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How to Answer Questions without offending people

Plus: how to spot common fallacies

This page covers enough topics to form a large book. Each idea has not been developed, but these things may be useful as a starting point for other ideas. I don't make any great claims for these ideas, other than that they have helped me.

See also:
arguments against religion
| why do some people turn away | interpreting the Bible


ANSWERING SIMPLE QUESTIONS

1. Listen

In my experience the single most important issue when answering a question is to listen. It is so easy to say what you think the other person needs and simply not help them. Try restating the question to clarify the issue.

2. Identify the key question

What is the real issue? What is really bothering them? It may not be what is obvious. Also, most questions are compound questions - they involve lots of different issues. Agree on the most important issue, and stick to it. If you try to answer more than one or two questions, no matter how good you are, your message will not get through.

3. Get your priorities right

The objective with most answers is to leave the person happy. This may or may not mean transferring complex data. It may just mean showing that you care. It may be showing that there IS an answer (even if they don't understand what it is). Be humble. Admit what you don' know. Leave them as a friend. Feeling a good spirit is most important. After all, if they feel good about the topic they can go away and find their own answers

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ANSWERING YOUR OWN QUESTIONS

Testimony Issues

  1. Identify the apparent problem. Search your feelings: what are you unhappy with?
    1. Think: If I solve it might there still be a problem? or is the problem elsewhere?
    2. Be patient. For example, several people left the church at the time of the "Salamander letters". Then later it turned out that those letters were forgeries. Another man (Ferguson) lost faith in the Church because he could not see any physical evidence for some part of the Book of Mormon. Then, years later, such evidence was found. All of us have worries when we are young that, when we grow older, we can see they were not as serious as we thought.
    3. See it in perspective. Some things really are less important than others. Sometimes people leave the church because, for example, someone offends them. It is a great shame, because being offended is really not important in the eternal scheme of things.
  2. Ask yourself:
    1. Where do you want to be? (In terms of understanding, feeling, achieving, or whatever)
    2. Where am I now? (and get outside advice: you're biased!)
    3. What must be done?
  3. Set realistic priorities:
    1. Can I get there all at once?
    2. Are there costs? You can't make omelet without breaking eggs.
    3. Always have the choice before you: ACT & CHANGE, or never have what you really want.

Complicated Issues

  1. Simplify the issues
    1. Separate the problem into stages; who it effects; etc.
    2. Sometimes either option is equally good. It depends on how we do it, not which we do (e.g. should I marry x or y?).
  2. Decide your policy:
    1. Is it important in the very long term (the eternal scheme of things)?
    2. Trust informed judgment. In the case of gospel issues, this means someone who knows Christ, knows His prophets, AND knows the situation.
    3. If you want to understand for yourself, be prepared for what may be a very long journey.
  3. In questions of "right or wrong:"
    1. Ask, "What would Jesus do?" Study the scriptures in order to be prepared.
    2. Ask, "Is it selfish?"
    3. Follow good feelings. Leave bad feelings.

Things that really worry you

At university, I had a friend from Oman (near Saudi Arabia), He had a great outlook on life. Why Worry? If something is wrong, either "A" will happen or "B" will happen. If "A" happens, the problem is solved, so why worry? If "B" happens, it means either"X" or it means "Y". If "X" happens, you have to do such and such. If "Y" happens, you have to do something different. That's just how it is, so why worry about it? And so he went on. Every "worry" is just a set of possibilities. All you need to do is understand the possibilities. Maybe you will find you can change them. If not, at least you can prepare for them. In either case, what's the point of worrying? It is much better to just be prepared. "If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear!"


TEACHING

How do people learn?

Sources of knowledge are:

  1. Experience. We learn from everything. So TEACH BY SHOWING IT WORKING. Use an example shows just what you mean.
  2. We trust those we respect. TESTIMONY, not evidence. From:
  3. While we know nothing about a subject, we believe anyone. So the biggest need is just to open your mouth!

Rules for teaching those who differ from you

  1. Is it a complex issue?
    1. Restate (what are they saying is GOOD and BAD?)
    2. Decide what part to examine. Stick to one simple, memorable issue.
    3. Praise the good, identify and justify the bad, give a better alternative. THE MESSAGE IS POSITIVE!!
  2. If people seem irrational, still keep a dialogue going. Common irrationalities are:
    1. LOSS CHASING: 3 failures in a row? the 4th HAS to succeed!
    2. OVEREMPHASIZING evidence that suits us.
    3. "I HAVE NO EFFECT": I should get what I want. I don't care. Somebody else will sort it out (police, nature, etc.)
  3. Look at it from their point of view:
    1. Build on common ground. LISTEN!
    2. Link the message to desired benefits. Then let them choose.
    3. Using their language, appeal to the spirit.


DEBATING

God speaks by his spirit. Always the objective is to help people feel and recognize this spirit. If answering questions just turns into a debate (or "Bible ping-pong"), don't do it. Debates seldom get anywhere. But let us assume that you must debate (e.g. you have an audience that is genuinely interested):

Is it a heated question? Are things moving too quickly?

TV style debates are seldom any good at finding real answers. SLOW IT DOWN!!!

  1. Restate the question. At the very least, this ensures that you are talking about the same thing! "So what you are saying is..." It is very common for person "A" to ask one question, and person "B" then answers something different.
  2. Do not leave a question until it is resolved, or at the very least find out if the person is happy with the answer you have given. It shows you care, and stops the conversation moving on before you get anywhere.
  3. Add some light relief. A compliment, a joke, anything to release tension.

Is it a serious question?

Or is it just an objection? An objection is a symptom of something else.

  1. Is it trivial?: Turn it round to your benefit:
  2. Is it a negative objection?:
    1. The truth is to be discovered, not defended. Don't feel you need to justify everything!
    2. "I detect a feeling of unfriendliness..." "Are you really looking for good? If not.."
    3. "If you're willing to give it the time and effort this needs, I think you'll be impressed as I have been..."
  3. Is it Genuine? If so, questions about LDS teachings can be addressed as follows:
    1. Answer it from revelation...
    2. Show that this is true if the Church is true...
    3. And the church is true of the Book of Mormon is true This you can test!

What if you can't answer the question?

  1. Don't panic- come back when you can.
  2. "I don't know, but I can find out for you!" (This is a good way to show you care.)
  3. If you only know evidence against, say so: Experience shows there will be a simple answer somewhere.


BEWARE LOGICAL FALLACIES!

The more I see of life, the more I believe that most of what we say is not logical. Most of it is nonsense. If someone talks nonsense, you don't have to worry about it. If you are bothered about something that is nonsense, stop being bothered!

"Nonsense" is not a technical term. A better term is fallacies. The same old fallacies have turned up again and again since the beginning of time, and they even have names. (I have only used classical names here where they seem to be memorable). In each case, the fallacy is commonly used as a reason for something when in fact it is no reason at all.

If you can learn to identify fallacies, you can quickly defuse nearly any argument and show it to be just a lot of hot air.

Where fallacies can be worthwhile

Fallacies did not appear by chance. In this life, so much is uncertain that we have all kinds of tricks for getting closer to the truth. So, for example, if an idea is popular it DOES NOT PROVE that the idea is true. But sometimes it does, so it is worth bearing in mind. In fact, all of these fallacies are probably better than just blind guesswork. But if you rely on fallacies you must expect to be wrong a lot of the time.

Sometimes fallacies can also be useful for injecting a little humility. For example, if someone accuses you of being mad because you believe in "X", it may not be strictly relevant to point out that they themselves believe in it, that others believe in it, or that some very good person believes in it, but it should stops your opponent from shouting so loud.


Fallacies of formal logic
(these mess around with the classic format "all A are C, B is A, therefore B is C")

The most basic fallacies

The linguistic trick

ACCENT: stress one word or phrase to change the meaning

Confusing groups and individuals


Fallacies of relevance
(stress totally irrelevant ideas)

Missing out important information

Rely on ignorance

Avoid discussing it at all


Fallacies of intrusion
(adding in - intruding with - powerful, distracting ideas)

Using popularity as a test of truth

Changing the subject


Appeals to emotion

Appealing to their limited comprehension

Appealing to nasty, weak feelings

Using sweeping platitudes

Using force

Using false authority


Fallacies of presumption
(e.g. jumping to conclusions)

Fallacies of newness

Generalizations

Focussing on one crazy event

 

The bottom line:

Most people don't care what you say. They really just want to know if you care. Read 1 Corinthians 13. All of it.

 

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