We know online discussions are severely inhibited by a sense of anonymity, missing tone, lack of body language, and faux connection. Another obstacle is what I call “relational authority.” This is the ability to speak truth, correction, discipline, or have deep conversations with someone else based on the nature of the relationship. Relationships are affected by their history, depth, trust, and intentions.
The nature of the conversation rightly changes with the nature of the relationship. You say things to your spouse that you wouldn’t to your coworker. You talk about things with friends that you don’t with strangers. Your tone with your children is different than it is with your boss. These don’t necessarily mean heavy topics or intimate details.
For instance, you probably don’t make a household grocery list with your coworker. They might care that you eat healthily or even that you spend your money wisely, but they’re not as invested or affected by this part of your life as your spouse is.
Conversations like politics and religion get a bad rap because of the strife, gridlock, and bitterness they might incite. However, these are the ones we need to have the most. These conversations include the biggest questions of life, so the answers should guide the way we live our lives.
Especially in online debates, these conversations can boil down to, “I’m right. You’re wrong. Here’s why you’re wrong and why you should believe what I do.” That’s not persuasive. Sometimes, these conversations are best had between strangers. Strangers have an outside perspective on how the topic affects your life and can bring some clarity. However, theory rarely plays out in life as it does on paper and in the hypothetical.
When you add trust to the relationship, the conversation becomes more amicable, even persuasive. We read movie and book reviews from experts and peer leaders because they have the authority to speak to the piece of work. We listen to music based on our friends’ recommendations. Wanting to sell their products, mall kiosk workers approach strangers recommending something. It can be offensive because of the brazenness and shoppers make a point to avoid eye contact from the beginning.
Consider then, a friend recommending you the same product, maybe a sturdy phone case. You might hear them out, perhaps even giving the same elevator speech the mall worker does, but because your friend had a good experience with this phone case, you know that he has your phone’s safety in mind. Pyramid schemes are not something to learn positive things from but there is something to be said about the building of your customer base first by word of mouth and giving in-home demonstrations to friends.
The higher the level of relational authority, the more productive the result of a heavy conversation. In the Bible, the model for church discipline, accountability, and discipleship is dependent on long-term, invested, and intentional relationships. Christians are commanded to call one another out when they see sin being committed (Matthew 18). While this command is curbed by first looking at our own sins before correcting others (Matthew 7), you cannot know the extent of the sin the person is committing without being in a relationship with them.
A simple example is that you see a church member out at a restaurant with someone you know is not his wife. Because you do not know him beyond that, you assume he is on an extramarital date. One of his friends is eating with you and tells you the woman is his sister.
A healthy, considerate relationship is where mutually upbuilding conversations will happen. Befriend, for the long term, people who both do – and do not – think or look like you. Learn from one another, developing trust and history, not to ultimately convince them of your opinions, but to have more successful and less heated conversations about the things that matter most.