Our culture is in need of a spa day. Things are tense. You can see it in the way we drive, talk about current events, or interact in places like the airport or stores. Tension is all over the news and social media.

You likely personally experienced some tension at your last holiday family get together – it’s hard to make it through the appetizers before someone brings up a hot-button issue like immigration, President Trump, church attendance, or the gun debate. If you’re like me, you either work really hard to change the subject (“So, where do you think Amazon’s HQ2 will be?”), or you decide to take a stand, which can often erupt into something regrettable. Either way, there’s tension.

Tension shouldn’t surprise us. In a pluralistic society, there will be pressure points, especially around religion, ethnicity, politics, educational backgrounds, and income levels. But, what do we do about it? Do we retreat and hang out with only those who agree with us? Or, do we engage and open ourselves up to even more tension?

For me, there’s a big reason why disengaging is a terrible idea. I don’t want to become a curmudgeon. A curmudgeon is a cantankerous, bad-tempered, and overall difficult person. Some of the most obnoxious (and unhappy) people I know live in an echo chamber – they only expose themselves to people and viewpoints that reflect their own. You know these people too – and you, like me, don’t want that to become your life.

So, if we do decide to engage and things get tense, what do we do? In my experience, there’s one statement that can help us be a tension-reducer. It involves the word, “help.”

Help Me Understand…

This phrase has saved me a bunch of times. For one, it communicates a posture of humility. It shows we recognize we don’t know everything and the other person has a perspective we’d like to learn more about. It’s a great thing to say when:

– We’re confused about a particular action or idea expressed
– We immediately feel the urge to criticize
– We know someone comes from a completely different background than us

Imagine if someone asked you to clarify and share more about a particular view you have instead of immediately making an assumption and criticizing you. It would immediately change the tone of the conversation. Each person would breathe a bit more and relax. A conversation is suddenly possible.

I may be naïve and idealistic, but I believe it’s possible for a member of the NRA and a gun control advocate to have a great conversation. Interactions between these two don’t need to be tense. But, to get going on the right foot, I think it starts with both people asking, “Help me understand.” It could be something like, “Help me understand why you became so passionate about this particular issue.” Or, “Help me understand why that statement frustrated you or why you acted the way you did?”

When a pressure point is encountered, someone must step back, take a posture of humility, and resolve to reduce tension.


I bet some stories would emerge from those conversation-starters that would help each person gain perspective – and reduce tension. It could be a game-changer in some of our most contentious issues and relationships, including between parents and teenagers, Muslims and Christians, women and men, and Republicans and Democrats. “Help me understand” is a powerful phrase.

However, the only way for this to happen is for someone to take the first step. When a pressure point is encountered, someone needs to step back, take a posture of learning and humility, and resolve to reduce tension. It means being a “help me understand” person.

So, what would it look like for you to be a “Help me understand” person today? Is there a pressure point you are encountering in a particular relationship? Resolve to be a tension-reducer instead of a tension-creator. It has the potential to be a revolutionary step.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash
Things are tense. It shouldn’t surprise us. In a pluralistic society, there will be pressure points. However, starting with