How To Talk About Tough Issues In 3 (Kind Of) Easy Steps

Paying attention to 2020’s current events, everyone knows there is an abundance of tough issues that we as global citizens have been forced to face. These issues have caused conflict, disunity, and controversy amongst even the closest of friends. Not to mention people who had differing opinions to begin with. People love to proclaim their opinions on social media or in public debate and then the verbal or online battles ensue. Tearing relationships apart and breaking down channels of healthy communication.

As a global community, it seems we have become binary or dualistic in our thinking, which may not be helpful. I am right and he is wrong. There is no in-between. There is not much grey area. Plus, the temptation to surround ourselves with voices that simply confirm what we already believe can be strong. Allowing that type of confirmation bias, however, risks shortchanging everyone in the process of deeper understanding. 

Is there a better way? Yes. There is a better way.

We must commit ourselves to learn how to have a dialogue with one another in productive and beneficial ways that ensure people are heard and understood. Part of that process is learning how to talk about the tough issues in ways that are helpful and constructive. Rather than in ways that cause division and stress. 

Engaging in meaningful dialogue is such a vital component of building a thriving society. We, as church leaders (and as human beings), must do everything we can to make it happen. Engaging in open, honest, and respectful dialogue is a skill in which we could all use a refresher course. 

Here are 3 intentional things we can do today to make engaging in conversation about tough issues more likely to be a positive experience.

#1: Be clear on your goals.

    • When entering into an open dialogue with someone, know what you want to get out of the conversation. (Hint! The goal of any conversation should not be to change the other person’s mind!) Perhaps a realistic goal is simply to better understand someone else’s perspective. To accomplish this goal ask questions that draw out a response, rather accusations than elicit a reaction. Seeking to understand the viewpoint of another person affirms their value and dignity. If appropriate, ask the person why the topic you’re discussing is important to them. Asking this question helps you know the person better, not necessarily the topic. You might be surprised by what you learn and where it takes the conversation. Set your goals and expectations clearly and then be amazed by the results.

#2: Be prepared.

    • Taking time to think through the conversation before it happens is beneficial to everyone involved. Set ground rules for engagement. Decide on a set of topics to be covered or avoided. Perhaps establish a time limit. Personally, I like to write up my own talking points of things to be ready to share if the opportunity arises. Preparation like this allows us to be more thoughtful and accurate in our dialogue and to really engage with others respectfully. Having spent some time thinking about our own views on the topic allows us the freedom to more actively listen when others are speaking. This is a critical skill for tough conversations. We often listen to respond rather than listen to understand and know the other person and their view. Truly hearing someone’s heart is a gift we can give them which will break down walls and open a person up to engage in meaningful conversation. 

#3: Remain focused on the path forward.

    • Discussions on tough issues are prone to distractions that draw us away from the topic at hand and from one another. Yes, we can learn from past events, mistakes, and bad experiences. But focusing only on those off-topic areas does not move us forward in the journey toward understanding. There are some things we don’t feel we can compromise on, but if we really seek to listen and learn, we will almost always find things the other person is saying that we can affirm, support, and agree with. Look for those things rather than the points of disagreement. Circling back to the focus of moving forward serves as a reminder of the desire and commitment to a positive outcome. Asking, “What does moving forward from here look like to you?” can serve as a prompt to positive action for all involved. 

It sounds so easy, right? 

Have a clear goal in mind, be prepared, and focus on moving forward. What seems so easy on paper can become quite challenging when you’re in the middle of the conversation and things are getting tense. Set yourself some reminders of these three steps and come back to them when you find yourself getting off track. Keep practicing them and watch how over time you learn, grow, and get better at having conversations about difficult issues.


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