're probably out of touch.
Shelby: We'll get back to the conversation with Tim Muehlhoff soon. But now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar.
My second favorite book in The Chronicles of Narnia series is The Silver Chair, and there's this moment in CS Lewis's book, the Silver Chair, when the Evil Witch Queen of Underland is attempting to bewitch the stories for heroes, Jill, Eustace, Prince Rilian, and this crazy character called Puddleglum.
Well, the witch has them cornered in this underground room, and Prince Rilian is demanding that they be set free from Underland and returned to Narnia above ground.
She casually glides across the room, and she throws some green powder on this fireplace that's in the room that ushers this sweet smell into the environment. And then she pulls out an instrument like a mandolin, and it's all very creepy and slow and weird. And this is actually what happens next. Here's a little snippet from the book.
“She began to play it with her fingers, a steady, monotonous thrumming that you didn't notice after a few minutes, but the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. This also made it hard to think, after she had thumped for a time and the sweet smell was now strong, she began speaking in a sweet, quiet voice. Narnia.
She said, Narnia. I've often heard your lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”
Okay, so the witch lulls the four heroes into this hypnotized state. And as their heads start to hang low and they begin to agree with the witch that Narnia wasn't real and Underland was all that existed. In one final gathering of his strength, Puddleglum stomps out the fire with his barefoot and claims loyalty to Narnia and Aslan the Lion, who is the book series Christ figure. And when he does so he breaks the spell over everyone, and they come to their senses. It's pretty cool. You know, I was thinking about this and our apathy in life and our consumeristic culture is kind of like the witch queen of Underland.
It's constantly attempting to lull us into a hypnotized state of denial about the truth. It's trying to convince you that true gospel culture doesn't exist, and you should just quietly submit to the enchanting authority of a boring American Christian lifestyle. Just go to sleep. Nobody really lives with that kind of dedication to Jesus. Nobody goes that hard when it comes to Christianity. Just be like everybody else, just go to sleep.
But I'm here to say, don't go to sleep. Don't fall for it. Wake up. Cry out to God in the midst of your hypnotization, stamp on that fire and say, “have mercy on me. Oh God, according to your steadfast love. I need your grace in my life to help me see my blind spots. I want the gospel to transform my life right now, and I need your grace to make that a reality. You were good to give me grace and save me. You had mercy on me. Now, be good to give me grace and mercy and make me passionate for you in every way. I don't want vanilla Christianity. Help me. God.”
This has been a Shelby sidebar on Real Life Loading.
Now I want to get back to my time with Tim Muehlhoff. We're going to talk about how to find God at work during our suffering and a thing called common grace. We're going to unpack what that is and why it points to a powerful and loving God.
You told me that you've been having conversations with some non-Christian friends about where God is during so much suffering. They're asking, “Where is God?” So, tell me how it's possible for young followers of Christ today to both give reasons for their hope, our hope in Jesus, but to do so in a gentle way.
Tim: Well, I mean, you turn on the news. It's hard to be a Christian, because we believe God is present. He's loving and He's powerful. That's getting to be a pretty hard sell today.
Shelby: Right. Yes.
Tim: I've just finished a book called, Eyes to See: Discovering God's Common Grace in an Unsettled World. Because my argument Shelby would be, “How do you expect God to act?
That's just a great question for Christians and non-Christians alike, and I opened the book with a joke, and you've heard this joke. I bet you all or most of your listeners have, right? A guy gets worded that there's going to be a flash flood is happening, get to safe ground, but he's fine. I'm a Christian and God's going to save me.
When now the water's up to the second story and he's looking out the window. A boat goes by, and they say, “Hey, jump in the boat. We'll take you to safety.” He goes, “No, I'm good. God's going to save me.”
Now he's up on the roof and the floodwaters are around his ankles, and a helicopter comes by, and they say, “Hey, we're going to let down a ladder, get into the helicopter.” He goes, “No, I'm good. God's going to save me.”
Well, he drowns. He's mad at God. And God says, “What do you want? I gave you a radio message, a helicopter and a boat.” [Laughter]
But think about that, Shelby. “Why was he mad?” Because what was his expectation of how God would save him? And I think what we need to do is expand the different ways God can act today.
Now, can he do miracles? Absolutely. Could he have saved that guy on the roof through crosswinds, blowing the waters away from his house, or a divine hand comes down and picks him up out of the floodwaters? I'd say, “Sure.” And we see evidence that in the Bible.
Now, I'll be honest with you and your listeners. I've not seen a ton of that. I've not seen a ton of what I would say are the supernatural answers to prayer. I'm a migraine sufferer.
Shelby: Yes. I am too man.
Tim: Huh? Are you really?
Shelby: Yes. Mm-hmm.
Tim: All right. So, I have prayed to be delivered and I have not been delivered. I've been dealing with them for about 20 years, but guess what? I have a talented neurologist who's not a Christian. I take migraine medication. We probably can share our favorites after the podcast. [Laughter] But I want to make the argument in my book that's as much as God acting as if he supernaturally healed my migraine.
Tim: Now I get that, that's not as satisfying, right? When I'm having a blistering migraine, I want God to just step in and deal with it. But my migraine medication works. So that's what I want to say to my non-Christian friends, “Don't pigeonhole God in acting one way.” And I would say that to your Christian listeners as well, “Don't place limits on how God can act.”
Shelby: Yes. I heard a pastor one time say, “You don't lean up against a shovel and pray for a hole.” That was very like [the] Southern way of putting it, but I was very - I've used that and thought about that many times. I don't ask God to do something without getting involved and being a part of the process to heal or help others, those kind of things. Oh, it's really good.
So, you mentioned the term common grace, and that's actually part of the subtitle of your book in Eyes to See. You talk about common grace to basically contrast how unsettled we are in the world today. Define what, in case somebody doesn't know what common grace means, define common grace in ordinary everyday terms. What does it actually mean?
Tim: Yes. Basically, what it means is what Psalm 1:45 - the psalmist says, “God is good to all.” [Paraphrased] So, even though the world turns it back on God, He did not turn His back on us. So, what does God know is going to happen in a fallen world disease, war, strife, poverty. I mean because of his foreknowledge; He knows all these things are going to happen.
He's going to give us good gifts. James says, “Every good gift comes down from the Father of lights,” and many New Testament scholars believe he's looking up at the stars and it just as there's a plethora of stars, he compares that to God's good gifts. So, Shelby, I would say, God knows disease is going to run rampant in a fallen world. So, he gives us medical technology, he gives us penicillin. I mean, we'd be in the dark ages without penicillin. If you read my book you know - penicillin, the discovery of it has been called by non-Christian medical researchers, the greatest serendipitous moment in the history of medicine, because it was a lab tech who went on vacation, didn't clean his Petri dishes. [He] comes back and notices that fungus is only growing on half the Petri dishes - like why not all of them?
Well, he writes an obscure paper where he identifies penicillin, but it goes nowhere. This is the early 1900s. Then World War II hits, and the British government is seeing their soldiers die in World War II from disease. They tag a military historian, “You need to go find a cure for this disease.”
He digs up a paper - and penicillin is being mass produced in Britain and the United States. Now, is that God or is that a serendipitous moment? I'm going to argue as a Christian if what James is saying is true - every good gift comes from God. That is God. Now, I've used that illustration to share with my non-Christian martial arts brothers and sisters. Right? And they'll always say, Shelby, “Hey, wait a minute. That doesn't prove God.” And I want to say, “Absolutely, it doesn't prove God, but let me give you reasons why I do believe in God.” Then it makes sense that He'd give us the good gift of penicillin.
Shelby: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Tim: So, it's kind of like a conversation starter. Common grace is simply God giving us art, beauty, an idea of what love is, an idea of what justice is, government, penicillin, an immune system that protects us. All of these good gifts come from God, and I think it's important that we use Netflix, Hulu, whatever people are watching, thinking about how can we shift from these pop culture moments to talk about God.
John Wesley, the great preacher once said, “I think every Christian should be able to read the front page of a newspaper and transition to the gospel.” [Paraphrased] I would agree with that. And so, the book is filled with really fun research, medical discoveries.
Shelby, the Walking Dead - I've had more conversations about God using the Walking Dead, which is the most watched show in cable history. Because it's not really about zombies - I mean, you need to get past the zombies, because it's really about what you do if the wheels fall off culture. What do you do when there's no government, hospitals, religion? How do you survive in a zombie apocalypse? Some of the conversations on that show are amazing that they were written by non-Christian writers. - And by the way, of course you need to have discernment, right? What you're watching you’ve got to be careful.
Shelby: It's not everything.
Tim: It's not everything, but [it is] what people are talking about. My ears pick up and I think, “that's how I can enter the conversation,” and then pivot towards spiritual things.
Shelby: Yes. I thought about this today when I was driving on this part of the road separated by two yellow lines - and I thought, “All anybody would have to do is just jerk their wheel a little bit to the right. If they're trying to pass somebody and they’d go into oncoming traffic, and I could die immediately.”
But there's agreed upon rules that exist in traffic alone – that you stay on your side of the road - and everybody agrees to those rules. If we didn't agree to those rules, there would be chaos. I thought about the fact that this is common grace. This is an example of the way a system is set up, that people thrive and survive based upon the agreed upon parameters of how to drive appropriately. And I'm like, that is a gift from God. It really is a gift from God.
Tim: Yes. Paul says in Romans 14, that government was established in part to curb evil. Right? So that driving illustration's perfect. I mean, how do you curb people who just want to recklessly speed and ignore traffic signs?
Well, it's agreed upon rules and punishments, if you don't follow the rules. So I think that's common grace. I think that's God saying, you're going to need this. Everything that God gives can be worked. Yes, of course. We have good governments and bad governments.
Dynamite was actually, originally created for agricultural reasons to blow up hard soil. But you better believe military saw that in a heartbeat and said, “Oh my gosh, dynamite, that can be the biggest killing mechanism we've ever seen.” Every good gift can be warped. But it doesn't diminish the fact that it was originally meant to be given as a good gift by God.
Shelby: Yes, that's good. Okay. Tim, I was wondering, could you give me any personal examples of how you've seen God work through common grace? I know you mentioned migraines, but are there any other ways that you could think of?
Tim: Yes. My wife, we had a cancer scare. A non-Christian doctor was doing a procedure noticed something that just looked bizarre and biopsied it. Well, later we get the phone call. Nobody wants to get, and that is, in fact, it's cancerous. Now let's have a full body scan to see if the cancer has metastasized, if it's spread. Well, we're sitting there, Shelby, holding hands in the waiting room because we're about to get the results of a test, that could be the worst results we've ever gotten, or it could be good that it's just localized.
But think about that machine for a second. That's a multi-million-dollar machine. Somebody went to med school to learn how to run it, and we're about to get a definitive answer if the cancer has spread - and now praise be to God it did not spread. It was localized and dealt with.
But don't take that for granted. I remember saying to my wife when they called our name, now we're going to go three floors down to get the test. I whispered to my wife, “Thank God for this machine.”
Tim: And Noreen said, “Yes, absolutely.” God didn't give up on us. He gave us technology itself but applied to medicine.” I make the argument in the book Shelby that self-defense systems that are - you take a, a dart and throw it on a world map. Wherever that dart lands, a self-defense system was created where that dart landed. It is as if God said, in a violent world, you are going to need to know how to protect yourself and loved ones. So, I'm going to give you an idea of self-defense and most of the self-defense systems are virtue based. I have a black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu.
We are always taught this is never to be used offensively. It is only to be used defensively in protecting yourself and loved ones. That's a common grace of God. If we didn't have those things - government, technology, self-defense, the arts here is what true love looks like. Here is what justice looks like. Right?
If we didn't have any of those things, this world would be in pandemonium. If we didn't have these good gifts helping and guiding and directing us every day.
Shelby: That’s good. That's really good. Tim, thank you so much for your time today. I've thought of you as in the least condescending way possible - a spiritual grandfather because you are instrumental in leading the man to Christ who was instrumental in leading me to Christ. I'm deeply grateful for you, your ministry and the work that you do, so thanks buddy.
Tim: Oh, that's awesome, Shelby. I love what you're doing. I pray for this podcast that it really challenges people to think deeply about really important issues.
Shelby: Yes, thanks.
So deeply grateful for Tim, his heart, his ministry, and his expertise in the areas of communication and how we can honestly all get better at it. - And not just for the purposes of getting better, but for becoming more Christ-like human beings.
If this episode with Tim Muehlhoff was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend and wherever you get your podcast, it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading, if you'd rate and review us, and it's mega easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the show notes.
I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team, Josh, Chloe, Bruce, Kaytlynn, and Jarrett. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.
Real Life Loading is a production of FamilyLife® and that's a Cru® ministry, and we're helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
We are so happy to provide these transcripts to you. However, there is a cost to produce them for our website. If you’ve benefited from the broadcast transcripts, would you consider donating today to help defray the costs?
Copyright © 2023 FamilyLife®. All rights reserved. www.FamilyLife.com