How to Have Hard Conversations – A Practical Guide

by Jonny Atkinson

Ok. So here goes. Out into a field strewn with landmines…

One of the major problems I see contributing to the increasing polarization and tribalism today is that conversations are not happening. Real conversations. And one major reason conversations are not happening is because people are scared to speak. Mere words are being labelled crimes and micro-aggressions. People are regularly told “you can’t say that!” And people have even been fired for saying the “wrong” thing showing that they are not on the “right” side of history.

And “thanks” to the never-ending slew of non-Christian ideologies (on both the right and the left) filling our social social media feeds many people are pressured into joining a tribe or have unknowingly/uncritically embraced a particular tribe, or are intimidated into shutting-up. 

And the church is by no means immune to adopting the rules of this new game society is playing. 

Yet, we are to be in the world, but not of it (John 15:19). And one distinctive is that Christians ought to be moving closer to each other pursuing harmonious unity (Rom 15:5-6), even reconciling when needed, rather than driving wedges deeper. 

One way we can move closer (not the only way) I believe is, on the one hand, very simple: intentionally pursue conversations, both talking and—more importantly—listening. But on the other hand, this solution is very powerful (Prov 18:21). God’s Word created a universe, and by His Spirit Christians can speak words that cause spiritually dead people to live (2 Corinthians 4:6). The smart people driving these false ideologies to the masses rightly understand the power of words—which is one reason why they want to shut down certain words and have them criminalized. And it is the very reason why the church and her leaders must pursue and model having hard conversations.

But, if we’re going to make headway in learning how to live in a world with people who differ from us (in society, among the Church at large, and within our local congregations), we need to learn how to have these hard conversations.

Here are a few random, nonexhaustive, and in no particular order, thoughts on how to go about that:

Only God knows everything. No-one can know everything. Jesus is the only person who knows what is in the heart of a man (John 2:25). When we speak with others, we should not portray ourselves as knowing everything. Nor should we expect others to know everything. Nor should we be expected to speak out of complete knowledge. Holding people to this standard will only exhaust them and disappoint us.

It’s OK to have unsettled issues in your mind. Since you don’t know everything—and never will—by implication what you currently know is always developing. Hopefully your opinions have matured, become more nuanced, and some have even changed over the years. And hopefully you anticipate many of the views you hold today will develop, mature, and change as you continue to learn new things (Heb 5:14). 

And if this is happening in your life, it is happening in the life of the other person. And it’s happening at a different rate, maybe faster or slower than you. They will be at a different place on their knowledge journey. They will know things you don’t and you will know things they don’t. They will see things differently for an infinite number of reasons. And that doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) mean you’re evil or they’re evil, or they belong to this tribe and you belong to that tribe.

Conversations today seem to demand that people have the “right” opinion, when it can take years to develop good opinions about important issues. You should feel ok by saying “I don’t agree with that, I’m still thinking about it, and would love to chat more” and you should allow others the same grace and time to grow.

Desire to grow in knowledge. Related to the point above, you ought to want your views to develop (2 Peter 3:18)—unless you’re an ignoramus. So, pursue conversations with a demeanor that is evidently trying to learn from the other person (Prov 4:1).

Admit what you don’t know. Admitting what you don’t know is often portrayed as weakness, but it’s the highest form of humility and evidence of a peaceful soul. You can still live and function in this world without knowing everything and that’s ok. Pretending you know something you don’t is lying, and liars always get caught (Prov 12:13, Prov 19:9).

Talk to people different than yourself. If you only talk to people who already have all the same opinions as yourself, how will you grow? How will you learn? (2 Timothy 3:7) You are just singing with your choir in a big echo chamber. And this is worsened by social media artificial-intelligence recommending to you similar content based on your previous, views, likes, and shares. You need to be exposed to different views to have your own views challenged, to see what of your views will endure the challenge, and what needs to be refined.

Intentionally seek out books and podcasts that you know you won’t fully agree with. If you’re politically on the right, read those on the left. If you’re reformed, read non-reformed works. Listen to global news, not just local news. If you grew up in the suburbs, talk with people who grew up in the inner city. If you work a blue collar job, spend time with those who work white collar jobs. If you’re wealthy, have a conversation over dinner (that you buy) with someone living check to check. And very importantly, if you’re young, spend time listening to older people (Prov 20:29).

Understand what social media isn’t. Social Media isn’t the only way ideas are communicated. It’s actually a terrible way for important ideas to be communicated. Compare with books for example. Books, for the unaware, are a form of communication that is not limited to 140 characters—yes, some points actually take over 300 pages to make! And those who publish these books usually (though not always) only let people with proven credentials recognized within their field and among their peers write a book on a particular topic. 

It’s true! You don’t have to form an opinion overnight only having read a handful of tweets by a self-promoted “authority” on a topic—actually you shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t expect others to do so either. And those who become experts overnight should be pitied for being wise in their own eyes (Isa 5:21, Prov 26:12) and invited to your next book club.

Experience is a Form of Knowledge. Some who say “because of my experience I am authority on this issue” also say “and therefore, you have nothing to contribute to this discussion, so be quiet and believe everything I’m saying.” White people are not allowed to speak to the black experience, men are not allowed to speak on “women’s” issues such as abortion, etc. That’s just silly.

People must be allowed to discuss any issue, or they will be prevented from expanding their views through conversation. They must be allowed to put their foot in their mouth without fear of retribution, or their opinions will not be refined. And those with experience must be humble enough to recognize that even their opinions can be developed by those without a similar experience. Paul could tell married people how to live, and women how to live, being neither married, nor a woman (last I checked).

But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Experience is a genuine form of knowledge. If you want to learn how to invest your money, you should speak with an experienced investor. If you’re trying to finish a basement by yourself you should speak with an experienced builder. You’re still free to choose a different stock to invest in, or try a different building method, but you’d be a big dummy not to at least listen to an experienced person first. 

Stop trying to win arguments. I heard it once said that if you win the argument you almost always lose the person. Pursuing “winning” is simply pride, and frankly unprofitable (Prov 18:2). Paul says the goal is to benefit others, not to win (Eph 4:29). We converse to share information and receive information and, in doing so, to be enriched by having our views sharpened and clarified (Prov 27:17). But seeking to win an argument is not what speech was designed for, it’s like using a hammer for a toothbrush. 

Be Nice, Don’t Bully. If the goal of conversation is not to win, but to mutually sharpen each other, why do you need to be a jerk? Don’t name call, don’t intentionally misconstrue the other person’s words, don’t interrupt, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t attack character, don’t use big words (that you probably don’t understand either) to confuse the other person. Be gentle, and speak in such a way that when the conversation is over, the person could tell you love them (2 Timothy 2:25). Remember you’re talking to someone bearing God’s image (Gen 9:6).

Be Honest. If you’re seeking truth, and concede you don’t know everything, and are not trying to win an argument or promote yourself, but are trying to love the other person—why lie? That’s ruinous to good conversation and frankly shameful—even more so if the conversation is public, because then you are misleading many other people (Ps 52:2-4). 

Respect Privacy. Public speaking and private conversation obviously operate under different rules (though what you’ve said in private will be shouted from the rooftops one day… Luke 12:3). These lines are blurred with social media. But respect private conversations that you have had. Do not share information unless you ask the other person first. Private conversation has its own context and setting, and when it is moved to the public setting is very easily misunderstood.

Be Tough. Part of the fear of speaking, is that everyone thinks they might offend someone. If someone has clearly shown they love you and that they want to be mutually sharpened and enriched by a conversation, and you both share the assumption that neither of you knows everything—and thus some things you think you “know” must be wrong or misguided (James 3:2)—don’t be easily offended when something strikes you as offensive (Eccl 7:21-22). Lots of people have offensive opinions (knowingly and unknowingly), and one way their erroneous opinions will be challenged and changed is by talking with people to whom their present view is offensive.

Hear Both Sides. This is a no brainer, but priceless. In dispute or debate, hold your likes, retweets, and emojis until you’ve heard both sides of the story—unless you simply want to wave your tribal flag (Prov 18:17).

Listen. Don’t just hear the other person, listen (James 1:19). Understand. Ask for clarification, if you don’t. Repeat back to them in your own words what you heard and ask if that was accurate. Assume and desire that other people can benefit you and enhance your understanding. 

Boldly Seek to Do Good Deeds Without Full Knowledge. This post is about how to have conversations. But I need to also say that, you should get on with your life knowing you don’t know everything, knowing you need to have more conversations, and knowing your thoughts will mature as you get older. Sure, every 60 year old can probably look back at their 20s and say: “I’d do that differently today.” But time-machines don’t exist. You must act as a follower of Jesus today, loving God and loving others the best you know how—knowing that you’ll hopefully know how better down the road.

Lead and Love

In sum, let all that you do be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:14), and treat others as you would have them treat you (Matt 7:12). And then go and speak, don’t be shackled by the intimidation of the self-appointed speech-police and cancel culture. Pastors, lead by example and equip your people by starting book clubs, having discussion panels, holding special talks, promoting good books & lectures, and being exemplary on social media. The church, now as always, needs to speak up and share their unique, eternal-life giving message with the world.