By Brandon Lemons
Imagine a scenario where you’re talking with someone, and they say something you completely disagree with. Or perhaps they do something that irks you; their actions don’t make sense and seem more harmful than helpful. I imagine it’s easy to envision these scenarios, because they happen so often – at work, at school, at church, in marriage, in parenting, in random conversations… everywhere! In these situations, arguments and hard feelings frequently ensue.
Imagine another scenario: you are in a conversation about spiritual topics, and you want to point the other person to Jesus, but you can tell their perspective on God and church is very different than yours. What should you do?
In this article, I’m going to suggest a question we can ask, which can work wonders for conversations and relationships. I’m not saying this question will resolve every issue, but it is a valuable tool in our relationship toolbox and in our efforts to point people to Jesus.
Here is the question to ask: “Can you help me understand?” For instance: “Can you help me understand why you have the political views you do?” Or “Can you help me understand why you have the sexual views you do, why you don’t believe in God, why you are struggling with church, why you are worried, or why you made that decision?” I suggested this question a couple weeks ago in a sermon. The sermon I’m referencing examined the process of an Ethiopian eunuch turning to Jesus (Acts 8:26-40), and I’d now like to dive deeper into this helpful question.
A Way to Communicate Care
A main reason to ask this type of question is because it communicates and promotes care toward the other person. And shouldn’t Christians be known as people who care? After all, Jesus told us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). The apostle Paul told us to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (Philippians 4:5) and “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). James wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
When asked with sincerity, the question “Can you help me understand?” puts us in a posture of listening. Genuinely listening is one of the best ways to care for another person. After all, who doesn’t feel cared for when they are listened to?!
Our society has a distinct unwillingness to listen to one another. This is especially true when there is a disagreement. People are quick to justify their own position by trying to prove the other person wrong. When this happens, walls of defensiveness go up on all sides. But a readiness to listen for the sake of understanding communicates care, which builds bridges of respect and trust rather than walls of bitterness and strife.
A Way to Increase Understanding
When we ask “Can you help me understand?”, the main goal is to grow in our understanding of the other person. We naturally see things from our own perspective, which means we don’t naturally see things from the perspective of others. Understanding others’ perspectives takes work – especially when their perspective is significantly different than ours.
It is natural to assume that if someone believes or behaves in ways that are different than us, they must be wrong. Or stupid. Or evil. (The level of severity depends on how important and clear-cut we perceive the issue to be.) It is true that people regularly say, do, and believe things that are wrong and unwise, and in rare cases people or their actions are truly evil. But most people have reasons for why they behave and believe the way they do, and their reasons make sense to them. Asking “Can you help me understand?” helps us see things through their eyes. Along the way, we will frequently see that the other person is an intelligent, kind human being, even if we still disagree with them. We will see the rationale that is influencing them and how they arrived at that rationale. We may discover ways we are similar, along with growing in compassion for them.
Some people fear asking questions like “Can you help me understand?” because they are afraid that listening and seeking to understand are the same as supporting a view or lifestyle they disagree with. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing. Understanding is about accurately recognizing the influences, experiences, reasons, motivations, and goals of another person. This type of understanding helps us have better-informed perceptions and conversations with them.
Think of it this way: an accurate diagnosis is crucial. This is why good auto technicians and good doctors take time to accurately diagnose the problem before prescribing a solution. If we want to influence someone’s life but they don’t feel like we understand them, they will assume that whatever we say is irrelevant to them. Have you ever received unsolicited advice that seems to have no relevance to the situation you’re facing? If so, you probably ignored it, right?! You assumed the other person didn’t understand or (worse) didn’t truly care about you and your situation. This is a major reason why seeking to understand is so important – because it is part of being a healthy, wise, godly influence in another person’s life.
A Way to Inspire Growth
I can think of many times when I’ve made a statement or decision, and when someone asked me to explain my rationale, I realized my reasoning wasn’t as wise or thoughtful as I assumed it was. I had acted or spoken without thoroughly examining things. Or I discovered I had a limited perspective when someone shared something I hadn’t previously considered. These are all benefits of asking (or being asked) “Can you help me understand?” They may learn. We may learn. Asking and responding to thoughtful questions is a great way to grow and to inspire growth in others.
A Way to Improve All Relationships
Asking “Can you help me understand?” is valuable in nearly all interpersonal relationships. When your spouse, parent, or teenager says or does something that rubs you the wrong way, you can ask, “Can you help me understand?” When your supervisor or teacher asks you to do something that doesn’t make sense, you could respectfully ask, “Can you help me understand?” When your church’s leaders make a decision or suggest a change you don’t like, you should ask, “Can you help me understand?” Asking this question is much better than assuming motives and reasons! And it paves the way for fruitful dialogue.
A Way to Bridge to the Gospel
Asking “Can you help me understand?” opens the door to complexity. It’s easier to label. It’s easier to blame. But seeking to understand also opens the door to relationship, to respect, to finding common ground, and to discuss topics related to the Gospel. If you listen to the other person and seek to understand them, they are much more likely to listen to you and seek to understand you. In the process, it will open opportunities to point people to Jesus. The bottom line is that to help people understand the Gospel, it’s valuable for us to understand them.
A Way to Develop a Heart like Jesus
Matthew 9:36 says that as Jesus traveled through towns and villages and “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” These people were living messy lives; they didn’t have all their stuff together. It’s powerful to see Jesus’ stance toward them: “he had compassion on them.” His default stance was not judgment; His default stance was not to “cancel” them because they weren’t honoring God; His default stance was to have compassion on them. This didn’t cause Him to compromise truth; in fact, the verse before says He was “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” He was still calling people to turn to God in spirit and in truth. But He was driven by compassion and care. The question “Can you help me understand” is a valuable tool for helping us grow in compassion and care for those around us, as well as pointing people to “the good news of the kingdom.”