Have you ever dreaded a conversation? I have. Many times.
It needs to happen. You know that. But you dread it. You daydream about it but in the bad kind of nightmarish way. While you shower or drive, you get lost in thought rehearsing what you will say to them. You imagine their response and your eloquent, timely, flawless comeback. (Aren’t we all more articulate in our imagination than real life?) You want it to go well but you know the potential backlash. You’re afraid of how they might respond or if they will be hurt. As a result, you push it off. And push it off. And push it off. But the issue only gets worse. And, deep down, you know that you can’t push it off forever.
We’ve all been there. And we will be there again. Is there a way to stop dreading those conversations and start having them? I think there is.
Tough talks are a bit easier if we can approach them with the right mindset. Jesus told us to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.” (Matt 10:6) Volatile conversations require this unusual, snake-bird hybrid attitude. Success requires a combination of wisdom, virtue, love, sincerity, word choice, and prayer. (And by the way, success is not always “winning them over” to your side.)
Whether it is a tough talk with your spouse, boss, friend, or even with a church member, here is some biblical, practical, and pastoral tips for how to do it better.
Despite what we tend to think, ignoring an issue will not make it magically go away. I don’t know many things for certain, but I know this: avoiding conflict weakens relationships. We tend to stay away from tough conversations because, well…they’re tough. But speaking up and opening-up is the only healthy way to move forward.
If relationships have taught me anything (marriage in particular), it has taught me that I am not a mind-reader, and neither is anyone else. Find a good time (when you’re not rushed or already amid something else) and talk about your concerns. My wife and I often have “tough talks” while driving in the car or going for a walk. Having that set time for that set discussion helps us both focus and dedicate time to it.
Healthy relationships must develop a healthy level of communication. That requires listening, but also speaking.
Speak for yourself.
Counselors often advise couples to develop the skill of using “I’ and not “You” language. It can make the conversation go a bit better.
Saying, “I’m concerned about what I see,” is usually better received than, “You are doing ‘x’ or not doing ‘x’ and it needs to change.” Before you approach them, plan out what you might say. Write out some clear, honest “I” statements. It will require you to be honest and open. But you can’t move forward without trust and you can’t have trust without vulnerability.
For example, “I want to know how I feel because this is not what I expected.” Or “I feel like I must have got something wrong. Help me understand.” Avoid the accusatory “you” if you can. (Unless you are confronting known, blatant, rebellious sin. That requires a direct call to personal repentance.)
Ask questions. Ask a LOT of questions. And don’t just ask smarmy rhetorical ones to make a point. Ask genuine, sincere questions. Try to discover what’s going on in the other person’s heart and mind.
Facebook, Twitter, and our entire world would be a much better place if we would all assume the best in others. Don’t try to fill in the blank of their motivation. Take a Christ-like posture of concern, service, and even sacrifice to understand their point of view. (A word to the husbands: men, listen to your wife!!!! Put your phone or remote down, and give your full, undivided attention. Value her response and interact with her questions.)
Often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If you inquire correctly, you may discover there’ a lot more going on beneath the surface in their own life. You will want to carefully unearth it, so you get to the bottom of it without starting an avalanche. It may take time. It may take several conversations. Be curious. Be patient.
Before you say anything, consider how the other person will perceive it. Will it be heard as an attack? As disappointment? A criticism? Or will it come across as a sincere, loving inquiry? Proverbs 25:11 says,
“Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances.”
Think about how you would want someone to express concern to you and try that. If you must be told bad news, how do you prefer to be told? What makes it a bit easier? Jesus taught us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is a great chance to put that into practice.
One discussion tip may be fruitful is to say something like, “For a while now, I assumed “x” (whatever)…but maybe I was wrong. What do you envision for our future? This situation? This challenge? What do you see me doing? You doing? Us doing together?”
Allow the other person to paint a picture of what is possible. Then, explain your own picture of what could be. Share your willingness to do whatever you can to help accomplish this goal and create a plan by which you can move forward if possible.
Speak to God.
Don’t forget to pray before, during, and after. If a change of heart is going to happen, then God will have to get involved at some point.
“Cast all your cares upon Him, because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
You’ve heard me say it a thousand times before, but here it goes again: remember, “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.” Approach your spouse, boss, or friend in humility. You may not get the answer you want, but I promise, you will eventually see God’s grace at work in your life.