Over sushi, I affirmed my friend, whom I’ll call Amanda, for her first big leadership opportunity. She had just led a major ministry event, and from my perspective, it had been an incredible success.
“Honestly,” Amanda said with a little shake of her head, “when it was over, I didn’t feel successful. I felt like crying.”
Amanda shared that she had experienced conflict with her team, and it came to an ugly head during this event. I pressed a little further, getting the facts about how a particular relationship with her coworker had gone sour. Her details were her own, but the story was familiar—good people, with good intentions, getting it wrong with one another.
And then I killed the conversation with my next question: “When are you going to have that tough conversation to resolve the issue?”
Amanda looked at me like I had asked her to throw her cat off the highway overpass. Apparently, I had asked the impossible.
What I’ve learned over countless lunches with women like Amanda is this: The prospect of a tough conversation scares many into silence. But dealing with difficult matters—be it resolving conflict, confronting a character issue, or uprooting bad behavior or poor performance—is not an optional exercise in Christianity.
The Bible calls us to be people of reconciliation: people who pursue peace and value unity, people who do not live as the world lives but choose the deeper, sometimes scarier path of real relationships with one another. Real relationships take hard work, but I’ve discovered that the ministry of tough conversations is the fertilizer of soul growth.
So how do you know if a relationship needs a tough conversation? And what can you do to prepare yourself for one?
Step 1: Diagnose the Need for a Tough Conversation
When you consider the challenging person or circumstance in your life, ask yourself, Am I sincerely pursuing a reconciled relationship? Three words are important here:
Sincerely implies a desire to pay attention to what our hearts are really telling us—to be our most genuine selves. It means examining what we’ve experienced and how we’ve interpreted it.
Pursuing is an active word that calls us forward with intentionality, turning away from passive-aggressive behavior that leads to resentment and bitterness. It means we do not skirt the tough issues when we know that hurt and distance have entered the relationship.
Reconciliation is a Jesus word. The apostle Paul tells us that Christ “gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). That message is one we speak with our words and our actions. It begins with the way we handle the daily snag and snares of doing life with family, friends, and coworkers. A reconciled relationship will not happen on its own—all real relationships require tending.
To say it another way, a tough conversation might be needed when we truly and honestly cannot say we are for the other person. There is a blockage between us, and because our faith calls us to the ministry of reconciliation, we are commanded to enter in.
If we are missing any component of this—sincerely, pursuing, reconciliation—we have gone astray. To follow Jesus means that we place a high value on honesty, clarity, sincerity, and peace.
Amanda was willing to maintain a superficial relationship with the coworker who had hurt her feelings, but she could not sincerely say that she was pursuing reconciliation.
“Okay,” Amanda said to me after she recovered from my question. “I don’t even know how I would start that conversation!” Over the next few minutes, we talked together about what I’ve learned over the years through leadership, counseling, and friendship.
Step 2: Tackle Your Insecurities
There is always a reason you don’t want to enter a tough conversation. Perhaps you’re worried about how the other person will take it, or, more honestly, how they are going to take you. Maybe you are worried that this will be a boomerang confrontation—you bring something up, and they boomerang back with grievances against you. Maybe you are frightened that the other person will reject you.
These are real fears. Be gentle with yourself, but don’t be dishonest. Listen to your insecurities and then tackle them. Make sure you consider the consequences of not confronting. For instance, I said to Amanda, “Would you be willing to work with this person again?” When she said no, Amanda began to understand why a tough conversation was needed. She realized that her insecurity made her willing to compromise the mission of the organization and her own leadership—and that’s a bad alternative. The tough conversation seemed more important when she slowed down to think through how toxic it would be to remain silent.
Step 3: Move Beyond Feelings
As a counselor, I am a fan of emotions. Emotions are valuable and teach us many things. But emotions can also be irrational and stubborn. Emotions have long memories and bear grudges, reminding us of things that happened in middle school when we’re trying to make decisions about adulthood. When it comes to feelings, we must be kind but firm with ourselves. You might say to yourself, Yes, this feels very hard. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do it.
Identifying the feelings that need to be addressed is important. This can be a simple statement that you share in the confrontation: “When X happened, I felt Y.” By directly addressing the facts of the situation rather than providing your interpretation of them, you give the person a chance to explain his or her side of the story.
Use feelings and facts rather than interpretations and inferences. For instance, if a friend stood you up for a coffee date, you might say, “When I missed you for coffee, I felt disappointed and sad” rather than, “When you stood me up for coffee, I knew you didn’t care about our relationship.”
Step 4: Rewrite the Story
Listen to the story you’re telling yourself about you, about the other person, and about the circumstance. Most of the time, the stories we tell ourselves are not based on facts alone but also on the inferences and insecurities we’ve brought to the table. By staying silent, we avoid the truth—even when that truth could bring healing and growth for us.
The ministry of tough conversations is about letting the Holy Spirit redeem and rewrite that story. You might share how the situation made you feel and then say, “When this happened, I began to tell myself this story about us.” This allows the other person to enter in and clarify, apologize, or reinterpret the experience with you.
Step 5: Press Toward the Goal
What is the goal of a tough conversation? For most of us, the goal might be an apology, to feel heard, or to get affirmation. But a healthier goal in tough conversations is clarity and reconciliation.
Clarity means that both parties have had a chance to express their side of the story. Reconciliation means we are willing to sacrifice our own interpretations of the situation and compromise, believing the best in the other and choosing forgiveness. This means we express the facts and our feelings, and we might say, “I want us to be able to move forward. What do we need to do to reconcile?”
Is it scary? Absolutely. Is it tough? Guaranteed. But is it worth it? Yes! The apostle Paul gives us this example: “Not that I have already obtained all of this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12, NIV). In the ordinary conflicts of life, Jesus calls us to press forward. Let us pursue this ministry of reconciliation in the everyday opportunity of tough conversations.