Better Difficult Conversations
Setting the table
By 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
Sometimes 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.
After Sandy recovered, she and her husband had three more children. They celebrated birthdays, Christmases, and school graduations. Life seemed hopeful.
But their journey of grief was not over.
As Sandy’s daughter grew into a young adult, she began to abuse drugs. Sandy prayed persistently and shared her faith.
Tragically, Sandy’s daughter died at the age of 21.
The couple was devastated. Once again, they found themselves mourning the loss of a beloved child.
As Sandy and her husband sorted through their daughter’s belongings, they discovered a journal with a small cross. The journal included Scripture, a plan of salvation and these simple words:
“If you think it’s funny that I have this cross, know this … I belong to Jesus.”
Once again, Sandy experienced God’s gracious comfort that she would see her child again.
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
Dallas Theological Seminary
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.