We have all had, or need to have, difficult conversations. An email that offended or troubled us, a blow-up at a family dinner, a situation at work that is unbearable, a church feud that is spilling out into the community or friction within a house between spouses or siblings — the examples are endless.
Truth be told, those of us who follow Jesus are pretty terrible at handling conflict. As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it.” You know how it goes. The tension is high in a committee meeting or church business session. But rather than say anything, everyone sits in silence, because Jesus told us to play nice. Then, out in the church parking lot or at home, clicking away on the laptop, all the feelings come out. And usually, all the feelings come out to the wrong people in the wrong way.
I have recently read the book, Difficult Conversations — How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. The authors are members of the Harvard Negotiation Team, the same organization that brought us the bestselling book Getting To Yes. Is Difficult Conversations an overtly Christian book? No. It is written for a broader audience, but the principles apply, because all truth is God’s truth. And frankly, much of the book is common sense, the kind of sense that is decidedly lacking when we are failing miserably at the art of communication.
Even some of the chapter titles display that common sense: “Stop Arguing About Who’s Right,” “Don’t Assume They Meant It,” and “Abandon Blame.” We are reminded that the other party is never all bad and that we ourselves are never all good. We are all a mixture of light and darkness. Many arguments occur because we ascribe certain motives to the other party. We make a leap from “I was hurt” to “you intended to hurt me.” Extensive research has shown the more passionately we feel about a matter, the more likely it is that we will have a distorted, overly-simplistic caricature of people who hold different points of view. That would explain a great deal about why FOX News people and MSNBC people usually talk more about each other and at each other than with each other!
Does this mean we should pretend emotions don’t matter in difficult conversations? No. Ironically, when we try to “stay in our heads” and be purely logical, we actually become less effective in resolving conflict. “Engaging in difficult conversations without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without music,” say the authors. We must acknowledge our feelings.
Stone and company remind us that most disagreements swirl around different perceptions of what happened. Or, as the Baptist deacon once said in the midst of a church fight, “You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to God’s!” As we have heard many times, the only reality is perceived reality. As a pastor, I am often expected to referee “he said/she said,” or “his view/her view” disagreements. In those times, I try to remember a line from the French-Cuban writer Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” Self-awareness and humility will serve us well, helping us remain curious about our own motives (Why is winning this argument so important? What is this really about?).
The goal of difficult conversations is not winning people to our side. When the point becomes winning the argument, we have already lost. Tough conversations are about creating space for growth and mutual respect, not controlling others. When will we ever learn? Telling someone to change makes change less likely! We make much more headway by saying things like, “For me, what this conflict is really about is….” or “What I’m feeling is....” or “What is important to me is….”
If we are going to get close enough to love, we will automatically be close enough to disagree. The question is not, “Will we have conflict?” but rather, “How well will be manage our conflict?” Dr. Wayne Oates once wrote, “The disciplines of pastoral care today are listening, prayer and fearless relationship.” I suggest that this is true for all of Jesus’ followers, not just clergy.
I recommend the book Difficult Conversations as a way to go deeper into listening, prayer and fearless relationships. But I also recommend another book that’s even better. Perhaps you have a copy lying around somewhere. It’s called the Bible.
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo. His column appears monthly in Word&Way.