Having Helpful Hard Conversations (Rules 6-9)
This is Part 2 of my 3-part post on “Having Helpful Hard Conversations”.
If you have not read Part 1, click HERE and go through it before reading on.
If you have read Part 1, before we tackle Rules 6-9, here is a refresher on Rules 1-5:
RULE #1: Love
Have an attitude of selfless love before engaging in conversation.
RULE #2: Choose the time and the place
Be wise and thoughtful about when and where you should talk.
RULE #3: “This is not going to come out right…”
Allow yourself and the other person freedom to talk it out.
RULE #4: Actively Listen
Really listen and make sure the other person feels you have heard them.
RULE #5: Be grateful that something hard was brought up
Before responding, thank them for their trust and honesty.
Ok, let’s get back into it! Here are Rules 6-9 for having helpful hard conversations.
RULE #6: Trust their motives
If there exists little to no trust between two people, it is basically impossible to have a helpful hard conversation. If you believe that the other person is completely two-faced and you can’t believe a word that comes out of their mouth, then how will you be able to follow any of the other rules I have outlined? You may listen to their words, but your filter of mistrust will interpret them to simply be insincere, manipulative or deceptive. You will think, “Yeah, that’s what they’re saying, but I really know what they mean.” Both parties have to at least trust that the other person (deep deep down on their best day) is trying to engage in a helpful conversation. Without that trust, the whole thing collapses.
Now, it is true that trust can be validly lost and that people need to work hard at earning trust when that happens, but I have also seen many times a hard conversation descend into an argument or not be able to start at all, simply because one person didn’t trust the intentions of the other. Now, in each of the situations I am thinking of, the non-trusting person had a valid reason to be skeptical of the trustworthiness of the other, but they fostered that mistrust and would not let it go. They were committed to not trusting the other person and this meant that the other person just didn’t have a chance. No matter how much they might try, the mistrusting person would look for any little sign that might justify their lack of trust and they would pounce on it! Lack of trust is poison to having helpful hard conversations.
Now, this may not be so obvious in your heart. You may need to reflect on whether you don’t really 100% trust the intentions of the person you are going to talk to. It may be subtle or rooted in deep pain or long term disappointments. It may be completely valid or it may be mixed with your own bias and self-defensiveness. Either way, it needs to be addressed if a helpful hard conversation is to be had. Firstly, you can be honest with the other person and share that you are having a lot of trouble trusting them. This may give them an opportunity to ask for a chance to just be heard out or to see what can be done to help build that trust before the conversation takes place. Secondly, you may need to repent of your lack of trust. That may sound a bit harsh, but if the person is not completely untrustworthy, you may be judging them unfairly by not giving them a chance. Not trusting someone is a defence mechanism – we use it to protect ourselves from not being hurt or mistreated. Sometimes it is very valid and sometimes it simply prevents us from moving forward and showing grace to people. Sometimes it is better to put your mistrust aside and make the conscious choice to trust the other person – or at least give them the benefit of the doubt. When you go into a hard conversation with a commitment to trusting the other person’s intentions, you will be allowing the other person to stumble through their words even if they potentially hit a nerve. You will think, “I can’t believe they said that, but I’ll trust that they are at least trying to engage”. This will allow you to have grace and patience and a listening ear.
RULE #7: Stick to the topic
This is such a useful rule and one of the first ones I ever learnt – You can and must only have one hard conversation at a time. During a hard conversation, it is important to be clear about what you are talking about and ensure that any other issues that you may want to bring up – however important and valid – must wait for another time.
People bring up multiple issues during a hard conversation for three main reasons:
1. It may be that you actually have a few things you want to discuss (ie. The rude way your partner spoke to you the other day AND the fact that they’re always late). If that’s the case, even if all the issues are valid, it may be loving and wise to bring them up one at a time. Otherwise, the other person may feel overwhelmed and respond either by shutting down or getting aggressively defensive.
2. It may be that you only start with one thing that’s on your mind, but it is the catalyst that brings up all the other things you find frustrating (ie. “You don’t help me when I’m tired. Like the other day, I came home with the groceries and you were talking to your mother. She bugs me sooo much! I can stand the way she always criticised me.”) Now the lack of help and the criticising mother may be both valid issues worth discussing, but you have to stick to one topic at a time.
3. The third reason people bring up another topic is when they are wanting to defend themselves from the main issue being discussed. If the conversation is hard or is getting a little heated it is very easy for someone to raise a new issue in an attempt to strengthen their case, make the other person look bad and ultimately “win” the argument. For example, one person says, “I’m really worried about how much debt we’re in. We need to discuss your money management with somebody from Credit Help Kansas City MO.” Then the other person says, “Money management? You’re going to talk to me about managing money? You can’t even manage your drinking! What was that the other night at my parent’s place? You were so embarrassing!” “Well, maybe I wouldn’t drink so much if your family was less awkward!” And with a few sentences, three completely different issues have been brought up and the hard conversation is going nowhere helpful. Often the change of issue is more subtle than this, but hopefully you get the idea.
At times, it may be very hard not to bring up a different issue into the conversation. Like if someone wants to talk about a petty issue with you, when you’re really upset about a much more important issue that you want to bring up with them. But the goal of these rules is making sure you have helpful hard conversations. There are exceptions of course – like if your partner wants to discuss your nose-picking habit after you just found out they were cheating on you – but generally, you must only bring up one issue at a time. This rule needs to be something you both really agree on, so that at any time in the conversation, no matter who is “in the right”, either one of you can say, “Now, that’s a valid issue but that’s not what we are discussing right at the moment.” When this rule gets broken (as it often will in a hard conversation), you both need to be free to alert the other to the fact and you both need to respect it when it gets alerted.
RULE #8: Avoid absolute language
When we are having a hard conversation we often express ourselves in an emotionally charged way. Sometimes colourful or exaggerated language can be useful to get across an idea to someone who is downplaying the issue. Jesus even used “hyperbole” in this way at times (for example, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” – Matt 18:9) But exaggerated language can also be used unfairly and will often inspire people to become defensive.
The most common examples of absolute language is “You always”, “You never” and “You are”.
“You always/never” statements get used to express frustration about an ongoing behaviour (such as “You always leave the lights on!” or “We never go out any more!”). The problem with these sort of absolute statements is that they are just too easy to reject (ie. “If I always leave the lights on then every light in the house should be on now!” or “That’s ridiculous! We went out last month!”) It is wise to avoid these types of statements. Partly, because they just encourage the other person to feel justified in their behaviour because you’re obviously being over the top, but also because, when all is said and done, these statements just aren’t true.
If you want to be accurate and truthful, it might be best to say something like, “The last few nights, you’ve been leaving the light on” or “We haven’t gone on a date for a couple of weeks.” Even a statement like, “I feel like we never go out anymore” is much more productive because, although it is still an exaggeration, it is a statement about how you feel – which is something that should be acknowledged and addressed.
“You are” statements are even more unhelpful. To bring up an issue and accuse someone of not just doing something, but being something, is an approach you want to be very careful about. Consider these statements: “You’re so lazy.” “You’re a liar.” “You’re so stupid sometimes.” “You’re disgusting.” “You’re a real dissappointment.” “You’re a terrible person to live with.” These are statements that can be easily thrown around during an emotional discussion, but they can hurt very deep. To say “you are” is to make a conclusion about someone’s character and identity. It is to define them. We may do this in order to strongly get our point across, but sometimes a lot more can be unintentionally communicated. The person you say it to may hear that you think that deep down they really are that type of person. You have now labelled them. The ironic thing is, once you label someone, there is actually a greater chance that they will continue in that behaviour. You see, they may actually believe the label you have given them, and once that happens, there will almost be a valid justification for them to act accordingly. If you call someone “lazy”or “stupid” or “disgusting” why would they change their ways?
The gospel has a completely different strategy. Those that turn to Christ are given a whole new identity. They become new creations! Who we are in Christ is defined, not by our present behaviour, but by the person God is turning us into. As Paul writes in Colossians 3:1-10…
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
Do you hear how he instructs Christians to change their behaviour? Paul doesn’t say “you are sexually immoral, lustful, evil, greedy idolaters.” No, he says that a Christian’s “life is now hidden with Christ in God” and because that new identity is true, then we should live it out and “put to death” and “rid ourselves” of anything that doesn’t fit that new identity. Sometimes we think a person’s identity is defined by their behaviour, but often the exact opposite is true – people’s behaviour will be shaped by whatever they believe about their identity. Now this point may seem like a bit too deep theology or psychology for a discussion about how to have hard conversations, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Avoiding absolute language is a useful rule for keeping the conversation respectful, honest, kind and productive.
RULE #9: Allow absolute language
Having said all that, you have to be gracious and allow absolute language now and then. Not in yourself. No, you should keep to this rule as much as possible. But if you’re in the midst of a heavy, hard, heated discussion and someone says, “You never listen to me!”, instead of pulling out the yellow card, you should probably just listen.
Go back to part 1 of this blog series and read the first few rules. If you are showing love (Rule #1) you won’t attack the person for breaking the rule about not using absolute language. If you accept Rule #3 you won’t expect it to “come out right” and so you’ll half expect the other person to use extreme or unreasonable words to try to express what they’re feeling. If you follow Rule #4 you’ll be focussed – not on the absolute language they just used – but on what they are trying to communicate and you’ll be doing more listening than reacting.
It’s funny to have a rule that straight up contradicts the one before it, but I remember that the Book of Proverbs – that ancient book of wisdom – often does the same thing. Like Proverbs 26:4-5…“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” There is often great wisdom in finding the balance between two rules. In regard to having hard conversations, it is wise to be very careful what words you use, and at the same time, be gracious with other people (and yourself) if this rule takes a little practise to do naturally.
That’s true for all “rules” really. Rules are important and they keep us from hurting ourselves and others. I am convinced that we all followed all 13 rules I will outline over the 3 blog posts I will write, we would have much more helpful hard conversations. But we all are imperfect and we all need time to grow into new patterns of behaviour. I know I still have a long way to go before all these rules become second nature to me. So make sure you have a bit of grace and patience with people and with yourself as you grow in all this.
Now, I think I’ve written enough for you to chew over this time.
Rules 10-13 are about how best to “finish” a hard conversation, so I might leave that for another post.
Here’s what I will be covering:
RULE #10: Be ok with ending the conversation unresolved
RULE #11: Respond with what you both understand and what you will both do
RULE #12: Pray
RULE #13: You both have to be more committed to the rules than the conversation
I hope some of these Rules you have found thought-provoking and helpful.
Please write your comments and thoughts below!
For a bit of a laugh, here is Brad Pitt explaining his “rules” for the art of conversation.