Ten Commandments for Difficult Conversations

Michael Zigarelli

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Chances are, if the title of this article caught your eye, you need to have a “difficult conversation” with someone. Whether the problem is at home or at work or in your extended family or with a neighbor or wherever, you’ll probably get the most out of this article if you read it while keeping that challenging situation in mind.

Select a particularly tough problem, perhaps a longstanding one that you may have even dismissed as hopeless. You might be surprised at the breakthrough ideas you receive.

I can say that with some confidence, not because of who’s writing this but because each of these “10 commandments for difficult conversations” comes directly from scripture. Each is a timeless truth — some of which we might already know, but that we still neglect. Test out some of them today. See for yourself.

I. Pray for Peace and for Progress

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6

Even people of faith tend to run ahead of God in our conflicts. We go charging into a difficult conversation with our airtight case — our logic, our reasoning, our irrefutable evidence — as well as with our anger, our fear, our defensiveness. But the common thread is “our.” Is it any wonder that those efforts so often fall flat? Or that the problem escalates rather than abates?

Try this instead. Before you ever say a word, sincerely invite God to mediate the conflict and moderate your emotions. Make it a deep and deliberate prayer, not just a last minute request. Pray for wisdom, pray for progress; maybe most of all, pray for inner peace. And if possible, avoid the conversation altogether until you’ve received that peace.

A bonus tip, if you’re really serious about fixing this: Pray also for the other person, asking to understand the situation from his or her point of view. Then, during the conversation, stay mindful of God. Remember, without ongoing prayer we’re basically on our own (which may explain how things got so bad in the first place).

II. Don’t Assume Their Motivation

The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out. Proverbs 20:5

There’s an old story of two women who were quarreling over an orange. Eventually, they decided to split it. Later, having retired to different rooms to get away from each other, one ate her fruit and discarded the peel while the other used her peel for cooking and discarded the fruit.

It’s precarious to assume the other person’s motivation. Scripture says as much, using the metaphor “deep waters” — in the original Hebrew, something “unfathomable” — to describe why people do what they do. Rather than assuming their motivation and settling for half the orange, in humility take the time to “draw out” their real concerns.

III. Deal with the Problem Quickly

Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Ephesians 4:26

This longstanding advice comes from the Apostle Paul himself, no stranger to conflict both inside and outside religious circles (Galatians 2:11; Acts 13, 15, 17, 22). Paul’s counsel comes from a man who’s been there.

But most of us have been there too, sidestepping a difficult but necessary conversation just to keep the peace. That’s usually a bad approach since in the long run, it can do just the opposite.

Don’t let it just sit there. Conflicts are not like wine; they don’t improve with age. Most of the time, they’re like untreated cancer.

IV. Deal with the Problem Privately

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. Matthew 18:15

It’s tempting to have that difficult conversation publicly. Perhaps that’s where it started and we want to respond now. Perhaps the public approach is a cry for help to others in earshot. Or perhaps it’s simple retribution — they embarrassed us in public so we’ll repay that in kind.

Whether it’s on social media or in a reply-to-all email or face-to-face, airing complaints publicly may be happening more than ever. Jesus taught us to do it the other way, though. Close your mouth and back away slowly from the crowd and the keyboard. Whenever possible, find a private place to talk things out, “just between the two of you.”

V. Listen Before Answering

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. James 1:19

Here’s a novel idea, at least for some people: Let the other side speak first. Listen closely and learn what you can about their perspective, humbly considering that there may be some validity to it after all.

Sounds easy. And tactical. It’s neither.

Rather, it’s a rare attribute that flows from the inside out. What I mean is that listening earnestly and empathetically to a disagreeable point of view is an outward expression of an inward reality — the reality of godly grace in the listener’s heart. What typically follows is what we wanted all along: the other person will listen to us.

VI. Tame Your Tongue

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

Think back. Do you remember any hurtful words directed at you? Words that wounded you? Many people, maybe most of us, can quickly and clearly recall those moments, even years after the assault. And those words still hurt.

Just as a deep cut leaves a permanent scar, our cutting words also leave a mark. As the proverb says, your little tongue has a lot of power — the power to “pierce” or to “heal.” Bite it before it bites someone else.

VII. Ignore Petty Insults

Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult. Proverbs 12:16

You know it’s going to happen. It happens regularly. In the midst of the difficult conversation, you’re offended by a harsh word, or maybe it’s just a look, a tone, a head shake, that inevitable eye roll.

This is a pivotal moment in the conversation. Do you disrespect them back or disregard the insult? An-eye-for-an-eye or a turned cheek? Fight it or forget it?

The best response actually begins long before the conversation. Anticipate the petty insult and prepare for it. Expect it ahead of time — even visualize and mentally rehearse the moment, along with a “prudent” response. Then, when that moment comes, you’ll be in a better position to “overlook” it, as the proverb suggests.

Remember, it’s the unwise person who “shows their annoyance at once.” Don’t fall into the escalation trap.

VIII. Seek a Win-Win Solution

Everyone should look out not only for not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:4 (HCSB)

Here’s a pro tip from every skilled negotiator and diplomat: The other side will agree when their “interests” are met — when their needs are satisfied, when their fears are assuaged, when they can walk away having saved face and gained something of real value.

So will we. In negotiator-speak, that’s called finding a win-win solution. In scripture-speak, that’s called looking out for our interests as well as the interests of others. And in any language, that’s the path of wisdom. People tend to move in our direction when we move in theirs.

Notice, this is theology, not just psychology. The hallmark of a Christian is care. And when we care enough about the other person to put their concerns on par with our own, it’s a good representation of Jesus — and often good riddance to the problem.

IX. Try Forgiveness

Forgive and you will be forgiven. Luke 6:37

To forgive essentially means to wipe their slate clean, to restore the relationship back to its original state. Hard as that seems, everything changes when we remain mindful of how much we’ve been forgiven by God. It empowers us to pay that forward.

Need a poignant reminder? Refresh yourself on Jesus’ “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” in Matthew 18. He’s talking to us.

Never forget that Jesus wiped our slate clean. In that context, and perhaps only in that context, it’s possible to do likewise for others.

X. Repay Evil with Good

Bless those who persecute you … overcome evil with good. Romans 12:14, 21

When we’re far from God, this idea is enigmatic. When we’re close to God, it’s automatic.

Your behavior is not dependent on theirs. Why not instead do something almost no one else does? Repay evil with good. Give them the opposite of what they deserve.

Again, it’s not tactical; it’s scriptural. In fact, this baffling response, more than anything else, may stimulate their reconsideration (Romans 12:20, citing Proverbs 25:21-22). Jesus had a few things to say about it as well, like giving someone your coat after they take your shirt (Matthew 5:40).

Experiment with it, even just this one time. Do something unexpected … undeserved … as it was done for you 2,000 years ago. Trust God’s way in this difficult conversation, and see what He does with that.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of the Christianity9to5.org.