Photo credit: Robbie Shone

“Don’t convert. Enlighten.” This is a mantra that I tell myself whenever I feel the need to convince you that I’m right.

I really do want to be right. Or more specifically, I want you to know that I’m right and convert to my way of thinking. My wiring is to be right, to persuade, to win. I love debate. I love to argue. I’m a high I on the DISC. I’m an 8 on the Enneagram. My highest StrengthsFinders trait is “Woo”. None of those are inherently wrong or bad. The problem is that in my drive to convert you to my way of thinking, I will dehumanize you. Not necessarily in a mean way (although I do have those tendencies). But certainly in a way where you are now a target of my ego’s attention. 

My ability to persuade people used to be a significant part of my identity. It was played out in my various roles: husband, dad, brother, sales rep, marketing consultant, football coach, fundamentalist Christian, Republican. Again, none of these roles are inherently bad. But as began to awaken in 2012, I began to see how my impulse to convert was harmful to others. When most of those roles fell away (I’m really only two of them now), I realize that the real role of my soul is to be a mentor and a friend. And converting people to my way of thinking is the antithesis of being a mentor and a friend. 

Converting vs enlightening has a long history. In most cases, conversion was related to religion. Much of world history can be summarized as “We have superior weapons. Convert to our god or we will kill you.” Conversion became a staple of political campaigns. Thanks to Edward Bernays, conversion became the core doctrine of advertising and PR. One of the most insidious versions of converting is “Gay conversion theory” – which combines dehumanizing with spiritual abuse and junk science. In American culture, we are conditioned to convince others to be a fan of our team, to buy our favorite products, to listen to our preferred music. Of course, there’s no harm in advocating for these preferences. But it becomes a moral issue when we tell someone they are wrong/bad/ignorant if they don’t convert to our preferences. 

Here’s a simple framework to show the difference between converting and enlightening:

Converting is exclusionary. It is linear and literal. It is often nationalistic or tribal. Its weapon of choice is condemnation (often in the form of violence). Its promise is prosperity. If you convert to our way, you will be safe, have money, live a good life. This type of thinking is rampant in religion and politics – where the creation of “others” produces a base of supporters while fueling divisiveness and division. A recent example is a patently false claim by the GOP that the Democrats “took God out of their convention.” Other traits of conversion-mindset: hypocrisy, abuse of power, wastefulness (all things Jesus spoke against, by the way).

Enlightening is inclusionary. It extends acceptance and understanding. It is sensitive to matters of justice and equality. It is fueled by openness and invitation. Its motivation is not to build a fan base but to create an impact. To be clear, I don’t believe enlightenment is some sort of intellectual relativism where all ideas have equal merit. But it certainly means that each person has inherent value and worth. Example: “Flat Earther” vs science. The premise is ridiculous and easily refuted. But if a person chooses to believe in flat earth theory, its not my job to convince them otherwise. 

Which leads to this question: how do you practice enlightenment?

That’s exactly how you do it. You ask questions. 

You start by asking yourself questions. As I wrote about back in April, I believe learning to ask yourself questions is the #1 life skill.

Is that thought/feeling/framework/narrative true?

Why am I reacting this way?

Why do I care about this?

What belief or value is being threatened?

These are just a start. There are thousands more self-directed questions that will enlighten you as to your motivations, biases and perceptions.

Once you’ve got the hang of asking yourself questions, start asking questions to others. Of all of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, Habit 5 is probably the most quoted. Yet it is also probably the habit that is most neglected. As Phil Drysdale points out, Jesus was asked 183 questions. He answered 3 of them. And he asked 307 questions. This is a pretty good ratio for practicing enlightening someone, not converting them.

The questions you ask are largely framed by your intention for asking them. So be very aware of that. I would strongly suggest not asking passive or leading questions. Its easy to slip into a prosecutorial mode. Its easy to slip into questions that are intended to condemn instead of enlightening. 

On almost any issue or belief, you can ask these questions:

How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Why is it important to you?

What are your experiences with this matter?

Three other things we can do to enlighten instead of convert …

We can extend grace. Grace is not passive acceptance or tolerance. Nor is it excusing someone’s violent or damaging behavior. Grace is being able to see the whole person behind their opinions and views and behaviors. This is especially important when conversing with someone that you disagree with.

Be declarative. Paraphrasing John Eldredge, let others feel the weight of who you are. If your heart is pure, you are not responsible for their reactions. You are responsible for being clear and direct; for not being passive-aggressive or obtuse. And you are responsible for extending those same expectations to someone you are talking with. But you aren’t responsible for their feelings and reactions and they aren’t responsible for yours.

Tell your own story. This invites curiosity. It puts a story arc to your experiences. It allows you to provide witness or testimony to the things you’ve experienced and the conclusions you’ve come to. This is why I make it a practice to try to only speak to that which I have actual experience, expertise or knowledge.  

It’s easy to stay in our insular bubble – where people we disagree with are only on social media or on the news. But this practice of enlightening not converting can only happen in real interactions with actual people. Tomorrow (Sept 1), we leave to make the trek to Portland for the birth of our first grandchild. The journey there will take me into parts of the country where my views and ideas will be the definite minority. I will be spending time with family that has different views as me and strong opinions. I will get to practice and test these ideas in real life. I will very likely fail at times. But in each failure, I will learn. And learning is enlightenment. 

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