August 11, 2013

How Do We Learn from the Idiot in the Room?

Some people are so frustrating and annoying. That is a fact of life. It is unavoidable. Even the most sanctified and patient of us struggle with difficult people (just ask my wife). There is a danger though, and it is this: Sometimes we hear something about another Christian or a leader and we make up our minds about them before we’ve met. Personally, my inner defenses always shoot up when I meet somebody I’ve never met for the first time and they say, “I’ve heard about you”. Sometimes, if I’m going to a meeting with a person I know is going to be difficult, I steel myself to ‘just get through it unscathed’. It’s an ongoing war within my soul, and I have to pray hard for love and forbearance. Sadly, it means that very often we miss out on learning something because of these (very often unspoken) prejudices.

As a leader within a strongly theologically Reformed tribe (of all denominations), I am constantly butting up against all sorts of people with very strong views on just about everything. They will debate with you on almost anything—from Kuyperian transformationalism (my new phrase of the week), to the moral and social ethics of having a sugar in your tea (cane farmers or something). I live and move within a world that lives and breathes ‘soundness’ or ‘being sound’. It’s the litmus test for (their kind of) orthodoxy, and what I’ve noticed is that if many of these people can establish ‘soundness’ quickly in a conversation, then it goes a long way to whether they will continue to listen to you or not. More than that, it is often the deciding for whether they are prepared to learn from you as you exchange thoughts and ideas. I find dealing with these kinds of people frustrating, irritating, and counter-productive. It’s almost as if once they’ve got their theology all sorted out (in their own minds), they know what they believe and why they believe it and they have now shut up shop against every new thought and idea. Anything that does not fit within the context of their position(s) is treated with suspicion and quickly invalidated if it falls outside of their theological box.

When I was in New York a couple of years ago doing a training programme for church planters, one phrase in particular stuck with me. We were told that a good church planter/leader was an ‘agile learner’. In other words, somebody who had not shut up shop but was still reading, observing, listening, and processing almost all of the time. They had not shut themselves down to people outside of their tribe or to people with new and different ideas. What I have learned is that a good leader does not shut down if the person opposite him is not from his tribe, is slightly irritating, and may not even be sound (as I define it). We need to be fighting these (sometimes sinful) urges inside us by considering the following:

  • How is what this person is saying challenging my cherished beliefs?
  • How have they arrived at their conclusions? What’s their (biblical) thought process been and how is that different to mine?
  • Are my personal prejudices against this person (and/or their tribe) stopping me from really listening and engaging with them? In other words, have I made my mind up not to learn before we even start? Is this going to be more about debate and point scoring than mutual learning?
  • Is there something I can actually learn here without compromising my doctrinal beliefs?
  • Am I wrong? (that’s a biggie!)
  • Have I changed my mind about anything in the last few years? (or ever, for that matter?)

The biggest surprise for me in recent years when dealing with the idiot in the room is that, very often, that idiot is me. So the answer, I suppose, is: don’t be him/her. I have found that the more I shut up and listen, the more I swallow my prejudices until a fair hearing is given, the more I take people on face value and not reputation, then the more I am able to engage and learn something. Paul says it the best in Philippians 2:3,

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

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