Sabotaging Difficult Conversations

Sabotaging Difficult Conversations







My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20

I  n our first blog post, we covered the goal in a difficult conversation: mutual understanding of each participant’s viewpoint. This is not the same as agreement but a shared understanding about the nature of the conversation and any differences.  

Assessment of what to do follows this understanding. It requires a commitment to truly listen to the other person. To go into a difficult conversation to simply win usually results in no real conversation at all.  

In this post, we will consider what often undercuts effective conversations. Anyone who watches TV and our current examples of discourse will see these regular violations of good conversations. 


What does not work well in conversations, even difficult ones?

There are at least five things that can take a conversation down. If we are honest, we all use these methods. They are forms of deflection and usually indicate something we perceive as needing protection. So, unfortunately, we go there.  

In our conversations, we either move against someone, withdraw from real engagement or move toward someone. I can move toward a person without agreeing with them by respecting their perspective, hearing it and being able to restate it so the other person can say, “You heard what I have said. The building of such trust and respect will help assess what can or needs to be done 

But at least five things can stifle reaching that goal. 

The Quick Confession with a Pivot


 Someone brings up something that is a problem for the view I hold. My response involves quickly acknowledging the problem (the confession). But then I immediately pivot by pointing to a shortcoming of the other side. I call this the “yes, but the your side is worse” response. This fails to help for two reasons. 


  1. It refuses to focus on what might be contributing to the problem or issue from the end I support. It may even pretend that my side’s role is small or insignificant when it may not be. 
  2. Even though there is an issue on my side, the pivot ultimately downplays my side’s role or disrespects what has been raised. It immediately tries to pin the majority of the blame elsewhere. That is not a move toward understanding. Instead, it blames. It puts assessment in a dominant and often premature place. 
The Curse of Labels


In a word or two, we label an idea negatively, play “Taps” over it and put it to rest by deeming it unworthy of more detailed comment. We label something as liberal or conservative, socialist or fundamentalist, blue or red. The list goes on 

Using labels ultimately destroys any possibility to move forward. It’s a lazy attempt at engagement. They dismiss the person behind it.  

Jesus used labels sparingly and carefully. By not dismissing Zaccheus as a “tax collector” or the woman at the well as “a divorced Samaritan,” Jesus turned everyday conversations into opportunities for eternal significance. 

Assigning Motive


Another tactic is to assign a motive, usually a negative one, to the position being presented. Often this is done to suggest insincerity or a disingenuous motive. The goal is to suggest the idea has no merit or basis because its intent is illwilled. To truly know the intent of another person requires a prophetic gift many of us lack.  

Assuming motive communicates a level of disrespect. It suggests the real reason for something is not what is being presented.  

This also is a tricky category because sometimes motives are mixed and not always clean. However, to start here is really raising questions about integrity that may not be the case. This is a form of moving away from another in a conversation.

Thinking Poorly or Skeptically about Seeking Common Ground


This category is subtle because it is rarely expressed but operates underground. It is the sense that if I move toward someone and acknowledge the merit of a point, they interpret it as a defection from my view. 

Another variation of this is to think in an allornothing binary mode. This approach says there are only two views when a series of options might exist. Such thinking works against a move toward mutual understanding 

An initial move toward understanding is rarely a negative move in a difficult conversation. Remember, understanding is not the same as agreement. Especially for Christians who hold to the truth of the Bible and stand firm in their convictions, understanding another person’s viewpoint is a loving desire to comprehend the exact nature of a disagreement.  

We should not assume we know the problem. Understanding says you and I agree that this is the content of what you are saying and why. Agreement says I am affirming what you are saying and why. That is an important difference. Mutual understanding sets the stage for a better level of discussion when assessments are undertaken.  

Much dysfunction is twosided. Limiting options or hesitating to see your role as contributing to a problem often can contribute to a breakdown in making a conversation profitable. 



Tribalism says I can never show weakness or acknowledge a shortcoming. I can never give ground, not even a few inches. This approach shuts off being self-critical and willing to grow. It almost assumes an omniscience none of us possesses. It is treated as a sign of weakness or defection from my side. It almost always works against a profitable conversation. It misreads loyalty to a side with a necessity to never give ground.  

An important counterexample involves the prophets. One could say they were very pro-Israel. They loved and believed the cause of the people of God, their people, their tribe. They were tribal in that sense, but they also were extremely self-critical. They were honest about when their side came up short. They recognized growth only happens when shortcomings are faced and dealt with. When I get so tribal that I cannot see legitimate fault or even consider it, I am setting myself up for failure in terms of real growth. 

These are some ways we sabotage conversations. They turn us into poor listeners. 

We still have two other themes to cover. One is what we can do to advance conversations, and the second is how holding our convictions enter into our conversational engagement. We’ll cover those next week 

Hopefully, seeing what we do to undercut conversations can help us better engage in fruitful conversations by avoiding those things that prevent us from getting there. 

Dr. Darrell Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He hosts The Table Podcast, leading discussions related to God, Christianity and culture.

Better difficult conversations setting the table

Better difficult conversations setting the table

Better difficult conversations:

Setting the table

Better difficult conversations: Setting the table

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. – James 1:19-20

S ometimes the most substantive conversations we have are the difficult ones.  

Whether we’re talking with a child, a spouse, a colleague or discussing core life values,  we often find ourselves engaging with someone who disagrees about what is going on or what needs to be done. This also is the case for conversations about religious differences.  

Christians tend to think about such conversations by simply asking how another person’s religious viewpoint does not line up with the Bible. This is important to know – and have an awareness of – to know where the faith discussion fits.  

However, there is another way to have such discussions that can help in engagement. It is not only to learn the beliefs of another faith but why someone might be drawn to give their life to this way of viewing faith.  

I call this getting a spiritual GPS on a person – finding out with full curiosity what makes them tick and what is driving their spiritual quest.  

How does this person approach faith? 

As the conversation begins, the goal is to determine where the other person is coming from in approaching faith. Rather than being concerned with where you are in faith, focus on where your conversation partner is. Then work from there.  

How does the gospel speak to that approach? 

In pursuing answers to these questions, you can then explore how the gospel can speak into those inclinations. However, to get there, you must understand how difficult conversations work if they are going to go somewhere.

Learning the skill


Developing skill at having difficult conversations is hard because we must unlearn certain habits. We must be clear about how to change the way most of us engage when the conversation gets hard.  

This blog is about setting the table for a better difficult conversation. In later blogs, I will look at what derails and what advances such conversations. Our instinct in difficult conversations is to defend turf, to be right. But that is counterproductive. It’s not because we should not defend our views, but because that defense is harmed when we start with the conclusion. In such circumstances – and this is common in difficult conversations – we do not have a constructive conversation but simply a defense.  

You can test how you are approaching a conversation by whether you are actually making an effort to listen and understand your conversation partner or forming how you will rebut what he or she is saying. 

Here are some guidelines for giving yourself a chance to have a good conversation. 

1. Clarify the conflict

It is important to understand each other and the exact nature of the disagreement. This needs to be mutually agreed upon as an initial goal, if possible. This means being able to repeat what your conversation partner is saying in ways where they say, “Yes, you understand me and what I am saying.”

2. Articulate both viewpoints

Understanding and being able to gain understanding does not equal agreement. They are distinct. In other words, moving to a mutual understanding is not compromise nor is it leaving behind convictions. It is simply laying the groundwork for a better substantive conversation.  

Understanding means you can articulate what another is saying and even why without necessarily agreeing this is so. Because each person in the conversation takes on this responsibility to try to make sure a good conversation is taking place, each person will get their chance to articulate where they are coming from and why.  

In this phase of a conversation, there is no room for rebuttal or for changing the subject by adding another element to the conversation. (That move often can derail any progress by complicating the conversation.) Rather, the goal is to align where each person is and why. With alignment, both of you can pursue either what needs to be done to fix things or determine exactly why you disagree. This puts you in a better place to assess what is going on.  

3. Agree to assess the issue

Having a better understanding of each other puts you both in a better place to make an assessment about what is going on between you. When you can agree where the actual differences exist, you are in a better place to figure out what can come next, even if it ends in an assessment that you value different things and thus come to different conclusions. 

All of this assumes our first responsibility in difficult conversations is to give an initial priority to really listening. I usually know where I stand and why, but what I may need to learn is why someone is coming from a different place than I am. 

These are initial points about difficult conversations and how to engage in them with the hope of progress. This sets the table with a chance of getting somewhere. There are other factors, such as what we do to undercut such progress and what we can do to advance the chance for progress. Those are the topics to come.

Dr. Darrell Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He hosts The Table Podcast, leading discussions related to God, Christianity and culture.

Forgetting what lies behind

Forgetting what lies behind

Forgetting what 

lies behind


Forgetting what lies behind


I n the 90s, Maureen Wong was part of an elite team assigned to promote confidence in Hong Kong as the territory made a historic shift from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. After 150 years under British authority, tensions were at an all-time high as negotiations between the two political powers escalated.

“It was an exciting time,” Maureen said, “but also demanding and challenging.”  

In 1996, just a year before the transition, Maureen and her family moved to Hong Kong where she played an integral part in the territory’s new administration. 

On the outside, Maureen had it all together. She was competent, successful and on the administration’s fast-track. But at home, Maureen’s life felt chaotic. 

In this season of turmoil, Maureen discovered Bible Study Fellowship. During a pilot study of Philippians, God gave Maureen what she needed most: spiritual confidence rooted in God’s Word. 

“Looking back, it wasn’t easy,” Maureen said, “but God provided for me and protected me through His love. I found joy and peace, and I had energy to do the things I had to do during that time. I couldn’t have done that without God’s strength and the constant awareness of His presence and Holy Spirit.” 

With a renewed focus on Christ, Maureen committed her gifts and abilities to promote God’s glory. Though He didn’t change Maureen’s circumstances, God transformed her heart.

“Not that I have already gained this or am already perfect…But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  – Philippians 3:13-14

Pressing on toward the goal

In 1998, Maureen had a difficult decision. She could continue her career, earning status and high income, or leave the field altogether by moving to London with increased time for family and God. 

She chose the latter.

“Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”  – Philippians 3:7-8

“I had no plan as to what I was going to do,” Maureen said. “I knew that I needed God’s Word to guide me, and I prayed that BSF would be accessible somewhere in London.” 

In answer to her prayer, BSF was launching a Day Women’s Class in London and needed a class administrator with Maureen’s skills. 

“I became CA straight away,” she said. They (BSF leadership) said I was God’s answer to prayer because they didn’t have anyone in London who was familiar with BSF. But I knew this was God’s answer to my prayers as well. 

Maureen was essential in establishing London’s BSF program and helped to start an Evening Women’s Class. But with time on her hands, Maureen was willing to serve the Lord beyond BSF. 

The upward call

While filling her time with family, church friends and BSF, Maureen believed God could use her skills in a broader way. 

“I came back to London and had nothing to do. I was attending church meetings, going to church, hanging out with friends and enjoying the good life,” she said. “In studying God’s Word, I learned to be open to whatever ministry God gave me.” 

When a former colleague asked Maureen to help establish a struggling non-profit, she said yes immediately. Founded by former gambling addicts, The Christian Centre for Gambling Rehabilitation provides emotional support and life-skills training that begin with the gospel. 

“I initially thought it was a short-term role, registering the organization as a charity,” she said. “I quickly realized that they needed someone to help them with administration and government compliance. They didn’t know how to manage an expanding organization, and they just didn’t have time.” 

In this new volunteer role, God used Maureen’s skills and previous professional network for His glory. 

“God made use of my past experience, enabling me to do the work He had called me to do at that time,” Maureen said. “I was privileged to see first hand the people who had been helped, their desperate lives turned around and rebuilt. These people began to flourish, and I saw God’s hand over each one of them.” 

Working for a fledgling ministry meant budget constraints and uncomfortable working conditions in an unfamiliar London neighborhood. 

“We don’t have a bright air-conditioned office,” Maureen said. “And I must admit, these were not the people I was used to hanging out with.” 

But God called the woman who once worked among Hong Kong’s top officials to serve the broken men and women of London.  

“Serving God in the ministry He calls me to is miles better than the one I would have chosen using my head,” Maureen said. Whatever achievement I see is not mine, it’s God’s. It takes a lot of patience, even a lot of time, but to see God change people’s lives so dramatically is most encouraging and rewarding.” 

The prize

Maureen doesn’t describe her move to London as a sacrifice. Instead, she says, “It was true that I had to give up certain material things, but when God opens a door, responding positively turns out to be the right thing to do.” 

Like the apostle Paul, Maureen is simply an ordinary person with faith in an extraordinary God. Her story is a beautiful testament of how God’s plan reaches beyond our own understanding. When we trust the Lord with our jobs, families and circumstances, He is faithful to make our paths straight. For Maureen, that path led in an unexpected direction, but delivered deeper joy and intimacy with Christ.  

When we say “yes” to God, His path may seem unconventional, but we never have to walk it alone.  

“…Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  – Philippians 1:5-6

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