Talking through Conflict- How to Have Crucial Conversations that Lead to Lasting Change
“We need to talk.”
Have any four words ever caused as much anxiety as that tiny phrase? The conversation that follows that phrase is usually something serious, and whether it’s an email from your boss, a phone call from a church member, a text message from your child, or a late night conversation with your spouse, the “fight or flight” response that kicks in after those four words is almost immediate. As someone who is typically “conflict-averse,” my immediate response is usually to think, “No we don’t!”
But not every conversation is a “crucial” one. Some are just standard, ordinary conversations about schedules and budgets and the minutiae of the day to day. So what moves a conversation from an “ordinary” one to a “crucial” one? And why should we work through the crucial ones? Wouldn’t life be easier if we just avoided conflict and dodged difficult discussions?
What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate
On the most recent episode of the Replant Bootcamp Podcast, JimBob2 worked through this very issue, using the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High by Joseph Greeny, Ron McMillian, Kerry Patterson, and Al Switzler as a guide.
In short, a crucial conversation is one in which 1) stakes are high, 2) opinions vary, and 3) emotions run strong. This isn’t a conversation about which episode of “The Office” is the best, or which movie to watch– this is a discussion with real consequences. Sometimes, you can prepare for these. You plan to meet and discuss the topic with the other person. But many times these conversations come up unexpectedly and we’re caught off guard.
Crucial conversations can be really hard to navigate for three reasons:
- We don’t have a plan in place to handle them. When we are confronted with one, our instinct is to react negatively, whether that is to shut down or to lash out.
- We have a tendency to look at the “inciting incident” that precedes the conversation and forget about the past. If someone said, “Erin didn’t get the snacks for our small group tonight like she was supposed to. She’s irresponsible,” you might immediately agree. But if you look at my past history, you would see that I am not usually forgetful and you might find that there was a budget issue or another reason that I didn’t get them. Thinking about the person as a whole and not just the inciting event can sometimes uncover ministry opportunities instead of a negative confrontation.
- We look at the symptom and not the root cause. If my husband and I are having some “intense fellowship” regarding our budget, we might be tempted to look at our most recent purchase and blame each other for whatever has placed our account in a tenuous status. But that’s just a symptom. Overall, the budget may need to be adjusted for many reasons out of our control, like inflation or unexpected, large expenses. If we focus on the symptom, it becomes too easy to lay blame and not actually work to resolve the issue.
We Don’t Talk About Bruno
The animated musical Encanto was released in late 2021. One of the songs became an immediate hit, spawning many of us (adults and kids alike) to mindlessly hum and sing, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” everywhere we went. (I found myself humming it in Target and the lady next to me joined in. We had a concert for a full minute. It was awesome.) In the movie, the family avoided talking about their family member, Bruno, because he was a difficult subject for them.
Many of us can relate. “We don’t talk about Hymnals,” or “We don’t talk about Budgets” could be the next big hit at our churches. We don’t want to enter into difficult conversations because the confrontation it will bring feels like it just isn’t worth it. But while crucial conversations are crucial, they don’t have to be catastrophic.
When we are faced with a crucial conversation, we must keep the end in mind. What I mean is, when the stakes are high, opinions are conflicting, and emotions are strong, we must remember Romans 12, especially verse 18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Our end goal should not be to “win,” whatever that looks like. Our goal is to move forward from the conversation in peace, toward a productive and helpful outcome for all parties involved, regardless of who the conversation involves. I’ve had crucial conversations with my kids where I knew they wouldn’t like the outcome, but moving away from the conflict and toward resolution kept me from damaging our relationship.
One mistake we often make in crucial conversations is what the book calls the “Fool’s Choice.” We tend to think the end result has to be “either/or.” In other words, I either can solve this problem or we can be friends, but I can’t do both. Not only is this thinking foolish, there is no freedom in it.. The quickest way to de-escalate the tension of a crucial conversation is to state your motive at the beginning. Realize that the end result is that you still want to live peaceably with this person and to love this person as a brother or sister in Christ. “Either you get on board or we can’t have a relationship,” sounds much different than, “I want us to be on the same page so that we can continue to be friends and co-laborers for Christ.”
So how do we transition our response to crucial conversations from our natural instinct (fight or flight) to a more peaceful and helpful outcome? We have to take a moment of self-evaluation and ask ourselves some questions:
- What is taking place inside of me at this moment? Is this triggering something in me? Look at your body’s response– are you feeling hotter, is your voice rising, are you crossing your arms and getting into a defensive position?
- Why am I feeling this way? Is there something in this conversation that is causing me to feel defensive and angry?
- What story am I telling myself right now? Is this really an attack on me or is that just my emotional response? What are they actually saying and what do I think I’m hearing?
This might require you to take a quick break from the conversation. Even a quick break of 15 minutes could give you time to self-evaluate and see what you need to do to move forward with a better frame of mind. If there is time, you might have someone else (outside of the conflict) pray with you. If a quick break isn’t an option, try to relax your face and your breathing by quickly counting to ten. One of my worst character traits is that my face shows everything I am thinking, even if my words don’t. I often remind myself to smile or to open my eyes a bit wider or relax my jaw in tense moments, because otherwise I can offend someone without saying a word.
The Problem with Heroes and Villains
I have a spoiler alert for you: You’re not the hero of your story… But you aren’t the victim, either. When we are in a crucial conversation, we often resort to thinking of ourselves in two lights: Either we are the hero of this story and we must be strong and take control, or we are the victim and everyone else is a villain out to get us.
The truth is, Jesus is the hero. When we lean on Him to walk us toward productive and peaceful resolutions, we aren’t scared to ask for advice, or to think of criticism as instructive. Who we are isn’t based on our ability. We have a hero, and we don’t have to do this on our own. He is in that conversation with us, and He can speak through us.
We also aren’t always victims dealing with a villain. There are certainly times when there is one person who seems to make it their life’s mission to find fault with you. But just because that happened with that specific person, doesn’t mean it’s happening again with another person. We have to look at that story we’ve told ourselves and realize that our enemy isn’t flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12).
The next time you are faced with a crucial conversation, I invite you to take some time to reflect on your role in the story you tell yourself. Remember, a crucial conversation is an opportunity for Christ to be at work among you!