Ten Commandments for Difficult Conversations

Michael Zigarelli

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Copyright 2009 by Chrsitianity9to5.org

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 hard 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 “ten 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 them out today. See for yourself.


I. Pray for Peace and for Progress

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

God is the agent of change; we are not. But we tend to run ahead of God in our conflicts. We go charging into a difficult conversation with our reasons and arguments, as well as our trepidation and defensiveness. Is it any wonder that our efforts fall flat? Is it any wonder that in the emotion of the moment, what we say is hardly convincing? Is it any wonder that the problem often escalates rather than abates?

Instead, before you ever say a word, sincerely invite God to mediate the conflict and to moderate your emotions. Pray for progress and pray for inner peace, and if possible, try to avoid the conversation until you’ve received that peace. Pray also as sincerely as you can for the other person, asking to understand the situation from his or her point of view.

Then, during the conversation, stay tethered to God for gentleness and guidance. Remember, without 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 man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding 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 one another, the 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 we know what the other person is up to””what’s his or her motivation is. Scripture says as much, using the metaphor “deep waters” – in the original Hebrew, something “unfathomable” – to describe why some people do what they do. Rather than guessing 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 with those both outside or inside the church (Galatians 2:11; Acts 13, 15, 17, 22 and plenty of other places). 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 cancer.


IV. Deal with the Problem Privately

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. Matthew 18:15

There are many temptations to have a difficult conversation publicly. Perhaps that’s where it started and we want to respond now. Perhaps the public approach sends a message to several others in earshot that we have a problem. Perhaps it’s simple reciprocity–they embarrassed us in public so we’ll repay that in kind. Whether it’s face-to-face or in a public email or on a web site that all can see, the availability of public retribution may be greater than ever.

Jesus taught us to do it the other way. Close your mouth, take a breath, slowly step away 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

These next three recommendations apply to the conversation itself. But pursue them from the inside out, since they begin with the exceptional character qualities of patience, humility and self-control.

The first is basically this: 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.

That’s in fact a rare and refreshing attribute. Being able to listen 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, too.


VI. Tame Your Tongue

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

Think back. Do you remember any hurtful words spoken to you? Words that wounded or even devastated you? Many people can quickly and clearly recall those moments, even years after the verbal assault. And those words still hurt.

Just as a deep cut leaves a permanent scar, our cutting words also leave a mark. Your little tongue has a lot of power–the power to “pierce” as well as the power to “heal.” It’s often better to bite it before it bites someone else. Gently use your words to build people up, rather than to tear them down.


VII. Ignore Petty Insults

A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. Proverbs 12:16

It’s going to happen. It happens regularly. In the midst of the difficult conversation, the other person offends you with a harsh word, or maybe just a look, a tone, or an unfair reference to some past wrong. You have a split second decision to make: 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 before the conversation ever occurs. Expect the petty insult and prepare for it. Anticipate it ahead of time and pray to respond properly. Then, when it comes, you’ll be in a better position to simply “overlook” it, as the proverb counsels.

Remember that it’s an unwise person who “shows his annoyance at once.” Don’t fall into the escalation trap. You’re better than that.


VIII. Seek a Win-Win Solution

Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4

Here’s a secret of success known by 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 ambassador-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.

The hallmark of a Christian is care. When we care enough about the other person to put their concerns on par with our own, it’s simply 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. In a “fight for your rights” world, this is surely counter-cultural, but so is authentic Christianity. If we remain mindful of how much we’ve been forgiven by God, forgiving our brothers and sisters will flow more naturally. Need a poignant reminder? Refresh your memory of Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35). He’s talking to us.

Never forget that Jesus wiped our slate clean. We imitate and honor Him when we 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 is among the hardest things to do. When we’re close to Him, it’s surprisingly easy, even automatic.

Our behavior is not dependent on theirs. They don’t control our reaction to conflict, insult, or injustice; we do. So consider repaying evil with good. Do something nice for them even though they don’t deserve it. Scripture suggests that this one baffling response, more than anything else, may stimulate their reconsideration (e.g., Proverbs 25:21-22)

Try it, even just this one time. Do something unexpected. Trust God’s way 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.