Tactics and Tools

Conversation on a Plane—Mentoring Letter October 2011

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 06/18/2013

Since conversations can get awkward, I have a suggestion that could make your job easier: Get back to basics.

First, ask questions and listen, a lot. Second, don’t swing for the fences. Instead, just try to get on base. Try to make one good point stick.

Let me give you an example of how that basic approach worked for me on a 47-minute flight from Los Angeles to San Jose recently. I’d settled in for the short hop expecting to get some work done when a middle-aged gentleman sat down next to me.

Stuart, a world-traveling frequent-flier, was in an expansive mood and clearly wanted to talk. He had strong opinions about religion, ideas he advanced without invitation and without reservation. I tossed up a quick “Lord, help me” prayer. Then I listened. And waited. And watched for an opportunity.

We talked the whole flight. Or I should say, Stuart talked the whole flight. I listened, mostly, because Stuart had a lot to say. His extensive travels and survey of world religions had convinced him that, in spite of his Catholic upbringing, the teaching of every religion ultimately boiled down to the same thing. The common core? Love—peaceful coexistence, people getting along.

By contrast, those folks who thought their own religion was the right one, they were the problem. The word “hate” slipped in at this point, along with the word “racket,” describing religion’s passion for passing the hat.

My three-word prayer went off again in my mind. But still I listened. Every sentence I heard contained details I disagreed with, but simply contradicting Stuart wouldn’t have helped, so I held my tongue and waited.

I did express concern he might have missed the main point of these different religions, and I mentioned that the existence of racketeers in religion doesn’t make all religion a racket (he agreed). Other than that, I said almost nothing. I let him talk.

Eventually Stuart asked what religion I was and I said Christian. He grunted, “So you’re saying 90% of the people in the world are wrong and going to Hell?”

“Well, I didn’t say that,” I responded, carefully choosing my own battlefield. “I just don’t think they can all be right.”

Unruffled, Stuart glanced sideways at me and smiled. He was clearly impressed with his own musings. “So, do you think I’ve done a good job thinking this through?”

“Well, since you asked...no, I don’t think you have, Stuart.” A startled look replaced his smile, but he didn’t get angry because I was answering him, not attacking him. “I certainly don’t say that with any animosity,” I continued, “and you have done a lot of thinking about it. But no, I don’t think you’ve thought through this issue well.”

“For example, you’ve considered what seem like similarities in religion, right? But what of the differences?” I shrugged. “Look, when you think about it, Islam is not about love, but submission. Christianity is not about love, but forgiveness. Buddhism is not about love, but escaping suffering. Hinduism is not about love, but escaping the illusion of the world. Love may be significant in each, but it’s not the central message of each. Why think a modest similarity is more important than the massive differences?”

I paused as he absorbed the point. “As to your comment about 90% being wrong, I don’t see how anyone can avoid that, no matter how much love they have for people. Look, maybe my religion is mistaken. Maybe they’re all wrong. But even if one group gets it right—pick any one, it doesn’t matter which—that means all the rest, 75 to 90% of the people on the planet, got it wrong. It’s not hate; it’s just simple math.”

When we landed in San Jose, our chat came to a friendly close. I shook Stuart’s hand, wished him all the best, and then quietly entrusted him to God.

Two things stood out for me about this encounter that I don’t want you to miss.

First, I waited a long time before jumping in with both feet. Instead of sounding off the first time I heard something I disagreed with, I waited for the right moment. When I wasn’t sure of the best way to maneuver, I chose silence and attentive listening.

Second, when my opportunity arrived I was genial, but direct, giving Stuart one main thing to think about, one “stone in his shoe.” I wanted him to see that it just didn’t add up to say all religions were true. We can all be wrong, but we can’t all be right.

So here’s my advice for your in your daily encounters. First, shoot up a quick prayer for help, then be patient. Listen, a lot. Ask plenty of questions. Wait for the right opportunity before weighing in. Second, take what God gives you, even if it’s less than you hoped for. Don’t swing for the stands. Just try to get on base. Make one good point.

It’s not really that tricky. It just takes getting back to basics.