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#CRClistens: 3 Key Insights for Having Difficult, Honest Conversations

A great song by African-American composer V. Michael McKay called “Koinonia,” goes like this: 

How can I say that I love the Lord,

whom I’ve never ever seen before,

and forget to say that I love the one

whom I walk beside each and every day?

How can I look upon your face

and ignore God’s love—you I must embrace! 

You’re my brother, you’re my sister,

and I love you with the love of my Lord.

We can all agree that we are called to love one another, but we also know that the command to love one another can be very difficult when we disagree on issues. So, how do we actually do this? How can we discuss difficult issues with the goal to not simply tolerate different views, but to really engage honestly, in love?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this discussion from what I observe in working with churches within the CRC and beyond. I believe one of the biggest problems in churches and denominations today is their inability to have difficult conversations well. Conversely, I believe one of the most important skills any leader can have is the ability, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to create conditions in which honest, difficult conversations can take place with grace and truth.

I have been impressed by three key insights of the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler. They define a crucial conversation as one where opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong. They say “twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones [and I would add church members] is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues.” Following are three critical things people must do to have any hope of success in crucial conversations. 

First, each person in the conversation needs to check his or her own heart. What are my motives in this conversation? Am I respecting the person with whom I disagree? Can I admit that there are things I’m not really clear about in this discussion? What is my goal—to win? or to build community and arrive at new understanding? Do I truly listen when someone else is talking, or do I use that time to prepare my next response? Does this conversation bring out the best or the worst in me? Difficult conversations are more likely to succeed if we follow the principle, “Work on me first, us second.”

Second, make sure that the environment is safe for an open exchange of ideas. If people don’t feel safe and don’t trust that others in the dialogue truly value them, respect them and will listen to them, then they will react either in silence or violence, flight or fight. They’ll withdraw from the discussion, or go to war. The key role of the leader is to make the environment safe for everyone in the room!  And the key to creating a safe space for conversation is to truly care about understanding the interests of others, not just our own. Our goal should not only be to debate, but to find solutions based on mutual respect and mutual purposes that run deeper than our various interests and opinions.

Third, practice the fine art of being kind and honest, showing grace and telling truth. In difficult conversations we so often choose to be kind or honest, not both kind and honest. We capitulate to our own anxiety by either being kind at the expense of truth, or honest at the expense of kindness. But we can choose a better way. 

If we are committed to the mutual purpose of truly loving one another in the body of Christ, we will look for ways to work through difficult conversations. The good news is that it is possible to create situations where people can truly deal with difficult matters well. This requires certain skills that we can learn, but ultimately they are gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

What does a conversation controlled by the Spirit of God look like? Feel like? Sound like? And are we committed to each other enough to find out? Let’s hope so, because our life together—in Christ—depends on it. And the result will be fruitful—which, when we are in the Spirit, looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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Editor's note: During this series, we hope to learn together how to communicate about contentious issues in ways that build up the Body of Christ. Above all, we hope that this series will help you stay in conversation in constructive ways that honor and respect the image of God in those you disagree with and in the people affected by the issues about which you are talking. Perhaps these reflections will even help us to engage well as a Christian Reformed Church in dialogue around hard questions, particularly at Synod 2016. 

To engage in the conversation on social media, use the hashtag #CRClistens. If you'd like to comment on this post, please do so on the CRC Network or on the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue or Office of Social Justice Facebook pages.  

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