Step one in apologetics is to understand someone's position. Many skip this step and merely vomit rehearsed arguments as soon as they hear a trigger word like "evolution" or "unreliable". We like to give textbook answers, but people don't hold textbook beliefs. Answers are only meaningful when given to relevant questions. So you must know the beliefs of the person across from you as they hold them before you start quoting J. Warner Wallace, Frank Turek, or Ravi. And you will only know their beliefs by listening.
Many things work against us when we defend our faith. We do not need misunderstanding to be one of them. If you want to defend your faith well, become a good listener. Be patient and hear what others are saying so that you can respond appropriately. Do not dominate conversations. This is not easy. It takes practice. But you need to do it. Let me offer four practical ways to improve your listening.
1. Focus on their words and not your response. Nearly everyone devises clever retorts or responses while the other person is talking, and it is no different in conversations of faith. This isn’t actually a conversation. It’s two people lecturing an audience that isn’t paying attention, and it’s not effective.
You need to practice not thinking about your response when someone else is talking. This is hard. It is a discipline that you can learn, though. When you notice you’re forming a response before they are done speaking, stop and refocus. Witnessing to skeptics is usually a marathon. You must pace yourself. Don’t try to sprint to the end. Don’t worry about jumping in and rebutting everything they say as soon as they say it. Rather, slow down, trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to remind you of the truth, and do not worry about winning.
2. Ask questions. If the person you are talking with is long-winded and hard to follow, ask them to restate their belief or position slowly and concisely. Remember, it is vital that you understand what they believe before you respond, so ask a question if you didn’t catch it the first time.
You can do this by asking them to summarize what they just said. What I find effective is to summarize what I think they just said and say it back to them. Typically when someone has finished talking I will say something like, “So let me make sure I understood you. You believe that...” This is effective because it ensures that I understand them. I often find that when I do this people see how their position is flawed, which is just a bonus.
3. Write down their points. Stopping conversations to jot down others’ points of contention is so simple and practical and will revolutionize your apologetic efforts. This practice is valuable in several ways. It keeps conversations calm and focused. It gives you time to think. It ensures that you heard correctly. It gives you their points to study later without relying on your memory. And it lets others see their position laid out neatly for perhaps the first time.
You will find many people have not thought through their beliefs; it isn’t only Christians who have not contemplated their religion. The goal of listening is hearing, and by hearing, I mean comprehending. Seeing beliefs ordered on paper allows everyone to clearly understand the position. Many times, this process does the work for the apologist by showing skeptics the inconsistency or inherent contradictions in their beliefs.
4. Pray. One of the things I do when talking with a skeptic is to pray short prayers throughout the conversation. In just a couple of words I ask God for wisdom, control of my emotions, and the ability to hear what the other person is saying. I also ask God to help me understand why they think like they do. It is good to ask God to give you eyes that can see past arguments into motives. Clever words are often a smoke screen for a deeper issue. Arguments that appear logical may be covering some emotional or volitional problem. People’s default position is to believe in God (Rom. 1:19–32). In their attempt to hide from Him, people devise wise-sounding arguments to convince themselves that they are right in their rebellion. Ask God for wisdom to see why they are rebelling.
Praying throughout the conversation is an act of faith whereby you understand that it is the Lord who draws people to Himself, and you are but a tool in the process. It will keep you humble and calm. It will keep you focused on the well-being of the other person and keep you from becoming consumed with winning. All of this helps you listen. And beyond the benefit of listening, it keeps you relying on the Lord and not your wisdom, and this is right where you want to be in dealing with a skeptic. So pray, pray, pray.
(This article is adapted from chapter 5 in my book "Relational Apologetics". Order it here)