Americans struggle with having difficult conversations. Americans talk to each other about other people, but they don’t talk to the person with whom they disagree very often (see the statistics on this in David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons, Good Faith).
When you read the Bible, you find a totally different perspective. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Mt. 18:15). In other words, if you see that someone has an issue with you, go talk to that person.
Yet we don’t do that. We talk around the issue and to everybody else about the issue, but we don’t talk to the person with whom we have an issue.
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler in their book Crucial Conversations see the same problem. In fact, they suggest, “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations–ones that we’re not holding or not holding well” ().
In Crucial Conversations, Patterson et al. suggest practical skills that can empower us to have these conversations and talk to anyone, any time, anywhere, about anything. Their conclusions arose from years of researching people who were able to have these crucial conversations and have them well.
So, what do they suggest? The metaphor they use for a conversation is a pool. Imagine the people who are having a conversation sitting around a pool. As long as people are able to put into the pool any of their thoughts, facts, or feelings, the conversation will keep going well.
Think about an issue of what a couple wants to do on the weekend. As long as they can share their feelings and allow the other person to share their thoughts and ideas, the conversation will progress well. It’s a relatively simple issue. If one spouse wants rest and the other wants activity, they can simply divide the weekend between the two.
But what often happens? When the person who wants to rest hears about the big, bold plans of their partner, they fear that they won’t get rest. This makes them tense. Instead of sharing their own feelings, they lash out with a strong “no” or suggest that the person doesn’t care about them. The proposer of the idea then feels rejected and disrespected. They either retreat and sulk in anger or lash out. Either way, the odds of a good conversation are low.
This shows that there are two aspects of the conversation. There are the words themselves and there is the context. The context is how people feel about communicating with that particular person.
What Patterson, et al. suggest is that the proper context for good conversations is a context of safety and respect. In my view, this is what the Bible calls “gentleness and respect” (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).
The authors suggest that once safety or respect is broken down, it is futile to continue the conversation until we repair the context of safety and respect. As long as people do not feel safe or respected, they will not be able to put their thoughts into the pool of meaning.
So, how do we establish safety and respect? Hearing that we should respect certain people can make us cringe. For the Christian, however, the Bible is clear. We are in humility to regard others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). We are called to communicate with patience, gentleness, and respect (1 Thess. 5:14, Titus 3:2).
If the Bible is not an authority of you, consider the advice of Patterson, et al., who suggest that our common humanity should be enough to merit our respect.
Sometimes we do have respect. We just don’t know how to communicate it. Let me suggest a few tools based on the book:
- Mutual purpose. We can create safety by seeing our mutual purpose. At first, mutual purpose may seem hard to find. For example, a pastor and a church member may disagree on the music. I remember this happening to me. As I listened to this person, I realized we had more common purpose than I realized. We both agreed that we wanted content-rich music that was singable and relatively familiar to the congregation. Once we agreed on that, we could safely discuss whether particular songs fit into that category or not. We didn’t come to agreement on all the songs that day, but we walked away from the conversation with much more respect.
- Be tentative. To understand this, recognize that most of our disagreements generally don’t come from the facts but from the conclusion that we draw from them. For example, an employee doesn’t do a certain task that they were supposed to do. You can tell yourself a lot of stories about this: “They’re lazy.” “They’re evil.” “They don’t respect me.” But why not hold off on these? Instead, have a conversation.
An employer might begin a conversation, “Hey, I just want to be clear on this. Is that task part of your duties?” If the employee responds, “yes,” then you can further ask if they did the task. That may be enough. They will give a quick explanation. If they don’t, then you can follow up in asking them without sounding judgmental what they think about doing the task. What you will find is that generally there is a good reason for not doing it, the employee just made a mistake, or that they’re actually not sure how to do it. All three are helpful things to know before we tell ourselves a story about the facts.
- Use contrasting. This means that you tell people what you mean and what you don’t mean. A lot of conversations break down because we assume what is meant. We can help other people avoid this by saying what we mean and what we don’t mean.
For example, I can ask my daughter when she is planning on getting her haircut. She could take this to mean that I don’t like her hair or that I’m demanding she get her hair cut. What you can say is this, “Honey, I’m not saying this because I think you need a haircut. I just remember that you said you were going to get a haircut. I’d like to make sure you have the car available, if you need it. So, was I right in that, and do you have a sense of what time you might do that?” You’ve cut off several wrong conclusions that could break down the conversation. That’s contrasting.
There are two particular cases that require extra care. One is where people feel particularly unsafe about putting their thoughts into the pool of meaning. The other is when a person does things that make other people afraid to put their thoughts in the pool.
In the case of those who feel unsafe, we have to be particularly cautious. We might want to ask them directly what they think. We can assure them that we value their opinion. The important thing is to give special effort to listen and not respond too quickly. They are going to interpret any strong response as rejection, and so we have to use the tools listed above more carefully and extensively than we otherwise might do. “Comfort the fainthearted, strengthen the weak” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Another difficult case is those who make others feel unsafe to talk. First, we need to show such people respect and not assume the worst about them. Many people who behave this way are not really aware of the effect that their manner and words have on people. When someone responds in a strong way, we can say this: “I don’t think this is what you are intending to do. However, when you do or say x, I don’t feel like you want to hear my viewpoint. I don’t think this is true, and so I would just suggest that it would be helpful to me, if we could do x.” The point is that we will not have a real conversation while we feel attacked, threatened, or disrespected, and we have to talk about what is going on inside us in order to get to good conversation.
The challenge to all this is that it takes a willingness to swallow some of our feelings of disrespect and lack of safety in order to move forward and engage. The rewards are significant. But how can we do it?
I believe that the central problem is that we are often looking to receive love and respect from humans that only God can give. We have to recognize that ultimately our self-worth is founded on God’s love for us and on how God values us. Once we can take this in deeply, we won’t be nearly as worried when we feel disrespected or unloved by other human beings. It won’t be nothing, but it will give us greater stability.
That’s the one major point I would add to Patterson et al.’s book. We need a better foundation for self-worth than what we can offer ourselves or to one another. The Gospel of the good news of God’s love for offers us a perfect foundation for this approach.
I believe that the author’s insights are available in the Scripture. However, I don’t think I would have seen clearly what was in Scripture without their insights. I also do not at all believe that I would have been able to come up with the practical wisdom on how to apply it without their observations of human behavior. So, I’m extremely thankful for the work of these folks.
I’ve just touched the surface of the insights in this book. I would highly recommend that you read the full book and see how they applied it and make use of the other tools they suggest in the book.