How to address the hot topics

November 5th, 2015

Politicians, preachers, teachers, and others are faced regularly with the challenge of speaking on controversial issues. What makes an issue controversial, among other things, is that a significant number of people understand and interpret the issue differently, and the issue stirs deep emotions for people on both sides.

When preaching, speaking, or teaching on these issues it is particularly important for the speaker to identify his or her goal. I’ll put the question bluntly: Is your goal in speaking on a particular controversial issue merely to irritate or inflame or is it to influence? It’s easy to irritate or inflame members of your audience or congregation. It takes no tact, little skill, and not much research to express your opinions on an issue in a way you believe is convincing, but that manages to alienate half of your hearers. To influence people so that they see things differently — that takes skill and a good deal of homework.

Audiences become most frustrated when a speaker addresses a controversial issue and misrepresents the views of others, or is dismissive of opposing views, or overstates their own views without acknowledging the shortcomings of those views. Here’s what I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, about speaking on controversial subjects:

First, always treat with respect those who hold opposing views. Take the time to read and fully understand their perspectives and their reasoning. Consider the most compelling case they themselves make for the position they hold. Be able to articulate that view as though it were your own. And find positive things to affirm about that view and/or those who hold it. There have been times when, after carefully studying the opposing view on an issue, I have understood the issue differently and modified my own view.

Second, thoroughly examine your position — the arguments for it and against it. Be willing to acknowledge its shortcomings and you’ll find those who hold opposing views to be more likely to give you a hearing. Remove any barbs or incendiary words as you present your side of an issue. The labels used in debating an issue are often designed to elevate one’s own views while denigrating the opponents’ position.

When I preach on these issues I often devote the first one-third of my talk to making the case for one side of the issue, doing so with conviction and passion as though I were articulating my own view. Then I’ll devote the next one-third of my talk to articulating the case for the opposing viewpoint. Again, I seek to articulate this view with knowledge, passion, and conviction.

My hope is that, after hearing the first two-thirds of the message, all hearers, regardless of which side of the issue they fall upon, could say that I’ve captured what they believe and why. At this point I also hope they have heard me express something positive or affirming about each side in the debate. By the time I begin my final one-third of the message people on either side are uncertain which view is my own, but they do know that I understand why they believe what they believe. In the last one-third of the message, I articulate, with humility (while giving permission to my hearers to disagree), my own views on the subject and why I hold them.

That may sound “weak” to some, but here’s what I’ve seen over twenty-five years of addressing difficult subjects: This approach allows me to influence people rather than simply irritate them. It allows me to model an alternative to the increasingly divisive ways hot topics are discussed. And it opens the way for people to understand each other better — even, sometimes, to change their minds. People come to me after these talks and say things like, “I thought my views on this topic were settled. But listening to you helped me think about it differently. I can’t believe it, but my views have changed.”

Most groups are far more diverse than we might believe. A friend of mine pastors a church that is widely considered to be entirely “progressive” or “liberal.” But I’d guess that 25 percent of his congregation watches Fox News and would consider themselves theologically and socially conservative. A member of a conservative congregation in my city once told me he was frustrated by his pastor’s frequent preaching against homosexuality. The preacher must have assumed everyone in the congregation agreed with him, but the man clearly did not agree with his preacher on this issue. He was conservative in many ways, but his friendship with a gay coworker had left him uncomfortable with his pastor’s preaching and unwilling to invite friends or coworkers to church. Be careful not to assume that your audience is of one mind.

If you are speaking to a group that shares common convictions about the controversial topic you are addressing (e.g., you are speaking on the importance of the Second Amendment to an NRA convention) your approach may be different. In that case, you are “preaching to the choir.” But if you are speaking to a diverse group of people who hold differing opinions, your task is to understand the convictions and motives on both sides of the issue.

People interpret controversial issues differently, and there is often some truth in each perspective. If you hope to influence an audience, rather than irritate or inflame them, you should treat those on either side with respect, offer your convictions with humility, then explain the reasons for those convictions. And, if you can, acknowledge the possibility that you don’t have all the answers and may even be wrong. By taking this approach you increase the likelihood that you will not irritate but will actually influence your hearers.

This is an excerpt from Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press

comments powered by Disqus