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3 Principles for Approaching Difficult Conversations

  • Denise Kohlmeyer Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2022 25 Feb
3 Principles for Approaching Difficult Conversations

Nothing gets the heart racing and the palms sweating than the mere thought of having to have a difficult conversation with someone, whether it’s a spouse, a child, an employer/co-worker, a friend, a neighbor. Most of us would rather endure a root canal than face a confrontation.

Trust me, I’ve had both, and I’d pick the root canal any day!

But, alas, difficult conversations sometimes need to happen, especially if we want to maintain healthy, whole, united, and God-honoring relationships.

Here are three principles to help you for the next time you need to have a difficult conversation with someone.

1. Timing

Do you know the idiom: Timing is everything? Typically, it refers to the timing of a joke and its punchline. But I believe this idiom holds true when approaching someone to have a tough talk, as well.

For instance, it’s probably not advisable to launch right in the minute your work-weary spouse walks through the door in the evening, or your brain-benumbed child gets into the car after school.

Pick the proper time. Pick a time when neither of you is tired, upset, angry, impatient, frustrated, feeling harassed, or hurried. Nothing good ever comes from conversations conducted under stress and duress.

Ecclesiastes 3:7 says that there is “a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.” Proverbs 17:28 takes it a step further and says that “even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”

The minute a thought or an argumentative point pops into your mind is not necessarily the right time to voice it. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to keep quiet and postpone having that discussion.

The beauty and blessings of waiting are that it gives you some emotional distance. Postponement gives you the opportunity to see the situation more clearly, objectively. Waiting allows you to choose your words wisely, rather than speak rashly in the heat of the moment. Waiting also gives you time to pray for God’s counsel for the conversation and to ask for the Holy Spirit’s presence during the conversation.

Waiting also gives the other person time to reflect and pray (granted, you’ve told them beforehand). In this way, both parties can, hopefully, come to the conversation humble in heart and open-minded.

Here’s a disclaimer: please do not confuse postponement with avoidance. Avoidance stems from fear, fear of retaliation or things getting too personal and out of control. You may even be tempted to think that avoiding the conversation will promote peace. But, in actuality, avoidance only promotes unrest and can build up walls of resentment and bitterness. You will end up holding a grudge because the conflict remains unresolved. And that does not promote harmony within a relationship.

Postponement simply means that you are discerning the best time to have the conversation, then actually having it.

2. Tact

Tact is defined as “sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues,” and “having a keen sense of what to do or say, in order to maintain good relations” (italics mine).

Writer Carl Sandburg once said, “Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten.”

How true that is.

Think of a time when someone said something nasty or hurtful to you or about you—they called you a derogatory, insulting name or gossiped maliciously behind your back. You forgave them, of course, but you can never forget their words. They’ve clung to you like Velcro, and even today, years later, they may still rise up in your mind now and then. Yes, forgiveness erases the debt those words inflicted on you, but not the memory of them.

“Tact,” said Sir Isaac Newton, “is the art of making a point without making an enemy.”

Our rash words, Proverbs 12:18 tells us, “are like sword thrusts.” They hurt, pierce, and wound. Newton is right. In a war of words, we can only make enemies. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

That’s why it’s important to be sensitive in what you say during a tense conversation. If you speak rashly, thoughtlessly, the other person will be wounded and will always have those words echoing around in their minds for a long time to come.

So, choose your words carefully, intentionally. Even write them down. Practice them. Pray over them. And, if you don’t trust yourself and fear you might go off-track (and off-tongued), read them aloud to the other person. There’s no shame in that. And it just might save you (and them) additional heartache.

As a believer, your words should “bring life and health;” you don’t want to “crush the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4). Your “wise speech is rarer and more valuable than gold and rubies” to the ears of your listener, and to God (Proverbs 20:15).

3. Tone

A person’s tone conveys a lot. It conveys the heart attitude of the speaker. Tone will also affect your listener.

If your tone is loud and angry, your listener will react negatively, possibly with anger themselves—lashing back at you with their own rash, wounding words—or they may freeze, shut down, tune you out, even walk away. Either way, you will have lost them, alienated them, and possibly missed the opportunity for reconciliation.

If your tone is modulated—controlled and calm—however, your listener is more apt to be put at ease, be more willing and receptive to listen, to hear what you have to say.

Like timing, tone is everything; and the Bible has a lot to say about tone, believe it or not.

  • It should be gracious, “seasoned with salt,” according to Proverbs 16:24, Colossians 4:6, and Ephesians 4:29. The Greek translation of gracious is, “polite, kind, courteous, considerate.”
  • It should be loving, even when we have hard, truthful things to say (Ephesians 4:15). The Greek translation of loving is, “tender, affectionate, fond.”
  • It should be “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1), especially if you must confront a person in their sin. Other translations: “humility, meekness.”
  • It should be “soft,” not “harsh” (Proverbs 15:1). A “tender, delicate” answer quenches anger, but “abrasive, offensive” speech only fans the flames.

“Grace is your being on the side of, or for, the other person as well as the relationship. Truth is the reality of whatever you need to say about the problem,” write doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their article, “Grace and Truth in Difficult Conversations.”

Remember, the goal in having a difficult conversation with someone is the preservation of that relationship and resolution of the conflict.

But what if the other person is unyielding, stubborn, unwilling to listen and work toward resolution? What then?

Let it go. Release it. You did your part. You obeyed the Lord, who calls you to “live at peace with everyone” and to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Psalm 133:1, Romans 12:18, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Ephesians 4:3). You tried, in good faith; but ultimately you cannot control the heart and response of the other person. You can only control the fact that you initiated the attempt, and that you approached them in a God-honoring, Christlike manner.

In that sense, you are released.

“The awesome beauty and terrifying truth of hard conversations is that even if the outcome isn’t what you had hoped, [the conversation] still has the power to set at least one of the participants free,” writes Lori Stanley Roeleveld in her book, The Art of Hard Conversations: Biblical Tools for the Tough Talks That Matter.

It’s understandable to want to avoid having difficult conversations, but don’t. The rewards (reconciliation, peace, unity) of having them far, far outweigh the consequences (anger, bitterness, grudges) of not having them.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/fizkes 

denise kohlmeyer crosswalk authorDenise is a former newspaper reporter and current freelance writer. She has been published in numerous online and print publications. She is also a former Women's Bible Study teacher. Denise's passion is to use her writing to bless, encourage, and inform others. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children (another has grown and flown). You can find Denise at denisekohlmeyer.com.

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