Do you ever find yourself dreading an upcoming conversation that you know will be extremely difficult? I’ve had plenty such conversations, and although they are anything but fun, there are some key principles that can help us face and move through these conversations with grace, truth and healthy outcomes. Whether you have to confront your spouse, child, co-worker, fellow church member or boss, I hope these principles will help you prepare for these conversations in a way that honors Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
Keep the end in mind. What is the purpose of your conversation? What do you hope will be the result of your talk? What do you want to gain from it, and how do you hope this conversation will help the other party and your relationship? If you keep the end in mind, it will help you stop playing the “what if game.” (What if he says this? What if she does that?) When you play the “what if game,” it consumes your thoughts and freezes your motivation to move forward with the planned conversation. I don’t know about you, but I spend way too much energy on dreading potential negative outcomes of the upcoming conversation rather than focusing on what I hope to accomplish and the best way for me to enter a healthy dialogue to move in that direction.
Dialogue is a two-way street. When you enter into the difficult conversation, do your best to create common ground, a mutual purpose, and show respect. And then…listen. Dean Rusk once wrote, “One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears—by listening to them.” James reminds us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). When I jump into a critical conversation with an accusatory tone and words that attack, the person to whom I’m speaking understandably moves to the defensive and then begins fighting back. I need to check my own heart and motives, and make sure I’m staying on track with the purpose of my conversation (remember: keep the end in mind), and then pause to listen to what the other person has to say. In critical conversations we need to be genuine in looking “not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Don’t chase rabbit trails. It’s so easy in the “heat of the battle” to get sidetracked. For example, let’s say you’ve wanted to talk to your spouse about his attitude regarding your mother, and the next thing you know you’re in an argument over your sixteen-year-old’s curfew. When you feel your conversation going in a different direction, bring it back to the main point by saying something like, “You know, we do need to talk about Johnny’s curfew, and let’s agree to do that, but for right now, is it o.k. if we continue to work through what I perceive to be your attitude regarding Mother?”
Guard your heart. Recognize your tendencies to either move toward silence or violence. If things don’t go the way you want in the conversation, do you find yourself shutting down or heating up? Become self-aware so that when you begin to feel either of those extremes rising up, you can pray, calm yourself, and re-engage in the dialogue in healthy ways. Ambrose Bierce wisely said, “Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” The Bible exhorts us to be “slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19b-20).
Move to action. It’s one thing to have a difficult conversation. It’s another thing to come to an agreement on where you are going from there. Just speaking your mind doesn’t mean you have communicated. “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw). Communication leads to a direction towards the goal (keep the end in mind) or away from the goal. In preaching, a sermon should not just end with, “Here’s the information. Thanks for listening. God bless you.” A good sermon will end with some practical steps of how we can apply what we’ve heard from God’s Word. Likewise, in critical conversations, we should end with a commitment either to continue the dialogue at a later time (agreement #1) or to implement certain actions and attitudes (agreement #2). If we don’t come to some form of agreement, even if it’s an agreement to continue the dialogue, we find ourselves at an impasse and the wall between you and the other party looms even larger.
Most importantly, seek the Lord’s direction and trust in Him. As the Bible says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). If you know you have a difficult conversation coming up, ask the Lord to be a part of it, prepare your heart and mind, and enter the dialogue with a goal to honor the Lord Jesus Christ in all that is said and done.