You pull into a restaurant parking lot to meet a friend for lunch. You’re about to discuss why he and his family are considering leaving the church.
You are preparing for tonight’s elder meeting regarding the direction of the expansion project. It’s a meeting poised to be tense and divisive.
You are about to ask a key volunteer to step down. Her immaturity is hurting the rest of the team.
You’re responding to an email of a long-time member who expressed deep disappointment because he “isn’t being fed anymore.”
These interactions can make your heart pump hard and fast, put a knot in the stomach, and send you to a restless night’s sleep. They are crucial conversations, and they occur with excruciating frequency in ministry.
I’ve entered these situations dozens of times feeling ill-equipped and unsure. I’ve often walked out of these meetings kicking myself, wondering why I said this or didn’t say that. As important as they are, crucial conversations cause those of us in ministry angst, pain, and emotional drain.
The term crucial conversations was coined by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. A conversation becomes crucial when four things occur:
- opinions vary
- stakes are high
- emotions run strong
- results could have a huge impact on your quality of life (especially if the results are not negotiated appropriately)
Sometimes crucial conversations are scheduled. Other times they show up at your door unannounced. Regardless, the stakes in these discussions are always high.
Several years ago, a husband contacted me and asked if I could get together with him and his wife for dinner. I could tell this was not going to be a “fun dinner”—they were seriously considering leaving the church.
When we connected, I listened to their reasons. Their explanation left me frustrated. Over dinner, I drilled them with questions, trying to poke holes in their logic and convince them not to leave. My questions were aggressive, intense, and seemingly unending. At times I included little back-handed jabs at their responses. I was in full prosecution attorney mode in that restaurant booth.
I’m not sure if I thought I could change their minds or if I just needed to get some things off my chest. Either way, I handled that crucial conversation poorly. If there was any chance they would remain at the church before the conversation, I eliminated that chance by the end of our meeting. I wish I could go back and handle it differently.
How can you navigate emotionally charged and consequential conversations better than I did? And how can you equip your people to handle these sticky situations in ways that honor Christ and others? Here are a few ideas.
First, reflect upon your own personality and how you tend to handle crucial conversations. When conversations become emotionally charged and feel unsafe, how do you respond? Most people react in one of two ways when they feel threatened: fight or flight. We either clam up (silence) or we lash out (violence).
If we respond in silence, we tend to mask, avoid, and withdraw. If we respond in violence, we seek to control, label, and attack. When you’re engaged in a crucial conversation, are you more likely to shy away from conflict, or are you combative, never backing down from a fight? By identifying your basic patterns of response, you will be able to readjust when you feel those gut reactions kicking in and turn crucial conversations from battles into opportunities.
Examine Your Church
Second, as you reflect upon your own personality, also consider the personality of your church. Is your community direct and blunt, or is it a sweep-it-under-the-rug kind of church? In the region where I’ve pastored, many churches are conflict averse. These churches struggle with an “elephant in the sanctuary” complex—everyone knows there are significant issues, but nobody has the courage to address them. These highly anxious congregations look the other way when uncomfortable issues present themselves, “work around” difficult staff or lay leaders, and wait to make final decisions until a unanimous consensus is reached—which, as church leaders know, hardly ever happens. Once you are aware of your ministry context, you can decide how to address difficult conversations and equip others to do so as well.
Notice Your Emotional and Physiological Reactions
Often our bodies tell us when we’re about to enter a crucial conversation. Sometimes this reveals itself through sweaty armpits, clammy hands, dry mouth, or increased heartrate. When I notice my hands getting cold and my mouth getting dry, my body is telling me, “Be wise and be aware—you’ve just entered a crucial conversation. Handle it with care.” Stay in tune with your body to avoid getting overwhelmed or blindsided.
Ask Yourself Questions
Leaders who handle crucial conversations well ask themselves four key questions:
- What do I want for myself?
- What do I want for others?
- What do I want for this conversation?
- How should I behave to achieve these results?
A friend of mine calls this “getting up on the balcony of our lives.” If we can climb the stairs of our head, heart, and soul to look out over the situation from above, we will be more likely to speak, feel, and act in ways that nurture a grace-and-truth reality.
This new perspective will help you identify the type of crucial conversation you’re having. Does this conversation hinge on unaddressed sin? Is it about a mistake or failure that occurred—and was that failure intentional or unintentional? Is this a Matthew 18 situation or is this an opportunity to “bear one another’s burdens” through a complicated situation? You can also discover potential roadblocks that might keep you from getting to the core of the problem. Do the two of you have a difference of theology? Is there conflict due to a differing opinion, approach, or philosophy of ministry? Answers to these questions must be found as soon as possible, as they will determine your approach and posture moving forward.
Make It Safe
The number-one conversation stopper is lack of safety. Everyone asks two fundamental questions when they have crucial conversations: Is the other person safe? And is this conversation safe? One of the pastors I coach wondered why nobody in his church offered him feedback about the mission and direction of his church, even when he specifically invited people to share. The pastor believed they were apathetic, too busy, or introverted. But as we explored the issue further, he realized the problem wasn’t them—it was him. His dominating personality, frequent sarcastic side comments, and tendency to take over conversations had created an environment where nobody felt comfortable sharing their true thoughts and opinions. He had been leading in a culture saturated with fear.
After spending months thinking about how people perceived him, he began the difficult work of making changes. When he walked into rooms, he asked himself, “Is this place safe for my people?” He eliminated the sarcasm, listened more, and made a point to “catch people doing things right” and celebrate them. And the congregation noticed. People opened up and provided feedback. They approached him with new ideas. When they shared honestly, the pastor expressed his gratitude.
Nothing kills the flow of conversation quicker than fear. If a conversation isn’t safe, feedback can’t be given or received. But when it is safe, you can say almost anything. One of the best ways I’ve found to begin a crucial conversation with a foundation of safety is to start a sentence with, “Help me understand …”
Be clear about what the conversation is not about before addressing what the conversation is about. I’ve found this to be especially helpful in pastoral counseling situations and when confronting people about significant issues. Bring clarity to charged situations and diffuse high emotions by addressing the issue without attacking the person. People are much more willing to discuss a problem if they understand that the conversation is not a personal attack.
Take Stock of the Stories You Tell Yourself
In every crucial conversation, we tell ourselves stories—about the situation, about others, and about ourselves. We don’t always realize we’re doing it. Normally they come out in three ways: victim stories (“It’s not my fault”), villain stories (“It’s all your fault”), or helpless stories (“There’s nothing I can do about it”). If we don’t take control of our stories, our stories will take control of us.
Communicate the Facts
In hard conversations, facts are less controversial and more persuasive. Share facts or ask people to clarify their position with facts. Because these conversations are often filled with emotion, facts can calm the situation.
Seek Unity (Even If That Means Agreeing to Disagree)
Jesus’ prayer for his followers in John 17 should be at the front of our minds when we engage in difficult conversations with church members. In many crucial conversations, when we’ve been unable to reach agreement—even after a few hours of discussion—I’ve had to remind others (and myself) that they are my brother or sister. We are family. We can’t change that. So we must learn to navigate this and, by God’s grace, love each other well. I usually ask the direct question, “How might we live as brothers/sisters moving forward?”
Biblical community is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of Jesus in the midst of conflict. Because of this, we must learn to disagree without disengaging. This is where meaningful growth, vulnerability, maturity, and formation happens. If we avoid potentially painful discussions in favor of silence, we risk missing out, but when we submit to the Holy Spirit and play our part in these crucial conversations, we honor God and others.
J. R. Briggs is the founder of Kairos Partnerships. He served for 10 years as pastor of The Renew Community in the greater Philadelphia area.