How to Have Hard Conversations
One of the toughest tasks for a church leader is having hard conversations. Communicating to a team member something that you know they won’t want to hear, confronting someone about a sensitive issue, or addressing a matter that may create relational tension: these are conversations we usually dread, and would rather avoid, but sometimes must have.
In fact, hard conversations are an important part of pastoral ministry. Paul told Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). Titus’s assignment was to confront false teachers and “rebuke them sharply” (Titus 1:13). Paul himself was compelled to publicly challenge the Apostle Peter (Gal. 2:11-14). If you’re a leader among the Lord’s people, you will be having some hard conversations!
So, how do you do it? How do you speak the truth when the “truth” is hard to tell? How do you communicate difficult yet necessary messages to people on your team, in your church, and even in your household, and do it in a way that pleases God and edifies the people involved?
How do you speak the truth when the 'truth' is hard to tell?
Let me tell you up front: it won’t be easy. Hard conversations are never easy, but we can get better at having them. Here are some steps you can take that I believe will help.
1. Get a biblical view of hard conversations:
Here are some Scripture texts to read, pray, and think over: 2 Samuel 12:1-15; Proverbs 9:8; 13:18; 15:12; 27:6; Matthew 16:22-23; Galatians 2:11-14; Philippians 4:2-3; Jude 3-4.
Answer these questions: What good does God do through hard conversations? What happens if leaders avoid these conversations? What do these texts tell me about loving confrontation and hard conversations?
What good does God do through hard conversations?
God shows us in His Word that godly leadership sometimes requires difficult discussions.
2. Prepare for the conversation.
I cannot overemphasize how important it is that take time to prepare for a hard conversation. The wise leader will make prayer a key part of their preparation. Pray like it depends on God – because it does!
I also encourage you to do the following as you prepare:
Get your head ready. What exactly is the issue you need to address with this person? Don’t be vague. Name the problem and be specific. For example, it’s not enough to say someone has a bad attitude. Rather, what is it about their attitude that’s problematic?
Pray like it depends on God – because it does!
Also, what outcome(s) are you after? What goal(s) do you have for this discussion? Be clear in your mind about the desired result of the conversation. What are you after? If you’re thinking is fuzzy, you’ll confuse the other person…or worse!
Get your heart ready. Be honest about your motives. Ask God to examine your heart. Are you going into this conversation to prove a point, or improve the ministry? Are you trying to put someone in their place, or edify and equip them? Paul says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Be honest: does your heart pass the sniff test of this text? Humble yourself before the Lord and ask for grace that will overflow from you to the other person.
Ask God to examine your heart. Are you going into this conversation to prove a point, or improve the ministry?
Get your words ready. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The words we use impacts how the conversation goes.
So, think through what you’re going to say, especially how you’ll begin. I recommend that you write out and rehearse your opening statement. Don’t try to memorize it but internalize your first 2 or 3 sentences. This step will help you set a good, godly tone from the start.
The words we use impacts how the conversation goes
Also, make a list of words and phrases you want to use, as well as those you want to avoid. Many conversations get derailed because we fail to choose our words wisely.
3. Have the conversation.
**Start with common ground and shared purpose. ** In most cases, you both want the same thing: fruitful ministry, team unity, effective use of time and resources. Start by emphasizing your shared ambitions.
Example: “I have some thoughts about how we can involve more volunteers on the welcome team each Sunday and be even more effective in greeting new people. This might be a bit of a sensitive conversation, but I think it could help us if we can talk it through.”
Show humility in what you say and how you say it.
Say it how you see it. Present the issue or problem from your perspective. Talk tentatively, not assuming that your interpretation is infallible. Use phrases like, “it appears to me,” “I get the impression,” “perhaps you weren’t aware,” or “in my opinion.” Show humility in what you say and how you say it.
Encourage two-way engagement. This a conversation, not a declaration; let your tone, body language, and explicit invitation for feedback convey openness, warmth, and sincerity. Use phrases like, “help me understand,” or “do you agree?” or “how do you see it?”
4. Follow up after the conversation.
At your earliest opportunity, follow up with the individual (email, text, call) and thank them for talking. Summarize and restate the conclusions you reached together. Affirm your love for them in Christ.
Affirm your love for them in Christ.
Is there someone with whom you need to have a hard conversation? It won’t likely be easy, but with biblical conviction, careful preparation, a little skill, and great grace from God, you can do it well.