Being effective

in difficult

conversations

 

Being effective

in difficult

conversations

BY DR. DARRELL BOCK
DALLAS THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
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

W e have discussed that the initial goal in a difficult conversation is to seek mutual understanding of differences. Then we considered how we often undercut that goal.

Now we will look at how to participate effectively in such a conversation – three types of discussions and five methods to advance a conversation. Applying these approaches can help turn a debate into a more genuine conversation.

THREE types of discussions

In thinking about convictions and holding them, it is crucial to identify what kind of a discussion I am having. There are basically three types of conversations, although sometimes a conversation can have a mix of these factors. 

Real core difference

T his initial category involves those cases in which the nature of the starting points and suppositions is so great there is little chance for any common ground. The views being taken are diametrically opposed, and there is no real spectrum to work with in thinking about the topic.  

These cases are actually few and far between, but a few exist. It is important to understand how rare this category is. The debates over samesex marriage or abortion fit here. The human freedom of choice in both spheres versus how others see marriage or the beginning of life as divinely defined clash here. It is hard to find any common ground in such discussions with such diverse starting points.  

The challenge is how to handle this degree of difference relationally and in a shared social space. In the end, believers will contend that all will face ultimate accountability for these choices before God one day.  

They also will argue that the character of our society is impacted by the choices made here and that no such act is strictly private. This is why it is seen not just as a private matter by many people of faith. There is little doubt this category is the hardest to negotiate well, because the differences in perspective are so great.  

Differences between religions also fall into this category. Here, there is a chance that ethical commitments about how people should be treated can create some limited common ground even if there are different views on how one is saved, leaving a need for evangelism when the opportunity arises. 

All agree but "how" is the question

A second kind of category is where people recognize the same kind of goal but disagree on the best way to get there. An example is racial reconciliation. If we were to take a poll on whether we favor racial reconciliation, the positive response would be exceedingly high. If we asked how best to get there, we might have several dozen opinions.  

These are topics in which there is much potential for common ground. But there is much work that often has to be done on how or what combination of ideas might help us to get there.  

Discussion requires we be very good listeners and not assume our experience matches that of another person of different background. The potential for moving to fuller agreement is usually greater in this category than the previous one. 

Issues in biblical tension because of a fallen world

I d suggest this last category is by far more common. Here, there are sets of human or even biblical values that are in tension because we live in a flawed world. The issue is how to balance a set of competing concerns 

An example might be healthcare issues. Human concern says we should want people to get such care, but the realities of society say we have to be able to afford, as a people, how to pay for it. That raises all kinds of legitimate questions about how to balance all the layers of this conversation.  

Its easy to see how reducing this discussion to labeling prevents a real dive into the topic. People often make a mistake in this kind of conversation by choosing between the legitimate tensions in such a way as to negate one of them. This cuts out the possibility of wrestling with the balance or relationship between the tensions. Most of our political debates fall in this category, and we shortcircuit them by forcing a choice between tensions versus thinking through how to balance them. 

FIVE Methods to advance a conversation
Own our own junk.

T he first thing we can do is acknowledge where we come up short and own our own shortcomings. Rather than confess and pivot, we come to serious grips with our contribution, or our side’s contribution, to a problem with an issue. We actually engage that shortcoming and look to what can change, what should be done or how to think  about it another way. We fix or address our involvement in the problem. 

Stick to the issues.

A nother positive step is to stick to the issue at hand and move through topics one at a time.  

As we addressed last week, one thing a pivot does is change the subject and move to a discussion that favors your side. This can short-circuit real progress. Before you deal with something that needs attention, you try to jump elsewhere.  

Owning your own junk and proceeding carefully toward mutual understanding means working through the list of issues one at a time as much as is possible. One of the benefits of facing up to this is by acknowledging space for our own growth, which creates space for the other person to reciprocate. 

Be honest about our own concerns and convictions.

A n honest conversation doesn’t have to hide our concerns and convictions. A difficult conversation does not require us to abandon what we think. We just give more thought to how we say what we believe.  

We engage with an awareness of the relational level of the things we say and how we say them. So the only way to gain understanding is for each side to be clear about what they believe and why. We just want to be sure the rationale for what we believe is sound.  

Genuine engagement can help to determine that by exposing where we might have blind spots or might be missing something. The only way to get there is to be honest with what we are thinking and why. Yet, that needs to be done with gentleness and respect as we go along (1 Peter 3:13-16). 

Be honest about where we need to listen and learn.

B eing teachable and open is also a virtue in such conversations. This kind of recognition gives space to learn from the conversation. Partial knowledge, thought to be comprehensive knowledge, is actually dangerous. It closes us off to growing. Part of a genuine humility is knowing our limits. 

Parse layers within a view.

T his may be the most challenging aspect of such conversations. It is developing the ability to recognize and face the strong and weak parts of our own arguments. Many things for which I contend rest on varying layers of certitudesomething I am absolutely confident about versus something else that is simply more likely or probable. That difference impacts how tightly I cling to the view or conviction I have about a topic. 

I often say to my students, “You need a scale to rate your level of conviction. It runs like this.  

  • Level A: I am virtually certain about something. I am so certain I joke that I might be willing to argue with God about it. 
  • Level B: I am aware of disagreement here, but I am reasonably confident I am correct. 
  • Level C: If I am honest and we get to heaven and you turn out to be right, I will not be surprised.  
  • Level D: Let us both be honest and flip a coin because neither of us knows. 

This kind of scale can help me assess how strongly I should hold a particular conviction or subconviction. It also allows the possibility that I might move from one level to another in the midst of a conversation. 

In other words, growth and progress might come from within a conversation, not because I change my mind, but because I might be more self-aware about how strongly I hold a view and why. In such cases, the conversation has benefited  my own understanding. This allows me to tweak a view or give it nuance. It also guards against an allornothing mentality that has no room for contemplating options. Most hard conversations have layers of argument tied to any major subpoint in the conversation. The willingness to look for and think about these layers and pursue them can open fresh avenues in the conversation. 

Final thoughts

My point in working through this discussion on these kinds of issues is that our level of conviction should be tied to the kind of issue that is present. It also should be tied to an awareness of the judgments I make in coming to that conviction and how solid the ground on which my conviction stands. Convictions held on weak ground are worth reflecting on whether they should be better grounded or reconsidered.  

In all of this, one more point needs to be made. It is that the pursuit of tolerance can lead to withdrawal from another rather than real engagement. True respect means giving space for conflicting views to be aired in a discussion that is sincere about understanding where another person is and genuinely engaging them. That can mean when we assess our differences we might agree to disagree but not without first having made a goodfaith effort to understand one another. The authenticity of such a deep conversation is better in the long run relationally than pretending no differences exist or ignoring them. 

In this series, we have merely scratched the surface of having effective difficult conversations. But I hope some of these categories and techniques will help you be a better conversation partner in some of the more challenging conversations that life sends our way. 

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.

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    • I fall into the “rare” category… It is exactly what am experiencing in my home with my youngest daughter, where she and I conflict on bible understanding.
      Thank you for this insight..it is very valuable to me.

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