How important are conversations? Here’s one claim: “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations–ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well.” That’s what the research of Kerry Patterson et al. suggests. You can read about their research in the very helpful book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, (Chicago: McGraw Hill, 2012).
Think about your own life. It’s ironic how many of us have things in our families, workplace, and relationships that we feel are off limits for conversation. How long would your list of conversations be that you would like to have but feel that you can’t?
Looking at our broader society, there is more talk than ever before, but so much of it is tribal, just talking to people with whom we agree. When it comes to talking one-on-one with people on the other side of the political or ecclesiastical or familial aisle, there is much less talk. These are conversations we’re not having.
One interesting thing about the Bible is that it has a very different perspective on conversations. If we have a problem with someone, we should talk to them. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). This doesn’t mean we’re just letting off steam. It tells us everywhere in Scripture that we should do this in the right way: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Gal. 6:1).
If we should talk to people directly about even moral failings, how much more in matters of wisdom or strategy or finances or political views? We should be able to talk about these things openly and reasonably.
But that’s not what most of us do. Instead, we use what I call the best way not to help our relationships: gossip. Gossip is talking about difficulties you have others to someone other than that person. According to Merriam-Webster, a gossip is “a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others.”
Why is gossip the best way not to deal with things? Because it feels good to gossip. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.” Gossip is like McDonald’s French Fries.
Why does it feel good? It builds a sort of intimacy with the person with whom you share the gossip. We like that feeling. It also provides some relief. When you are struggling with a difficult relationship, it feels good to let off steam. It also gets the focus off our own issues.
So, if it feels so good, why not do it?
- It doesn’t solve anything. Letting off steam freezes an issue in place by relieving the pressure without doing anything to make it better.
- People feel betrayed. How do you feel when you find out that two of your best friends are talking about the problems they have with you? The Proverbs tell us: “a gossip separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).
- It’s generally unjust. The Proverbs warn: “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (Prov. 18:17). How many times have we heard one side of the story, and thought we had the whole story, only to find upon hearing the other side that there were things we had totally missed? It’s not fair to make a judgment based on hearing one side, however plausible it may seem and however much the person sharing the gossip may want us to take their side (cf. John 7:51).
- For the Christian, it is forbidden. “Do not go about spreading slander among your people . . . I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:16)
The best case scenario is that it doesn’t solve the problem. Worst case scenario is that it inflames it.
So, how do we get the strength to talk to people about difficult issues? In the weeks to come, I plan to write more on the items below, but here is a summary.
- Drink deeply of God’s love for you. People are important, but sometimes we make them more important than they are. God’s love is the ultimate source of love. People will disappoint us, but God is faithful. His love will never fail. The more we live out of God’s love, the less we will be reactive to how people respond to us.
- Learn to listen. Don’t start a conversation trying to prove your point. Ask questions, and listen carefully to the answers. James, the brother of Jesus, advised the church: “Let every person be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
- Show gentleness and respect. Learn to make things safe for people to share their opinion, and show that you honor them, even if you disagree with their particular perspective or action.
- Connect with people in an encouraging way. Our inclination should be to see the best in others and to view others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3–4). If we connect with people when the heat is off and take an encouraging stance, it’s much easier to talk about hard things when we need to.
One final warning here. I would encourage you to take this simply as advice for yourself. Don’t send it to someone whom you think is a gossip. King Solomon gave this very sound advice: “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:22–23).
I challenge you for the rest of the week not to talk to anyone about problems you have with other people. Try it, and just see what happens. I think you will find it an interesting experiment. And if during that week, you really feel the need to talk about others, talk about them to God in prayer. Silent prayer.