A BOOK REVIEW OF I BEG TO DIFFER BY TIM MUEHLHOFF
I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love. By Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 222 pp. $15.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-4416-6.
Everybody, or almost everybody, engages in conversations with other people. Everybody, or almost everybody, can think of at least one conversation that they have had in their lives that could have gone better. That is why a book like this can be helpful to everybody, or almost everybody. In I Beg to Differ Tim Muehlhoff offers a theory of conversation that is grounded in biblical wisdom, contemporary social studies and psychology, and informed by philosophy. In this book review we will first consider the purpose of the book. We will then consider how the author attains his purpose, concluding with some thoughts on the relative importance and utility of this book.
The purpose of this book, as the cover states, is to help the reader navigate “difficult conversations with truth and love.” This book, as the author states in the introduction, “is more than a book about conflict; it is a book about communication between those who differ on significant points (p. 14).” This book is written for two types of people: (1) those who have already attempted to have discussions, on important subjects, but failed to finish well, (2) those who foresee a discussion, on an important subject, with someone, and think that the discussion will turn sour (p. 14). The subject of the discussion is unimportant, Muehlhoff seeks to give the reader the necessary tools for navigating the dangerous waters of any discussion that is important for the people engaged in discussion.
The author goes about accomplishing his goals in three stages, each stage divided into different sections. The first stage (composed of the first 4 chapter) prepares the reader for discussions by introducing the reader to some important, and frequently non-verbal, elements of discussion, and helps them to understand the necessity of being prepared in these areas. The second stage (composed of chapters 5-9) introduces the authors “four-part communication strategy for the most difficult of conversations (p. 15)”. The third stage (composed of the last three chapters) is a practical application of the four-part strategy, in which the author explores how one might approach 3 different types of conversations through his four-part strategy.
In chapter 1 Muehlhoff seeks to help the reader to understand the power of words to either existentially build up a person, or existentially destroy a person; to impart life or to impart death. He introduces the reader to the notion that one’s view of themselves will affect the conversation. He also introduces the communication tool called “feedforward” (p. 31). In chapter 2 Muehlhoff considers the most prominent causes of disagreement and conflict, and notes how our actions can either help minimize the effect of conflict, or augment it. In chapter 3 Muehlhoff considers the question of emotions and conflict. He begins by removing some misconceptions about the role of emotions in conversations, including that one can have a non-emotional conversation. He continues with a section on God and emotions, which is followed by an important section on the relation between perceptions and emotions. Finally Muehlhoff gives the reader the tools that will help them prepare emotionally for a discussion, and be properly emotionally engaged in conversations. Finally, in chapter 4, Muehlhoff explains how Christians can, and should, cultivate and use self-control in their conversations. In this chapter Muehlhoff explains the importance of cultivating spiritual disciplines in order to prepare for discussions that we may have.
In the second section Muehlhoff begins to introduce his four-step strategy to having good, God-honouring discussions. His four-step strategy can be broken down into two main steps: listen and respond appropriately to the person in the situation, and in light of your history with the person. The first main step is divided into three steps. In chapter 5 Muehlhoff explains that the first step is to find out, without attempting to respond, what the person believes. In this chapter Muehlhoff explains the importance of listening, and introduces the reader to important elements of listening. He notes a number of obstacles to good listening, as well as the two main reasons why we need to listen first. Muehlhoff, in chapter 6, explains that the next step in a good conversation is not to respond to the beliefs of the interlocutor, but to find out why they believe what they believe. In this chapter we are introduced to some of the main sources that influence our beliefs, and we are then introduced to the importance of developing a cognitively complex understanding of the person we are talking to. In chapter 7 Muehlhoff explains that the third step in any good conversation is noting the areas of agreement between the parties involved in the discussion. That is, prior to noting our differences we should first note what we agree on. There may not be much more than the fact that we both think that the subject is important, but, even this is a good place to start. Muehlhoff provides the reader with a number of tips on how to cultivate common ground. Prior to introducing the fourth-step the author notes that the first three steps are, essentially, an expression of the rule of reciprocation. In chapter 8 Muehlhoff explains this ule, and explains that it is not only necessary for society, but is also a biblical principle. In chapter 9 Muehlhoff explains that the fourth step is a response of some sort, but not necessarily a response to what the interlocutor believes. The fourth step is to ask, “With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the next thing I should say? (p. 151)” Muehlhoff argues that we should be person-centered in our conversations, rather than position-centered. He claims that being person-centered will determine our response. After noting some common mistakes in responding to the person Muehlhoff explains what the fourth step means in a conversation. This chapter finishes with an explanation of the different goals that our response might have.
In the final section the author seeks to illustrate what it might look like in three different situations to put his four-part strategy into action. In chapter 10 Muehlhoff applies his strategy to a conversation about finances and generosity between husband and wife. In chapter 11 the author applies his strategy to a discussion between two co-workers on the question of religion. In chapter 12 he applies his strategy to a discussion between a parent and child on the influence of videogames in the child’s life.
There are two minor difficulties that this particular reader noted in this book. First of all, though he doesn’t contradict himself, the author criticizes the Aristotelian claim that to become good we need to develop good habits by disciplining ourselves to do what is good. The author then goes on to assert the necessity of developing good habits by disciplining ourselves to do what is good. It is unclear what exactly the author is criticizing in Aristotle’s view, although I assume that it is the fact that Aristotle doesn’t mention the work of the Holy Spirit in helping the Christian to develop the good habits. The second difficulty is that the author introduces, unnecessarily, a theological claim about the nature of God that is neither necessary for his book, nor is sufficiently defended. Muehlhoff claims that God is emotionally affected by the way that we interact with each other. This is a highly debatable claim that is not sufficiently defended by Muehlhoff in his book, and adds nothing to the overall purpose and utility of this book.
In this book, Muehlhoff takes ancient wisdom and shows us how to apply in our conversations. This book will be extremely helpful for everybody who ever enters into any type of discussion with anybody. It would be pointless to give a list of who would find this book useful as it would be helpful for everybody, as anybody who ever interacts with another human being should seek to interact well. The only person who might not be helped by this book is a true hermit, who wouldn’t read this book review anyways. The principles that are presented in this book are broad enough to be useful in all cultures, and in intercultural relationships. As such, I highly recommend this book to everybody and anybody.