How to Have Hard Conversations
This is part 1 of a series on conflict and communication.
Hard conversations are a regular part of both ministry and life in general. It could be giving (or receiving) feedback about how a ministry has been led; shepherding a church member through a personal tragedy; asking someone to step down from leadership because of unrepentant sin; working through a major disagreement with your spouse; or any number of other difficult situations. These hard conversations serve as a daily reminder that our lives, our relationships, and our world are broken and in need of restoration.
Our natural tendency might be to avoid hard conversations. However, ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away; it just gives them time to fester and grow. Instead of avoiding or dreading hard conversations, you can choose to look at them as an opportunity. They are an opportunity to demonstrate God’s love and truth; to disciple others; to grow yourself; and to provide a compelling witness to a watching world. And usually, the harder the conversation appears to be, the more important it is, and the bigger the opportunity there is to serve others.
Although hard conversations often deal with conflict occurring as a result of sin, they can also be about issues of secondary importance or even differing opinions. Remember that it is OK to disagree about non-essentials (Romans 14:1). If holding a particular perspective isn’t sin, then the focus should be to have a mutual understanding, not to “win” the conversation or convince one another. If sin is involved, then you should seek to restore your brother or sister and point them back to the gospel (Galatians 6:1). Regardless of subject, our aim should always be to love one another and point each other to Jesus.
Here are some suggestions for how church leaders can go about having these hard conversations:
Before Entering a Hard Conversation
- Pray. Pray for your own heart and the hearts of those you are engaging with. Ask that the Lord would grant you humility to see where you are in error and give you grace in addressing errors of others (Psalm 139:23-24).
- Research. Determine what you believe and what questions you want to ask before entering the conversation. Don’t place the burden of explanation entirely on the other person. Do research from their perspective and engage with sources they pull from.
- Relax. Remember that this conversation, while about something difficult, is not of first importance. Your job is not to be heard or convince anyone of your opinion, but to simply listen, learn, and apply what you know to be true. Know in advance what a “win” is: to glorify God and seek to understand.
- Initiate. If you are conflict-averse, push through your withdrawal or avoidance tendencies and decide to have the conversation anyway. Remember that the resulting peace, growth, and closure are worth the temporary discomfort.
During a Hard Conversation
- Pray. Especially if the person you are talking to is a believer (and even when they are not) ask to pray at the start of a conversation. Ask that the Lord would help maintain affections for one another even in the midst of disagreement.
- Seek clarity. Be clear up front about what you are discussing. Often people will come into difficult conversations with assumptions or biases that can result in disagreement or misunderstandings right from the beginning. It may be helpful to define a few terms or clarify the questions being addressed. Make sure you are speaking the same language.
- Listen. Seek to understand the other person’s perspective and comments (Proverbs 18:2). Try to let one another talk without interruption. If you have questions, be gracious and thoughtful as you consider their responses. Remember the goal is mutual understanding, not mutual agreement.
- Repeat back what you learn. After listening to what someone says, try to repeat it in your own words, with “It sounds like you’re saying…” Ask if you are understanding and representing their point of view with sincerity. Put another way, leaders remove confusion. Don’t be afraid to ask for definitions or clarifications.
- Communicate clearly and completely. Articulate your points as clearly and thoughtfully as possible. Be gentle and compassionate. Confirm with those listening to make sure you are understood. If you are calling out sin, do so with a mixture of truth and love (Ephesians 4:15). Make sure to share your “last 2%,” which are the thoughts you are tempted to hold back because of fear or people pleasing.
- End with encouragement. Remind one another of what you agree on. Share how the conversation changed your mind or prompted you to think in a new way. Thank one another for the willingness to listen and engage in this conversation. If you are speaking to someone who is hurting or does not know Jesus, make sure they understand the gospel.
After a Hard Conversation
- Pray. Thank the Lord for opportunities to learn and share truth. Ask that He would refine in you what is not of Him and convict you of where you are wrong. Ask the Lord to solidify His truth in your life.
- Process. Take time to sit with everything you heard. Don’t immediately file things away as wrong, invalid, or irrelevant. Process what you have heard with time in Scripture, other church leaders, and with community. What was true and good about it? What was untrue or in error? What further conversations need to take place?
- Practice. If this hard conversation resulted in some next steps, areas of further study, or things you need to change, then take action. Ask for accountability and community to come alongside you. Don’t let the conversation stop. Continue to step into difficult or complex topics with wisdom, discernment, and grace.
Ultimately, knowing how to have hard conversations is pointless unless we are willing to engage and initiate with others. Entering into hard conversations with confidence and love is an incredible way to know and be known by others. Taking initiative, even when things are difficult, is the responsibility of leadership.
Is there someone in your life who differs from you in their beliefs, opinions, or politics? Is there a Christian you know living in sin that you should engage with? What would it look like to have a hard conversation with them?