How to Talk About Anything at Any Time to Anyone

When the stakes are high, why is it so difficult to have good conversations?

One thing that keeps us from having a conversation is failing to see that a conversation has two parts. There is the content of the conversation, but there is also a context for the conversation.

The content is the thing that we want to talk about. The context is how we feel about the conversation and the people involved in it.

If someone feels disrespected or threatened (context), it is virtually impossible to discuss what we want to discuss (content).

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler in their book Crucial Conversations use the metaphor of a pool to explain a conversation. As long as people feel free to put into the pool any of their thoughts, facts, or feelings, the conversation will keep going well. However, as soon as safety and respect break down, people don’t feel like they can freely put their thoughts and feelings into the pool, and the conversation collapses. Once this happens, you have to restore safety and respect in order to resume the conversation.

When you read the Bible, you will find that the Bible encourages us to speak openly about the difficult issues of relationships, morality, and religion. However, it always cautions us to do this with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15, cf. Gal. 6:1, 2 Tim. 2:24–25 and 4:2). This is the same idea.

So, how do we convey safety and respect in our conversations? Patterson et al. provide a lot of practical wisdom on how to establish safety and respect. Here are a few of their ideas:

  1. Use contrasting to avoid misunderstanding. For example, you could say to your wife: “When are you getting a haircut?” She could easily take this as a criticism of her hair. You can use contrasting to avoid this: “I’m not saying you need to get a haircut, but I remember you saying that you wanted to. I’d like to know what day you plan to do that so I can make sure the car is available for you.”
  2. Be tentative. Try to state how you see things in a way that invites people to talk about the issue. Let’s say you’re dealing with theft in a business. You can talk to the employee that you suspect of stealing by saying, “I’ve looked in the books, and it seems like there is $10,000 missing. Have you noticed that? Do you have any sense of why it might appear that way?” You don’t accuse. You start with the facts and invite someone to give you their understanding of the facts and their interpretation. That’s being tentative in a way that invites conversation on a difficult matter.
  3. Apologize. If you say something in a way that does not communicate safety and respect, apologize. If you show by your facial expressions or words that you don’t respect someone, just say you’re sorry.
  4. Establish mutual purpose. I remember hearing about a couple discussing where they wanted to move. One wanted to move to Kentucky and another to Vermont. Seems like two very diverse goals. However, as they talked about it, they realized that the real reason why the one wanted to move to Vermont was to live in the country and the reason why the other wanted to move to Kentucky was to be near their family. Once they realized that, they could establish a mutual goal of living in the country and near relatives. Our goals are often closer or more compatible than we realize. Step back a little bit, and you may find more mutual purpose than you thought possible

For me, this all means that I need to think not only about what I want to say but how I say it. I need to think about what’s the best way to say what I want to say and not merely the content of what I want to say. Giving attention to the context of a conversation enables me to talk about anything at any time to anyone.

Note: I’ve written a fuller explanation of these same principles in an article that you can read here.

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). We should be, but we aren’t.

We’d rather be heard than listen. And why not? Why make the effort to be a listener?

Good reasons. First, if you believe the Bible, God commands us to be listeners. Yep. That’s one of God’s commands.

Now, you may say, well, it’s one of his commands, but is it really that important? Here’s something else the Bible says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Ouch!

Second, we have limited knowledge and understanding. If we are going to grow in our knowledge and understanding, we have to listen. If we speak, we only have the resources inside us, but if we listen, we have all the resources of those around us.

Third, listening is the best way to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Showing people that we care about their perspective is the best way to ensure that they will also want to hear us. Try it.

On the other side, if we all focus on being heard, then no one will ever be heard. Someone has to get the ball rolling by listening.

Finally, it’s efficient. If we seek to understand people clearly in the beginning, we won’t have to correct all the problems that arise from misunderstanding. Better to take the time to listen in the first place and avoid the problems of misunderstanding altogether.*

The question is, how do we overcome our strong desire to be heard and simply seek to listen to others?

Let me suggest two things that I have found helpful. The first is to write down your thoughts. Writing is similar to discussion. It helps us gain clarity. For me, writing in a journal has made me feel less of a need to talk things out with other people. This frees me up to listen.

This can be especially helpful when you have a strong disagreement with someone. I have heard that Abraham Lincoln recommended the following when you are in a conflict with someone: write a letter and tell them exactly how you feel . . . and then throw that letter in the fire.

The second thing is to share your thoughts with God. People are generally not that interested in your thoughts, but God, amazingly, is! He wants to hear from us more than we want to speak to Him. Why not try sharing your thoughts with God? Besides being a gracious and compassionate God who wants to hear from His children, He has more resources than anybody else to help with our struggles.

Let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. A wonderful aspiration. If we can do it, we will not only bless others, we will be much more likely to be heard.

*Note: This insight and the title of this article “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is the 5th habit in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Gossip: The Best Way Not to Help Your Marriage (Or Any Relationship)

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?

  1. It doesn’t solve anything. Letting off steam freezes an issue in place by relieving the pressure without doing anything to make it better.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The 2,446 Descendants of James Russell “Major” White

Me and my Dad, Myrland Edward “Sam” White, Jr.
Do you ever have an idea from childhood that sticks with you? Then, you say it out loud as an adult, and you think, I’m not sure that’s true! I’ve had experiences like that more often than I’d like to admit.

One of those ideas was that I (with my brother) was one of the last males in my line of the White’s.

I think there are two reasons why I developed that conception. First, my Dad’s name is Myrland Edward White, Jr. If any of you know him, you may be surprised to read this because he goes by “Sam.”

My Dad’s Dad, Myrland Edward White, Sr., died after 3 months of marriage to my Grandmother, Betty Lindsey. During those 3 months, my Father was conceived. For the first 3 years of his life, my Dad was often with his Grandfather, Sam White. He lived with them long enough to get the nickname Sammie that he carries with him to this day as “Sam.”

Eventually, Betty remarried to Lloyd Babb, and my Dad went into the orbit of the Babb’s and Lindsey’s with little contact with the White family.

The second reason is that growing up I didn’t know any male cousins with the last name of White. My Dad connected with one of his half brother’s, Larry, who was a White, but he had only one child, a daughter.

So, from one perspective I was right. I was one of the only male descendants of Myrland Edward White, Sr. However, what I discovered is that if you extend that out to one, two, or three generations beyond my grandfather, then it’s not even close to true.

Here’s how I made that discovery.

Through some strange circumstances that I won’t go into, I ended up taking a DNA test from This led me into an initial foray into genealogy. You can read about that here.

Through a couple of genealogists on my Mom’s side of the family, I had a pretty good sense of where my Mother had come from. However, I only had a vague idea of where my Father had come from.

So, I made it one of my goals to research my Father’s ancestors. I just needed some time to go through the material on That would be my start.

Several months passed.

Then, I got sick. As I lay in bed trying to recover from the flu, I realized I had enough strength to do some searches on the internet. It was time to research my Father’s ancestry.

I made some significant progress, but I also realized that when you look at other people’s research on, you need to trust but verify.

Gravestone of my 3rd Great Grandfather, James Russell White
I knew my Dad’s Grandfather’s name on the White side was Sam, but I didn’t know much beyond that. Gradually, the story began to unfold. From what I could tell, My Great Grandpa Sam’s father was Robert Dempsey “Dock” White. Robert’s Father was James Russell “Major” White.

James Russell White’s family lived in De Kalb County, Tennessee and moved up to Russellville, KY, probably sometime in the early 1860s. I had moved to TN thinking I was going to a place where The White family had never lived before. Perhaps I was wrong.

In spite of this initial research, I was still skeptical. If this was correct, I realized that I probably had a bunch of cousins in Logan County, Kentucky.

So, I asked a couple of my older relatives on the White side if “Russellville, KY” meant anything to them. They both replied, “Oh, yes. We went down there to visit relatives often.” It turns out that five of Robert Dempsey’s children had moved to Owensboro from Russellville and yet stayed in contact with their relatives in Russellville. One of my living relatives even confirmed that they had heard the name “Major” White before.

I was quite satisfied that the link between my White’s and the Russellville White’s was established. Still, I wanted to know more, and I wanted more documentary proof.

I probably had searched James Russell White’s name on Google a few times, but I did it again. To my shock, I discovered that there was a book, The Descendants of James Russell “Major” White written by Michael and Barbara Christian. Wow! I thought. That’s amazing. I wonder if I can get a copy. I could not find it in any of my normal searches for book purchase.

What about libraries? I wondered. I found through WorldCat that this book was in 7 libraries in the United States. One of them were relatively close (compared to Utah!): Muhlenburg County Library in Greenville, KY. I was going up to visit some relatives in Louisville and Owensboro over Christmas break, so I concluded that I could stop by the Muhlenburg County Library’s Genealogical Annex and take a look at this book on my way home.

The Courthouse in downtown Greenville, KY
So, that’s what I did. I arrived in Greenville on December 28th at about 11:00 in the morning. Google Maps told me that my destination was on my right. I got out of my car and looked at the library. There was yellow warning tape in front of it: Under Construction!

Seriously? I thought. I come all this way, and it’s closed? So, I called the Genealogical Annex.

“Are you open?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re temporarily located in the basement of the Old National Bank. What do you need? Most of our stuff is in storage?” The lady on the other end asked me.

“Well, I’m looking for a book called The Descendants of James Russell “Major” White.” I replied.

“I have it!” She answered.

“I’ll see you in a minute.” I said and then hung up.

With the joy of potential discovery in my heart, I went over to the bank. The librarian gave me the book, and I sat down at the front of her desk while she worked on her computer in the tiny room where the Genealogical Annex was housed.

I opened the cover and saw the first page of the book written around 1996. I opened the book and began reading, “James Russell and Mary White did not leave behind many worldly goods. However, they had 10 children, and their 2,446 descendants have settled throughout the United States from California to Florida. . . .”

What’s Your Story?

What’s your story?

Like most Americans, I was pretty hazy on where my ancestors came from and how they got here.

My Mother was born in South Africa to American missionaries. My Father was born near Owensboro, KY. I always thought of my Father and Mother as having very different backgrounds.

A few things happened recently that led me to do some research and realize that the two sources of my ancestry were quite close.

One ancestor that I knew of was Levi Parks Keith. He was from my mother’s side, was in the Illinois cavalry in the Civil War, and died of disease late in the war.

I realized that “Levi Parks Keith” was a pretty rare name, so I did a Google search. This led me to a site called Grave Finder.

On that site, I found not only where he was buried but also information about his life and links to other family members, including his father and mother.

His Father, Mason Parks Keith, came from Virginia to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana where most of my family stayed.

This intrigued me because I knew my Father’s family was rooted in Northern Kentucky and Southern Indiana as well.

I began to plug in some general history. The Great Lakes States as we know them were not open to settlement until quite a few years after the Revolutionary War. In addition, Kentucky was opened for settlement before the Great Lake States. Continue reading “What’s Your Story?”