When Talking is Tough: Guidelines for Having Difficult Conversations

Maybe the following scenario is familiar to you. Your adult kids are over for a visit and the conversation turns to a sensitive topic like politics or religion or contemporary social issues. Suddenly, you’re in a heated debate and you’re giving what you feel is the biblical perspective while your kids are saying things that make you wonder, “How in the world did they come up with that view? I never taught them that!”

It could be a similar conversation around the lunch table at work or with your neighbour over the back fence. You know they aren’t believers but it’s still a difficult conversation.

In situations like these, sometimes more heat than light is generated.

You experience a real dilemma in sensitive conversations: how do you deal with different values, beliefs, priorities, worldviews, and behaviours while still caring for the person and staying involved in his or her life? The last thing you want is to push your child or friend out of your life because of the way you relate to each other. If you alienate them you will have no influence in their lives.

How do you discuss difficult topics in such a way you hear and are heard, maintain your influence in their lives, and avoid alienation?

Here are some basic guidelines for having those tough discussions on sensitive topics when your faith and thoughts are fundamentally different.

General Principles to Keep Reminding Yourself

1. Identity. It might seem obvious but it’s important to remember no two people are alike. And it is all those factors that result in different attitudes, thoughts, and feelings about things. This is true of our family too. While your children have your genes, they think differently because they grew up in a different era than you did. They’re impacted by and marketed to by a secular world.

2. Complexity. Life is infinitely complex and there are no simple answers. And when people have strong feelings and convictions, things can get even more complicated.

3. Empathy. You’ll achieve more if you strive to understand others and their viewpoints before trying to get them to understand you.

Specific Questions to Keep Asking Yourself

In your discussions you need to be self-aware, asking yourself questions. Here are a few suggestions.

  • What do I feel about this particular subject and what would I like them to understand? 
  • Do I believe what I am saying or am I speaking from platitudes?
  • What is my tone, body language, fear, or other emotions?
  • Am I truly hearing, listening, and understanding or do I need clarification?
  • Do I have a flexible mindset or tight and rigid one?
  • What kind of relationship do I want with this person now and in the future?
  • What can I learn here?
  • Am I open to, or fearful of, new possibilities?
  • What are they thinking, feeling, and wanting?

Personal Commitments to Keep Making to Yourself

If you are going to have positive interactions without alienating others you need to make some personal commitments to yourself.

1. Control

  • Stay calm and self-controlled
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Listen attentively
  • Don’t overreact if you or your beliefs are attacked
  • Don’t exaggerate, be sarcastic, or make it personal
  • Keep the volume low

2. Conversation

  • Don’t refuse to talk about things because you have different views
  • Talk about one topic at a time and stay focused
  • Don’t assume. Ask questions instead of criticizing
  • Don’t lecture, preach, whine, complain, or try to manipulate. Just dialogue
  • Know when to shut up. If the other person’s mind is closed then stop talking. You will only waste your time and risk alienation

3. Competence

  • Do your research. Whatever you are saying be prepared to back it up
  • Walk the walk don’t just talk the talk. Do and be good at what you are preaching. Be consistent: your life and your lips need to match
  • Be confident in your position while staying open, respectful, and humble

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Stay focused on staying loving, authentic, and consistent in your life and communication or you will become an irritation.