Difficult Conversations

If you lead a mentoring program for any period of time, you will have some difficult conversations. No one likes conflict, but if we are going to work with people on behalf of people, we will need to have difficult conversations from time to time. While it may be tempting to avoid these conversations, healthy leaders choose to deal with conflict as it arises, knowing that conflict, like disease, worsens over time. Here are some clues to handling conflict in a positive way.

First, avoid texting when dealing with conflict. Texting is a good tool for positive feedback but is not good for hard conversations. Because texting is both written and fast, it usually compounds the problem. Written dialogue lacks the verbal and facial cues needed for good communication. A speedy response to a difficult, and often complicated issue, rarely leads to good outcomes.

Second, read and remember before replying. Remind yourself what the Bible says about conflict in Matthew 18:15-17. Remind yourself about Christ’s patience with people who opposed him. Pray and ask the Lord to remind you how He sees this person with whom you are struggling. Once you have his loving perspective, you will be able to approach this person properly. Remember, the person is not the problem. The issue raised can actually lead to positive dialogue needed for growth together.

Third, listen before you speak. When you begin the conversation, begin it with a question. The word “dialogue” comes from two Greek words: dia (through) and logos (word). Good dialogue requires you to allow the words of the other person to flow through you before you respond. Try to listen without forming a response. Remember, there is no hurry. You may need to have a listening session and then schedule another meeting to express your opinion. Once you are clear on what the other person’s motives, hopes, and struggles are, you will be able to respond with kindness and respect. (See Douglas Stone’s chapter on Listening Sessions in his excellent work entitled Difficult Conversations.)

Fourth, realize that conflict has multiple levels.[1] The first level is the “What” level. This level asks, “What is the real issue here?” or “What are the facts?” The second level is the “Emotional” level. This addresses how the conflict makes me feel. Does this make me angry, sad, frustrated? The third level is the “Identity” level. This addresses how the conflict impacts my sense of identity. Does this make me feel worthless, used, overlooked? We often try to deal with the “what” level without addressing the other two levels – and that is always a bad idea. More often than not, the “what” issue is not really the issue. The problem behind the problem is that this conflict triggers emotions and identity sensors in both the one causing the conflict and the one responding to it. We should pay attention to these triggers in both parties as we address the conflict. Good questions and good listening help to identify them.

Finally, once you have worked through conflict with someone, don’t forget to check in with them from time to time to make sure that all is well. On the rare occasion that conflict persists, a third-party can be brought in to help the two of you work it out over time. Remember, conflict is inevitable when we work with people. The real question is: “Will we work through conflict well or poorly?”

-Ken Merrifield


[1] Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations, Kindle version location 430.

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