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How to Have Healthy Conversations About Tough Topics

Nothing creates fear in a relationship more than entering a difficult conversation. We tell ourselves that so much is at risk, that we fear the very thought of failure in the convo and so we avoid it altogether.

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillian and Switzer is a researched base guide to “talking when the stakes are high.” And the stakes are always high in a small group, marriage, business partnership, church staff meeting or a dozen other high expectation environments.

In their chapter about how to speak persuasively not abrasively, the authors offer this acronym as a tool: S.T.A.T.E. my path. I have found this helpful and want to pass it along.

Share Your Facts
Tell Your Story
Ask for Other’s Paths
Talk Tentatively
Encourage Testing

Share Facts: Facts are not very controversial or insulting, so simply state the reality. I like to say, “Here is what I am hearing…seeing…feeling…what I observed that happened.” Don’t start with your story (how you are feeling about the facts), but start with the facts themselves. “You tend to look around the room when I am talking to you and it appears to me you are not listening.” IF I add anything to that like, “and that’s just awful” or “and it hacks me off!!” then I am going beyond the facts.

Tell Your Story: Here is where you add your feelings or reactions, but do it with discernment. “You often raise your voice when you disagree with the discussion. That makes the environment really emotional for me because I am not sure if you are mad at me or just don’t like the idea I shared.” Use grace but be direct, clear and—according to the authors—do not apologize for your views.

Ask for Other’s Paths: Here is where you ask others to express what they are seeing and feeling. Don’t dump all your truck. Share Facts, Tell some of your story, and invite a reaction, input and their point of view. “Do you see this happening like I do? Help me understand …”

Talk Tentatively: You can be direct, but using the right words signals you have humility, are open to dialogue and might even have some of the facts wrong. “I might be wrong or have misunderstood what you said, but it sounded like…” is a softer way to engage a difficult topic. “I was wondering if our meetings seem as contentious to others of you in the room as they feel to me at times (then provide some general observations about the tone of conversations the team has had.) Not too hard (you are rude!) and not too soft (I feel really bad having to say this) but just right (it appears when we argue a point we can get edgy with one another pretty quickly).

Encourage Testing: As you invite others to talk you must genuinely want to hear their ideas and be open to the fact that you are not seeing everything clearly or accurately. The authors exhort us to really mean it when we invite input. I served in a church environment where the top leader invited input but it was clear to everyone he had already made his decision. It killed creativity, broke trust and built walls. The authors say,

“You must be even more vigorous at encouraging—even pleading with—others to disprove it. The real test of whether your motive is to won a debate or engage in real dialogue is the degree to which you encourage testing.”

How do you handle tough stuff in personal relationships? How does your team engage and process tough conversations at work? What insights can you add to this that have helped you along the way?  

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Bill served at the Willow Creek Church & Association where he developed leadership strategies and training events for over 2500 volunteer leaders. In addition, Bill launched and led the Group Life initiative, creating tools and resources for leaders in 13,000 churches on six continents, representing over 95 denominations in over 30 countries.