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.


  1. Thank you for this blog post. It has helped me send an apology for a conversation that went awfully wrong on Sunday because I didn’t try to seek common ground. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the message. Am a victim of this but I thank God for his word that does not change. Am encouraged in the book of James.

    • Thank you for these informative blogs. I especially fall short on the prophetic motive of others. God is so good, to gently guide us.
      Thanks again.

    • Thanks for this. It helps to understand how we sabotage conversation. Makes us aware and more s3nsitive as we talk to others

  3. Praise the Lord.
    It is encouraging to know how useful it is to be good listeners.
    It makes a big difference in conversation

  4. please remove me from this blog. I do not participate in blogs.

  5. Thank you for presenting this teaching. I want to learn how to be a better listener/communicator. The way my mind works, I learn much better with “examples”. I understand that you want to speak in generalities in order to address countless scenarios with your teaching points, but I wondered if you might give a made up conversation just to help those of us who learn better with this style….?

    • I agree with you. I needed examples to of a conversation .

      • I also would appreciate examples. Thank you.

    • Thank you Dr. Darrell

      Very helpful
      I have learnt that, ‘understanding is not the same as agreement’

      Great insight

  6. I hope that I never get too old to learn a better way to witness for Christ. Thank you

  7. This is an excellent message and timely, Its my humble prayer that the Almighty God help me
    manage difficult conversation as a leader and more importantly difficult conversation with my children.

  8. This whole article is Biblical and loving. Breaching a wall of hurt is so difficult. Only love and humility and the readiness to see our own sin and give love regardless seems to be healing. Holding on to hurt is deadly. Giving up on someone is what Christ has NEVER done with us. We are called to love as He did and that is sacrificially. Sacrifice can be yielding and allowing harsh words to fall on us (and over us) until we feel another’s pain and can truly sorrow for how the relationship has been bruised. But in His Spirit – forgiveness of others and ourselves is possible and the “bent reed can be straightened” Not by us – but by Him through us. Never stop loving and reaching out in love as He will never stop reaching out to heal and forgive us. Praise God – This is the power of Christ in us.

  9. Yes! Your ministry is important & needed. Thank you for your faithful insight. To God be the glory!

  10. Thank you for this timely piece! I need soul searching as I am very saddened by so called “evangelicals” who love the Lord but act like the corrupt administration we suffer under are people who actually know, seek and love God. I will try to be a better, more patient listener.

    • Thank you for expounding on this issue.

  11. I missed the first installment. How can I find it? Also, I agree with Mr. T L Henderson, I need examples. What to do when a Christian friend talks down to you, like you are a know nothing, & they see themselves as your mentor, and you (I) don’t want to be their ment tee(sp)? I know this person means well, but …..

    • If you scroll to the top of this page, you’ll see the word “Posts”. When you hit that, a dropdown list will appear of past posts. The first installment is under “Engage”. It’s the top one.

  12. Wow! I saw myself in all of these moves. An eye-opener. Please, am waiting for the next installment. In the meantime, will work on listening .

  13. I thought this has excellent suggestions, but I found myself asking, how specifically can you do these things? It would be helpful to give examples of real life conversations/scenarios. Thanks!

  14. I’m learning a lot, and I still need to learn more in order to have Spirit-driven conversations with others. I need lots of prayers too. Thanks for this training.

  15. Thankyou very much for sharing this may God help to use our tongue to glorify His holy name and help us so that what ever we say will bring comfort healing and joy to God,s holy name

  16. I was on the phone for a couple of hours today and throughout the entire conversation I “Truthfully” reserected every negative aspect of my own personality in the greatest attempt I’ve ever made to save someone the pain of making mistakes anywhere close to those I’ve made. I didn’t receive anger, but I did receive what I perceived as sincere multiple “No! you don’t understands”, No! you’re not listenings, You can’t and/or don’t feel that way?, etc… it was quite possibly the second greatest display of self denial I’ve ever witnessed. Save any politicians I still (embarrassingly) hold the top spot.

    Yes, I did in fact, without notice, lose my temper, apologized to clarify intent, but now for the first time I truly understand why it didn’t work out so many years ago. Imagine if you can, two, blind, mute and olfactory senseless squirrels fighting over the same nut neither one ever found….

  17. A dialogue between two can easily go into a discussion of a topic. This discussion often goes to some disagreement on an aspect. When this progression reaches the stage of debate, beware. Without decorum in debate stage, often comes dispute. Without (spiritual) discernment, likely disaster follows.

  18. Thank you, Dr. Bock & God bless you for providing this info that is so needed. The comments are so helpful & provide wisdom & love for learning to communicate in difficult situations that seem to be in abundant supply today. I am learning valuable ways to communicate with my adult children. Really looking forward to next blog.
    Studying David has been wonderful–what a communicator he was through the Psalms. God allowed David to share his heart, his love of God, his misery, his joy, and how mighty our God is. I pray that God will help us all in our communication and that we will show His love.

  19. Is there any way we could have this entire blog to print out and keep for reference? I understand there are four parts, right? These are some of the best words I’ve seen on such an important topic. Thanks.

    • Great advice ! Difficult conversation; forgiveness is the key!

  20. Very helpful,thank you. This week’s study about David’s inaction regarding his daughter and sons was quite difficult to take because he was a great and devoted ruler of his people. At the same time God’s forgiveness,mercy and grace and fatherly love towards David encourages us to confess, repent and obey his commandments to be saved. Thank you for the blog. Soul searching and cleansing indeed.

  21. Very useful. Thank you very much

  22. This is awesome! I printed it out because I want my husband to read this. Maybe it will help bridge the unhealthy discussions we have had recently. It seems as if “as long as we don’t talk about it, all is well.” Not! Therein lies the problem. Thank you for writing this up. We are so blessed by God and you!

    I also printed out the first discussion: Better difficult conversations: Setting the table. I chose to put a picture of my husband and me at the top of the article as it certainly makes it more personal. I wish more people would read this blog!

    • This would only go so far if we made attempts to apply it to our daily conversations. Brilliant write.

  23. This is very helpful. I’ve had tremendous difficulty with my sons. I had to tough love them.

    We now have a much better relationship. They had to suffer the natural consequences of drug abuse. Through it all I still loved them.

    Today many years later I live near them and my grandchildren. I pray for all of them. I interact with them all on a regular basis. I don’t judge them or criticize them. I don’t
    Tell them what they should be doing. Unless I’m asked for input, I just listen and stay calm and peaceful.

    When the past comes up, I don’t get upset when they speak of the time we were estranged.

    I’ve been blessed by Joyce Meyers book ,Power Thoughts. I’ve used this book as a study with others in my home.

    The most rewarding part of the book for me, was the I’m difficult to offendChapter 4.

    • Could you send this blog to Congress? The future ones would be of a benefit also.

  24. Thank you. I now have the tools to open up doors instead of shutting them. I have built a wall in between me and liberals. I see the lies and betrayal to our country, no respect for the unborn etc. I now have some tools to start the conversation again. Pray for me that I will use my ears instead of my sharp tongue.

    Also I just learn how to pray in a new and exciting way. It’s called Psalming. A term I have not heard of before. What a difference it has made in my set. Pastor Tom Loud at Shoreline Full Gospel Fellowship Church. (Seattle Area) Check it out on Youtube.

    Thanks so much Dr. Bock

  25. I have a very difficult conversation coming up soon. There are very complicated circumstances involving adoption within a family. These principles have been a timely word. I have tried on several occasions to have a reconciliatory conversation but always ended messier than we started. My goal is as much as is possible to live at peace with my sister-in-law. When we last talked, I decided to follow Romans 16:17 and avoid her. Not long after, she began coming to my church and joined the membership. At that point, I had to talk with my pastor. He suggested we all have a conversation. This will be very difficult and probably messy. Yet, I do feel very necessary.

  26. Thanking God for His Word that shows us time & time again what a broken people we are and yet He still LOVES US! BSF this year studying David right now, amazed God loves him even in David ‘s TOTALLY disfunctional family and what. a poor job of parenting he did!

    • Yes, I am A BSF and what a learning experience this week lesson was, communicating.

  27. Forgive her so that you may also be forgiven. release whichever pain you have so that there is effective communication. Don’t be in defense so that she may understand you. I feel for you however
    but God is the soul provider….may he provide you with his peace.

  28. Thanks am blessed

  29. Thanks for your blog. Before I read it I was just praying to GOD For patience. My grandson is with me for a little while and I am trying to have a discussion with him about Islam versus Christianity. He is not listening to what I have to say. I find I was getting a bit irritated with him. Now I know how to conduct the conversation and not get cross. He seems to think his way is the best and he is not prepared to listen. I realise I can’t make him listen but God can

    • Put ‘Christ crucified’ before you, stay behind our Savior, and let the Spirit of God do His work. See 1Cor. 2:1-5. Be determined that he knows Christ, and Him crucified. Do it in humility. Jesus said in John Ch. 3 that He must be lifted up (crucified), to atone for our sins. That was finished. The other must is to be born again by conviction of the Holy Spirit, because we are dead in our sins. In John 12:32, Christ said if He be lifted up, would draw all men to Himself ( Christ Crucified). The Father draws ( John Ch. 6), and no one comes to Christ, unless the Father draws him. If he heartily confesses Christ as the Sovereign Risen Lord, and asks Him to save a sinner (which is all of us), then he will be saved.. Romans 10:9-14, & Luke 18:13. Its so simple.

  30. Respecting how she feels does not mean that you agree. Keeping the lines of communication open is best. Try not to take things personal. You l ow you were a good Morhwesoing the best that you knew how

  31. I am having a difficult conversation this week and need the rest of this info now. Is there any way you can send me next weeks blog now?

  32. I am going on a trip with my 14 year old granddaughter. She is not a believer. We have agreed to listen to each other’s beliefs on the trip and find commonalities. It’s a start. I will listen and restate what she says. Thanks for the great info. We are so eager to share our love for Christ that we blunder.

  33. Brethren can you have a discussion with someone who is drunk and shouting?

    • The answer is no, scripture says a wise man foresees evil and hides himself. This means walk away wait for better opportunity.

      • Suggestion:
        Can the writer please make bullets at the end of the article. In this way it stays in the mind
        What about addressing hurt ? Anger is different from hurt

    • No you should not have that discussion. Pray for a sensible sober moment for effectiveness. Don’t cast your pearls unless they will do some good.

  34. I think we sabotage conversations without giving it a second thought. I is good to practice these listening skills, not only so we can learn from others, but also to teach by example.

  35. I have tried to hold a conversation with my adult daughter , she always turn the tables on me saying that I never was there for her. I had to make a decision work or go broke. After my bitter divorce I decided to work thru my problems not knowing she was being affected. She waits some 31 years later to tell me how she felt about me as a parent, I can take her saying I wasn’t a good mother and everytime she gets fired she blames me for her actions, saying I prayed against her. So what can I do to stop the foolishness because I usually walk away mad, and slap my door to my room.

    • Prayer, first to open both your hearts to forgive each other and for you to forgive your husband. Once forgiveness is from the heart you can both move on.
      Don Myers

      • I like that concept of…”Understanding” and…”Agreement”..and will apply it in working out a current situation that am involved in. This is a great insight. Thank you.

    • Praying for you Stephanie. May His Spirit fill you and grant you wisdom, strength and love!

    • I get it. I have adult children as well. Perhaps she didn’t ‘wait’ to tell you. It could be that she waited until she could tell you. She may have been struggling within herself also. Either way, it is very painful for even an adult child that has kept something inside for so long to finally bring it out and not feel heard or that the parent doesn’t have compassion for what the child (although adult) is and may still feel.

      Just speaking from the experience of both points of view.

      Be blessed

    • Stephanie, I know that it hurts to hear this from your daughter. You didn’t have any good choices, and had to make the decision to choose to work to support you and your child(ren). (I had to make the same choice.) You probably sacrificed a great deal.

      Before your daughter can internalize that reality, she probably needs to hear that you care how it affected her. You probably actually do regret that working interferred with you being available to her, *so express that* to her. After discussing how you wish things could have been, then you can touch on the fact that you had no good choices. After feeling validated, she’ll be more ready to acknowledge that.

      I suspect that your daughter mainly wants to feel heard that this was difficult for her, and this probably is difficult and hurtful for you to hear. But the truth is, BOTH of your truths are true! It doesn’t make her hurt any less that you couldn’t help it.

      I have said a prayer that you will reach a loving, peaceful understanding of each other.

      (I’m a former communication professor, and have had personal experiences similar to both sides of this situation.)

    • Stephanie, my heart goes out to you. I can “hear” the pain in your comment. I am so sorry you have this broken relationship with your daughter. The only thing you have control over is your own behavior and response. Pray. Ask God to help you to NOT escalate with her to the point of walking away mad. Ask Him to give you a strong, calm peace, to be your shield. And then listen to her without interrupting. Use the tools Dr. Bock is sharing so she knows she is heard by you. Let her know you are sorry for how you’ve hurt her, even if unintentionally. Listen, don’t defend. Ask God to bring healing. I am praying for you right now.

      • A wise suggestion with love.

        • Kim and Diane’s advice is so valuable. I saw the damage when vulnerable feelings are shared, and not acknowledged.

          As an adult, my sister shared with my parents her feelings about some issues as a young adult. It took a lot of courage for her especially because she’s so private. My parents, not remembering the incidents refuted what she mentioned. The damage was not obvious to them, but resulted in a distance that has never been overcome.

          It taught me the importance of listening and acknowledging feelings, even if I don’t remember/did not intent to hurt someone. I can still ask for forgiveness simply because it hurt them. Praying that difficult relationships are healed through this post.

    • I would highly suggest you read the Bait of Satan by John Bevere. It is a life changing book about offense and forgiveness. I can’t think of a better study outside of BSF. PS Tbere are study questions at the back. A group study of this is best where you can share questions and experiences with other believers. Highly recommend book for ‘everyone’!

      • Yes, Kathy, Bait of Satan is a great book…”you can decide not to take offense”…the message we need in our culture which us obsessed with being offended

      • Bait of Satan is an excellent resource!

    • Isn’t this the study with David. Didn’t communicate with kids cause of his guilt. I’m sure your right with God cause he’s brought you through. David had years to ponder as you. Now share what God had shared with you in love. I’m in same boat with my oldest. God will give us the words. Love that’s it

    • This blog is an answer to my prayers. The Lord convicted me last week of dealing with conflict by getting angry and I’ve been earnestly praying for God to help me change. The Lord had given me the same verse as listed above (James 1:19-20) along with “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word sirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) Thank you again for these very practical tools to help.

      • Praise the Lord. I’ve been wondering why each time I try having a conversation with some of my dependants always ends up in a monologue and produces no solutions. Thank you for the insights you’ve shared. I hope the next attempt will be much better. God bless you

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