How Should You Approach a Difficult Conversation?

In this series a handful of GodWork 360 participants explore a variety of difficult scenarios often faced at work and the ways in which they approach solving them.

Donovan Richards

Difficult conversations happen. It’s part of our work, no matter our context. Whether you are close friends with your colleagues or the relationship is professional and no more, conflict inevitably arises. While the source of such conflict varies greatly depending on circumstances, Christians in the work force have an opportunity to bring redemption and growth to such scenarios.

In fact, conflict can be a good thing. Recent research has found that teams who engage with and work through conflict outperform teams that curb such tension. In these tests, research teams gave groups of people the same problem, telling one team to avoid conflict at all costs and the other to solve the problem under any means necessary. This second group often faced conflict as team members presented various scenarios. These teams facing conflict outperformed the non-conflict teams by 20%.

And yet, conflict for the sake of conflict should never be the end goal of a Christian. To what end is conflict permissible? Outside of the business world, Christians engage in accountability groups with the expectation that iron-sharpening-iron approaches create stronger, sharper Christians. Why not, then, should a similar approach with similar straightforward talk occur in the business world?

When it comes to difficult conversations, I always approach the conversation with a handful of objectives:

  1. There’s something I can learn from the conversation
  2. The conversation needs to have purpose. I believe in the other person and want the best for them. If I am struggling with this belief, the conversation may turn sour quickly. It’s not worth approaching a difficult conversation until I can check this box.
  3. I need to be prepared for the possibility that I am wrong. When conflict arises and difficult conversations occur, I need to have the humility to know that I might be the source of conflict and difficulty and that the changes from the conversation may need to happen on my end.

How about you, Scott? How do you approach difficult conversations?

Scott Greenlaw

No one enjoys having a difficult conversation. Much thought and prayer should go into the process.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

Rehearse if time permits. Rehearsing in your mind and trying to anticipate how the conversation may go is often helpful. It is also helpful to put the details of the situation in writing. Include what you wish both parties to achieve. This gives you an opportunity to consider all views and possible outcomes of the issue. Taking the time to properly prepare for any important conversation yields better results.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)

Don’t team up. If there is an issue that needs to be addressed, resist the temptation to strengthen your position by including others. If the issue is so serious that you need to bring others into the discussion, make sure they are present.
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

Choose the right time and place. Don’t hold the conversation when the other person is upset or angry. Respect the other person’s privacy by minimizing the chance that you may be overheard. Whenever possible, have these conversations face-to-face.
Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Display empathy. Try to understand the point of view as well the emotional state of the other person. Ask questions to learn their perspective. Understanding the other person’s position helps you make better decisions on how to address the issue. When you show genuine interest in understanding the other person’s side of the story, you are more effective in resolving the matter.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Identify your role in the problem. How have you contributed to the issue? Different perceptions of intent, interpretations of the facts, and judgment about what is right or best are usually at the root of all difficult conversations. When you begin with this in mind, you will not be surprised when these root issues arise.
Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are members of one body. (Ephesians 4:25)

Stay in control. If you express anger, it is natural for the other person to respond accordingly to match your emotional state. Do whatever it takes to remain calm. Silence, pausing and even nodding are all effective in keeping the conversation calm.
A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back. (Proverbs 29:11)

Don’t interrupt. When the other person is speaking, never interrupt. Show the other person the respect you want to be shown when you are talking. Don’t appear like you are anxious to respond. People who can’t wait to speak generally aren’t listening because they are so focused on what they want to say.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

Sebastian, do you have a preferred approach?

Sebastian Mathews

I love your answer, Scott; it’s exemplary. Amazing how you tie it to Scripture.

My personal approach to difficult conversations has traditionally been one of complete avoidance, which ties in to my phlegmatic personality.

From my experience, only the two task-oriented cholerics (who strangely love difficult conversations) and melancholics (who zoom in on details and grudgingly engage in difficult conversations because without them, the details simply will not get resolved) tend to have valuable insights.

The relationally oriented personalities, that is, phlegmatics like me (who pointedly ignore difficult conversations because of the potential for even the minutest disagreement) and sanguines (who happily gloss over them in the interests of joy and world peace) probably won’t have many personal insights other than what they have learned and applied over the years from the other two personalities.

I personally believe that Jesus meets us where we are. If, like me, there are personalities that focus on relationship building within the corporate or church environment, then difficult conversations can detract from that core mission if handled poorly. In those instances, best to leave it to Jesus to handle, in which case either He miraculously resolves it or hands it to the task oriented personalities to fix.

So in the case of difficult conversations for conflict avoidant personalities, either I work at resolving it and He rests or He works at it and I rest. Better He works and I rest!

A slightly different twist when it comes to marriage because scripturally and therefore in reality, a husband and wife are a single unit, a merged entity from God’s perspective. Plus happy wife = happy life. So difficult conversations are important but they should be done either when holding each others hands and looking at the problem outwardly together (i.e., the problem is external to the relationship and therefore not with each other).

I am interested, Donovan, in hearing what sort of results you had with your approach to difficult conversations.

Donovan Richards

I see some of myself in your personality breakdown, Sebastian. I think I am likely the detailed-focused personality that engages in difficult conversations not for enjoyment, but to learn.

These conversations are never fun, but they are 100% worth it. At the end of the day, my motivations include purpose and mastery. I want to know that what I am doing makes a difference for those around me and I want to be good at what I do. If I am stumbling, I want to know. Likewise, the sources of conflict often occur when people don’t realize how their actions influence those around them. Changes as simple as writing a quick email confirmation to a co-worker can create efficiency and productivity for that person.

Or to the more mundane, recycling that soda can instead of keeping it on the counter to recycle later adds that level of care to a work relationship.

When you enter these conversations wanting the best for the other person, you find the conversations more profitable and the work goes better!

How about you, Scott. What results have you seen?

Scott Greenlaw

Reach out to the person again within a day or two. It keeps the conversation in perspective and shows you are ready to move on. Having the difficult conversation should improve communications allowing you to move in the power of the Holy Spirit, healing the situation and strengthening the relationship.
And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)

Photo credit: Cole Hutson

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