How To Start That Difficult Conversation


No doubt you’ve been there – thinking you need to address an issue in a relationship with a spouse, a child, a friend, or a boss. You have been putting it off for as long as you can. Peace is what you really want, but you can’t find it. Your only options are to bury the problem and move on or bring it up for discussion. The first idea seems the easiest, but only in the short run. You know eventually it will surface again, and when it does, it will only make matters worse. You hate to admit it but talking about it is what needs to happen.

The problem? Starting that difficult conversation is not something you look forward to. It will be quite uncomfortable, and you fear it will lead to great tension if not conflict. What can you do? Is there a way to start the conversation that is better than others? The answer is YES! Absolutely!

Here are 5 ideas to consider:

First, what other people feel is very important.

Some people don’t seem to consider what others might feel when bringing up a concern. They just want to get matters out on the table. They either don’t understand the importance of valuing what others feel, or they are simply unaware of the emotional side of life. There are a couple of problems with this: whereas one person may not have a value for feelings, others might be the complete opposite. To love well, we must take others into consideration more than ourselves.

The second problem with this is that the Bible has a high value for the emotional side of life. We were made in God’s image to be like Him in many aspects, one of those being that He feels. We see throughout the Bible that God as Father and Jesus experienced all kinds of emotions: anger (Mark 3:5), compassion (Matthew 9:36), grief (John 11:35), joy (Hebrews 1:9), stress (Luke 22:44), forsaken (Matthew 27:46). If God feels, and made us to feel, it stands to reason that emotions are an important part of who we are and not to be dismissed. This leads to the next consideration about starting that difficult conversation.

Second, HOW you bring something up is critical.

Think of how you would like someone to bring up a difficult topic with you. Would you like them to dump it on you, yell at you with a pointed finger, or talk civilly with you? Would you like them to email or text something to you ahead of time about wanting to talk about a concern or just spring it on you? Whether you are conscious of it or not, you appreciate how people speak to you about their frustrations. Now put yourself in the shoes of the person you are going to speak to. How do you think THEY would like you to begin the conversation? You can be sure it will matter to them just like it does you.

Thirdly, don’t assume you know their response.

You probably have in your mind a picture of how the other will respond. Most of us do. Sometimes it is correct. Other times it is not. Assuming that we know often keeps us from having the conversation in the first place. We might think for instance that we “know” they won’t listen so why bring it up. Assuming we know their response can also put us be on the defensive which all but guarantees the conversation won’t go well. If we give proper thought of how to start the conversation in the first place, it might go quite differently than we fear.

Fourthly, talk about what you felt when an event occurred, NOT how the other person “made you feel!”

The latter is experienced as attacking and will almost surely put the other person on the defensive. It is very easy for someone to come back and argue, “I didn’t cause that. I didn’t make you feel that way.” Far better to say, “here’s what I felt or what happened inside me when ___________ happened.” And then get quiet.

No one can legitimately tell you how a certain event did or did not affect you or make you feel. Starting the conversation this way, and getting quiet after you make your opening statement demonstrates that you are not here to fight but to talk about what happened. It is a huge difference!

Fifthly, at the risk of sounding spiritually cliche, pray.

This is for the person who claims to believe. But what do we pray–for the outcome to go our way? That might be our tendency. Far better to ask God to open all of our eyes to what is true and right in the discussion. No doubt there are things both parties need to see and learn.

When people genuinely pray, it greatly enhances the likelihood of a better outcome. The Bible makes it clear that there is a battle being waged around us and that prayer (Ephesians 6: 18) is one of our primary weapons.

Prayer also has a way of molding us into the best posture for talking: a position of humility (none of us have it all figured out), patience (we are all in process and need grace from each other), and kindness (a way of acting towards others that not only demonstrates that others have value, but models a way of peace).

So the next time you are going to begin a difficult conversation, remember:

  1. What others feel is important.
  2. HOW you bring up a concern is critical.
  3. Don’t assume you know their response.
  4. Talk about what you felt when an event occurred, NOT how the other person “made you feel!”
  5. Pray

What am I missing? I’d love to hear your comments below!

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