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.

66 Comments

  1. Really informative article.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.

  2. Tolerance has been my highest virtue. No!
    Now, it’s time to take courage to go into
    real engagement with true respect.
    Thank you Dr. Bock.

    • Seriously! This sounds like a lot of academic jargon! Could we just be real! God is real! Let’s get close to Him & cut this crap! Academic navel gazing is not helpful.
      “Issues, tolerance, convictions”! Academia words for phsycoanalysis: not God centered thinking. Eyes on Jesus!

  3. Im thankful for the article post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

  4. Thank you very much Dr. Darrell Bock. This is very timely and such a big help. God bless you.

    • Thank you do much Dr. It’s in line with what am experiencing in my home, where I and my husband conflict on bible understanding.

    • Thank you … May God graciously blesses you and continue to fill you more wisdom and insight to help, remind us.

  5. Thank you Dr. Darrell Bock for insight in Being Effective in Difficult Situations.
    I take personally to heart your quote
    “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.”

    • I am doing through a scenario where I am part of difficult conversations. This article has offered me help and I better equipped. Thank you very much Susie!

  6. You completed a number of nice points there. I did a search on the topic and found nearly all folks will agree with your blog.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this at this time it is very helpful

  8. Muchas gracias por tratar estos temas de la comunicación, donde por nuestra vehemencia podemos perder la oportunidad de presentar a Cristo en su real dimensión, ser humilde sobre todo.

  9. Thank you so much Susie for sharing the insights on difficult conversations. The three instalments have made me a better listener and have equipped me to confront issues I would normally avoid.Z

  10. Thank you for the teaching on the FIVE methods of CONVERSATION

  11. Susie
    Thank you so much for Dr. Darrell’s series.
    Wilda

    • Thank you for being so concise and summing these areas up in a paragraph. I would not have had the time to read it otherwise.

    • Very helpful and full of insight that I can work on incorporating into my conversations. I will continue to follow Dr. Bock’s podcast.

  12. You’re very much appreciated for sharing this! I’ve benefited immensely from the thoughts and responses.

    • God’s timing with this article for my husband and I this afternoon has been so wonderful! After raising 3 children in a Christian home, we are still needing so much guidance and encouragement in dealing with our 3 grown with own children families. Our son continues to be loving but our 2 daughters are showing disrespect to their brother and to both my husband and I. They are in their own “bubbles” and are choosing to leave us out of their own world. All attend church but have forgotten that God gave us families to honor, accept, forgive, encourage, help, brainstorm ideas, and to love unconditionally! This article is so encouraging and I pray that
      my husband and I can follow these steps and help our family heal and love one another again. Prayers needed from all!

  13. Thank You! Perfect timing! This is a struggle I have at this point in time.

    • I am thankful that my son in law is dialoguing with me while I am struggling that I inadvertently hurt him, my daughter or their precious children in this process. These words are timely for me.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing these important points of view.

  15. Thank you Susie,
    These posts are so helpful.

    • Thank you for the post Susie…great lesson how to discern good and bad before reaching out to comment. Pray to God for the wisdom and discernment that God has given His children. Glory to the most high God, our saviour Jesus Christ!

  16. I have read each of the installments on “difficult conversations” series several times, and will continue to, as I un-learn some really bad communication habits and work on solidifying these amazing ideas. Dr. Bock’s presentation is completely helpful in day-to-day interactions as well. Not all conversation will be about religion, abortion or other such hot button topics, but the way of navigating difficult conversation outlined by Dr. Bock can be applied anywhere and everywhere that deeper understanding is desired. I had the opportunity between the first and second installment of this series to overcome a brewing power struggle with my teenager simply by asking his thoughts on what the exact nature of our differences was. After listening to him, remarkably, he asked me the same thing. Instead of an argument, we came to understand each other in a way we had not previously been able to and we were able to work toward a mutually acceptable resolution. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Dear Susie Rowan Thanks for your resent communications jointly with Dr Dr Darrell Bock.I am encouraged to join and to continue praying for God’s Grace.As ardent Christian believer,faith is not a matter that should be kept to oneself but should be shared with others in BSFers fellowship or any other group.Remember sharing faith is not enough but should be embodied in ones,actions,daily character as well as our lifestyle.Our Christian perspective demands to walk and live in union with The Lord Jesus Christ.This is of paramount importance to champion tenets of our Christian faith.The ultimate purpose is to live guided by truth of Word of God as acclaimed and proclaimed principally in book of answers-The Bible.Happy are those who remain faithful,yet under trials because when they succeed in passing such test,they will receive as their reward the life which God has promised.David understood God’s faithfulness and was writing the hymns for God’s perspective.To God be the glory.

  17. Thank for your sharing. It will be helpfull to handle the situation through circumstances under God’s guidance and his wisdom. Glory to God!

  18. Thank for your sharing. It will be helpful for me how to handle the situation in difficuly circumstances from that I could trust in God’s guidance from his wisdom. Glry to God!

  19. I recently visited a long time extremely intelligent and very financially successful friend who I thought was strong in his faith. I was shocked to find that intellectually he knew the Bible as well as, and perhaps better than me, but his heart seems to have hardened and he stated he no longer felt there was a God. As an agent of God, I shared with him my faith and a brief summary of what I have learned at BSF in the last four years with the study of John, Romans, Revelations, and currently the Prophets of the Promised Land, but with no effect.
    I pray every night for guidance, but have not thought of an effective follow-up. It now seems to me the real issue is creation so I have recently purchased a book on the book of Genesis accompanied with the Christian authors interpretation and accompanied scientific analysis as an engineer, as my friend communicates best in terms of science. My hope, and prayer, that this additional communication vehicle will offer me a way to open my friends mind and heart for the Holy Spirit to reach my friend.
    Other than prayers from many in my BSF class, I have not yet decided on how to best follow-up. Your generic suggestions here have been very helpful as a guide, and any specific thoughts would be appreciated.

    • Hi David, The following website has great content for creation/evolution debate… https://creation.com/

      Thanks Susie and Darrell for sharing these series. Very helpful!

      • Thank you for your comments and especially the web creation resource. After reading several articles, I respect their advise to take caution in sharing questionable creation “proof statements” that apply to our Christian beliefs, but have not yet been fully accepted in the scientific community. There is still much to know about what we currently know, although to me, proof of creation will continue to be faith based and communicated individually thru Bible study and the Holy Spirit.

        Life still has many unexplained mysteries and total agreement in creation theology and science might never occur, although it seems to me that the more we learn through new scientific discoveries, and identify with biblical documentation, the more God’s word is verified.

  20. Perfect timing! I needed this today. Thank you for the godly wisdom of how to approach and work through difficult conversations.

  21. We are facing a family issue and every time issues are addressed the situation seem to get worst. A lot to think about, pray about and try to apply. I had decided to fold and just leave things as is …broken. Thank you for this session.

    • Great series, if I could only remember all the good points that were brought out here to say on point. Thank you Lord for this wonderful series that I can
      study it and use it for the glory of God.

  22. We go through so much in this life but it is encouraging that when in conflict etc. we are not alone God is with us, understands and provides help

  23. Thank you for this series, have really enjoyed it. God bless and peace.

  24. This is all well and good, but how do you reason with an addiction. I’ve claimed my part in the enabling, and changed my behavior. I am no longer codependent. I have prayed for Gods mercy and grace. My husband and I have been together for 28 years. We’ve been seeing his therapist.

    • I have walked in and am still walking in your shoes.
      My husband and I have been married 28 years. He was a functional alcoholic when we married, but I was ignorant about such a thing at that point in my life. I didn’t really realize what I was commiting to at the altar, before God, on our wedding day. It has been a long, hard, painful, difficult and complicated walk, but he is now almost three years sober as of April. This only after outpatient therapy, sober living, rehab, and a year of being separated, with relapses in between and leading to each of these. Sobriety is a step, but there are still behaviors and attitudes that rear their ugly heads and are difficult to navigate as wounds, scars and ingrained behaviors fully complicate the desire for a constructive conversation.
      Flesh, sin, pride – it all gets in the way. I will tell you what a pastor told me as I was heartbroken and devastated after one of several relapses – “I know it’s hard, but don’t give up.” I honestly wanted to smack him in the moment, tired of fighting for someone who didn’t appear to be desiring real change for himself or his family, but thankfully I didn’t! That pastor was speaking truth – be obedient in the day to day exercise of loving your spouse but not enabling the addiction, speaking truth in love as necessary.
      God had to change MY heart as I felt no love toward this man who had selfishly and deeply wounded me and our children. God will speak to you and guide your words and actions as needed. He is so faithful, and has worked such beauty in our family out of the wreckage of addiction.
      We aren’t perfect, but it has drawn all of us closer to Him than I could have ever hoped it would and still is.

      • Thank you for sharing about your journey and witnessing God’s amazing blessing and mercy. I think a lot of people are going through some form of this (alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, sexual addictions and basically any destructive behaviors) and I truly appreciate your humility in sharing and the encouragement it brings. May God continue to bless you.

      • I had to learn a few things about communication with my h. One thing I now do is to keep my questions in the “i” statements. I also had to learn that my h thinks completely different from what I think. On absolutely everything. I am who I am and my h is who he is. I cannot change who my h is. I can only change myself.

        Because of the addiction curse in my family, I had to learn to understand that my h or anyone else for that matter, does not get up in the morning with any plan to do me any harm.

        I had to learn how to get out of and change my part in the circular arguments I used to have with h. I had to figuratively learn how to change up the dance from the cha cha to a 1,2,3 waltz. Everyday I have practice sessions, chuckling.

        Resources that helped me include a marriage website put out by Jimmy Evans and his wife. They were on the brink of divorce and came back to victory. His articles and videos are phenomenal.

        Another great resource to help me to change my thinking is a book called Switch on your Brain by Dr. Caroline Leaf.

        Both of these resources are Christian based.

  25. Thank you for this series. Allowed me to approach a conversation with someone known to be opinionated and difficult to listen. My object in conversation was to attempt to keep topic focused and listen. It was great. We actually had a the beginning of dialogue.

    • This also helped me with a recent difficult conversation due to a misunderstanding.

  26. Thanks. That is true, there are times that I agree against my beliefs or change the subject to avoid conflicts …

  27. Thank you for having these conversations with me. What is helping me to have difficult conversations is “seek to understand always assuming good intentions in others.” Ask thoughtful questions of each other like “tell me more: or “help me understand.”

    • My children are not believers any more successful , standing on their own. But they don’t believe in Christ or salvation or Bible How can I start a conversation and how to convince them has become a challenge. But I do pray for their Salvation and waiting when God will bring them back to the Good Shepherd ‘s pen . Instead of talking I show my love care Help in action less words. Am I in the right path?

  28. In our pluralistic world where everyone seems to have at least one view or opinion on everything, I have found it quite helpful to temper my comments with a trip to God’s Word, and what it says. So, I might say something like this, “My personal view on this is…, and I think that we can and should look at The Bible to see what it says.” All believers in Jesus should revolve their feelings and opinions around the centrality of God’s Word. Then we as believers would stand together in a more unified position. So-called liberals, who do not believe in the centrality of God’s Word, will eventually “fall away.”

  29. Perfect insight. Thank you for sharing. This will help with so many conversations I should be having with family and friends that I have chosen not to have because I do not want to face the conflict.

  30. Thank you for this timely information. It is valuable as I pray to prepare to have a very difficult conversation with my gay son about the truth of what the Bible says about his lifestyle and why God wants him to turn from it and receive the love of JESUS and be washed clean.

    • Dear Andrea, I will pray for you and your sons conversation. As well as him turning to Jesus.
      I myself was in the same boat. My adult child is also gay and married according to the worlds view.
      Just know you are not Alone!
      Praying, Rhonda

    • Blessings to you on this very difficult issue. I struggled with a niece years ago. The 2 are now married & bought a house together. So, I did not do so well!! Hope for better for you!!

  31. This is so helpful. I’ve come out, perhaps for the first time, about what I believe and it is tough! Thank you for providing help.
    It’s interesting to me that our pastor also talked about being true to ourselves, and as I walk around mostly non Christians, I’ve been very careful about what I say. So I’m on a new path!

  32. Thank you for these coments. At times we try to shy away to avoid conflict, when in fact we should engage with humility.

    • This is an eye opener to not recent due to conflicts but to be authentic in all my conversations, guided by the word of God.

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