How To Handle a Steamroller in Apologetic Discussions

Just yesterday, while our promoting our upcoming event called I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist at a large college campus, I had an an angry, aggressive atheist come up to our table. I would classify this atheist as what is called a ‘steamroller.’  It just so happens on Wintery Knight’s blog, he has a post on this topic. In the post, he says:

Let’s start with the question “what is a steamroller?”:

The defining characteristic of a “steamroller” is that he constantly interrupts, rolling over you with the force of his personality. Steamrollers are not usually interested in answers. They are interested in winning through intimidation.

I find this to be a good definition. In my conversation with the atheist, I found him to be constantly interrupting me, and every time I would give an answer, he would dismiss it and ask another question. The anger and emotional hostility showed me his atheism wasn’t coming from an intellectual or factual basis. So because of this, he wouldn’t listen to me and pretty much dismissed anything I would say before I could finish my response.  So how do we handle such a person?

Wintery mentions three tips from Greg Koukl:

Greg breaks down the techniques for handling steamrollers in 3 steps.

Step 1: Stop Him.

Your first move when you find yourself in a conversation with a steamroller is a genial request for courtesy. Momentarily put the discussion on “pause.” Ask to continue making your point uninterrupted.

One of the ways you can do that is using body language. You can raise your hand in the stop motion to emphasize your verbal attempt to pause the conversation so that you can finish responding. Ask for a specific amount of time to make your point, and make sure that you him to agree that you will get that time to respond! But the most important thing is to not lose your temper.

Be careful not to let annoyance or hostility creep into your voice. That would be a mistake, especially with this kind of person. Don’t let a steamroller get under your skin. Being defensive and belligerent always looks weak. Instead, stay focused on the issues, not on the attitude. Talk calmly and try to look confident.

…don’t take unfair advantage of the time you buy with this little negotiation. Make your point, then ask, “Does that make sense to you?” This invites him back into the conversation. Give him the courtesy of offering you a reply without interruption.

I hear J.P. Moreland saying “Does that make sense to you?” all the time in his lectures, and now I’ve started doing it too! And so should you! But what if “stopping him” doesn’t work? Then we go on to step 2.

Step 2: Shame Him.

Suppose the steamroller interrupts you again during your negotiation response time. You want to gently draw attention to the fact that he is being rude and intimidating in the conversation. Again, the goal is not to show the slightest discomfort, but always to act with confidence.

Phase two of the Steamroller tactic is to shame him for his bad manners while maintaining your integrity. Stay on topic and don’t follow any “rabbit trails” he may voice.

That point about not taking on any new questions until you finish answering the first one is vital. You see this all the time on the Richard Dawkins forum. Every time you make a point about theprogress of science, they start complaining about how cruel God is. (Note that atheists can’t even judge God without assuming an absolute moral standard, which only a designer of the universe can ground!)

Below is example of how to do step 2:

“Can I ask you a quick question? Do you really want a response from me? At first I thought you did, but when you continue to interrupt I get the impression all you want is an audience. If so, just let me know and I’ll listen. But if you want an answer, you’ll have to give me time to respond. Tell me what you want. I need to know before I can continue.” Wait for an answer.

Part of becoming a good ambassador is knowing how to guage your opponent, and how much force you should use. Practice, practice! But suppose even step 2 doesn’t work. What should we do now?

Step 3: Leave Him.

The most difficult thing to do is to break off a defense, especially when there are people around listening in or even participating. Usually you do this when the person is moving the wrong way on the aggression scale. Greg cites a number of Bible verses to show that the Bible does support this kind of strategic withdrawal from an engagement that is going the wrong way.

In my conversation with this atheist, I reached #3 and told him our conversation wasn’t productive. We needed to part ways. Ironically, as the atheist waled away from our table, he said “I meant no offense.”

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4 thoughts on “How To Handle a Steamroller in Apologetic Discussions

Add yours

  1. I have to say, as an Athiest, it’s VERY important to stay Rational and calm in order to have intelligent discussions. That being said…

    (Note that atheists can’t even judge God without assuming an absolute moral standard, which only a designer of the universe can ground!)

    You slipped right here, We don’t Judge God, we cannot judge something that (according to current scientific method) lacks the evidence for proof of existence. That was a judgmental statement and it hurts your posts credibility. Otherwise, good post, we follow the same tenets about remaining calm and rational.

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for your comments. Not sure I understand the point about making a judgmental statement. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Modern science is the study of material and natural causes. The God of the Bible is neither material nor natural. So modern science can never prove or disprove the existence of God.

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