Not everyone deserves an answer.
Strange thought, I know, coming from a lifelong apologist. But that’s a lesson I learned from Jesus himself. “Do not give what is holy to dogs,” he warned, “and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6).
It’s not that Jesus saw people as beasts. No, I think he was warning us to be circumspect with people who act in a beastly manner when they’re offered the pure and precious grace of God. Sometimes wisdom dictates we keep our distance and ration our efforts.
Knowing when to step back requires the ability to separate the dogs and the hogs from the lost sheep looking for a shepherd. But how do you know which is which? Generally we need to test the waters first.
Few people readily admit their beliefs are wrong. Some put up a real fight, even when your points are reasonable and your manner is gracious. Sometimes a person’s impulse to resist is so strong, he’ll get verbally abusive. You need a plan to help keep you in the driver’s seat—or to exit the conversation, if necessary—with those who have controlling personalities and bad manners.
The tactics I suggest here are defensive maneuvers against the “steamroller.” I’m thinking mainly of apologetic and evangelistic encounters with people at work or school or on the street, though with some tweaking it can also apply to hostile family members.
Once in a while you will encounter people who try to overpower you. They don’t overwhelm you with facts or arguments; they roll over you with the force of their personalities. Their challenges come quickly, one after another, keeping you from collecting your wits and giving a thoughtful answer.
Knowing when to step back requires the ability to separate the dogs and the hogs from the lost sheep looking for a shepherd.
Steamrollers have a defining characteristic. They constantly interrupt. As soon as you try to respond, they hear something they don’t like, break in, then pile on another objection or challenge. If you go down the new rabbit trail, they interrupt again, changing the subject, firing new challenges, never really listening to anything you say. You’re constantly off balance and on the defensive.
If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been steamrolled.
Step 1: Stop
The first step in dealing with a steamroller is a mild one. Even though you may feel pushed to your limits by the annoyance, don’t fire back in kind, guaranteeing a head-on collision. Don’t buckle at the knees, either.
Instead, your first move should be a genial request for courtesy. Stop the intrusion by momentarily putting the discussion on pause. Then briefly request permission to continue your point without being interrupted. Use a little body language if you need to, raising your hand a bit for emphasis.
It takes longer to describe it than to do it. Simply hold your hand up a little and gently say, “Sorry, I’m not quite finished yet,” or “Is it okay with you if I take a few moments to answer your question before you jump in?” and then continue. Notice the negotiation here. You make a petition, and he grants it.
Often this is all you need to restore order to the conversation. If the steamroller is especially aggressive, be calm and wait for an opening. Don’t try to talk over him if he isn’t cooperating at first. When you get a pause, ask for adequate time to answer. And be careful not to let annoyance or hostility creep into your voice. That would be a mistake, especially with this kind of person.
If the steamroller breaks trust with your agreement—or if you can’t succeed in stopping him in the first place to negotiate an orderly conversation—proceed to phase 2 of the Steamroller tactic.
Step 2: Shame
You tried to stop the steamroller. That didn’t work. Now you want to shame him for his bad manners, but you want to do it with integrity. Start by taking the same basic approach you did in step 1. This time, though, make an explicit request for courtesy.
First, ignore any new challenges he’s introduced. Don’t follow his rabbit trails. Second, address the steamroller problem directly. If you’re not able to get the floor right away, let him talk. When he finally pauses, look him in the eye and calmly say something like this:
Can I ask you a favor? I’d love to respond to your concern, but you keep breaking in. Could I have a few moments without being cut off to develop my point? Then you can tell me what you think. Is that okay with you?
Remember, steamrollers are strong customers who sometimes need to be addressed with equal strength, yet coupled with civility. This can be harder if you’re an easygoing sort with a gentle spirit, but unless you toughen up at this stage you’ll get nowhere.
This second step is usually effective at taming even the most belligerent steamroller. Don’t be snippy or smug. Stay focused, stay pleasant, stay gracious, but stay in the driver’s seat. If this doesn’t work, go immediately to step 3.
Step 3: Leave
First you stop him, then you shame him. If that doesn’t work, you leave him. When all else fails, let it go. Walk away. If the steamroller won’t let you answer, listen politely until he’s finished, then drop it. Let him have the satisfaction of having the last word—it’s gracious, yet also communicates confidence—then shake the dust off your feet and move on. Wisdom dictates not wasting time with this kind of person.
When do we have an obligation to speak, and when should we save our pearls for another time? Part of the answer can be found in Jesus’s next words in Matthew 7:6: “or they will trample [the pearls] under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Be generous with the truth, except with someone who shows utter contempt for the precious gift being offered. He will simply trample it in the mud and then viciously turn on you.
When you encounter verbal abuse from unbelievers, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about Christ.
If you sense someone pawing the turf and readying for a charge, it may be time to leave. Don’t waste your efforts on people like this. Save your energy for more productive encounters. Say something like, “It seems to me this conversation isn’t going in a productive direction. I’m going to let you have the last word, and then I’m moving on.” Or try, “I’m having a hard time getting my point across, so I’m going to just let this go for now. Thanks for your thoughts.”
Dealing with a steamroller is rarely a smooth and tidy enterprise. When you encounter verbal abuse from unbelievers, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about Christ. When you falter, don’t get discouraged with the process. I sometimes get caught flatfooted, too. Take it as a learning experience for the next time around and move on.
Occasionally the wisest course of action is to bow out graciously. As I said earlier, not everyone deserves an answer.
Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year. Subscribe to our daily newsletter and podcast (Apple | RSS | Stitcher), and join our Facebook group (only for those doing the reading plan). This piece is an adapted excerpt from the revised and expanded second edition of Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Zondervan, 2019).