If you listen to our podcast, Java with Juli, you know that I don’t like small talk. Ever since I was a little girl, I have been able to acutely sense unspoken tension in a room. I’m anxious when I have a conflict with a friend or family member, and have trouble finding peace until it is addressed. Maybe this is why I chose to become a psychologist: The counseling room is one of the few places where we are allowed—and even expected—to bring up the “elephant in the room.” It’s a counselor’s job to ask about shame, regrets, secrets, and fears. While good counselors will also give advice, he or she only does so after creating a safe space for someone to share without fear of rejection or judgment.
Topics around sexuality are filled with unspoken tension: A wife who suspects her husband is looking at porn. A dad who notices his daughter is hitting puberty and abruptly stops hugging his “little girl.” A woman who had an abortion many years ago that’s she’s kept secret. A good friend or relative who decided to go through a gender change and wants you to use his/her/their new name.
Most often, we simply avoid these situations, pretending as if all is normal and our discomfort doesn’t exist. This strains our relationships and makes them anything but authentic. And when we do attempt to talk about such issues, the dialogue often ends in an argument with both sides communicating from a place of fear, hurt, or anger.
As Christians today, we often spend a lot of time debating what we should believe about sexuality. We may devote some time to ensuring we are personally honoring God with our own sexual choices. However, we often spend little to no time wrestling through how to represent the heart of Jesus as we interact with people with whom there is disagreement or tension. I believe it is imperative, both within the Christian church and outside her walls, to be able to engage in tough conversations about pain and brokenness. We don’t run around looking for those conversations, but we also should not run away from them.
Jesus stated that He Himself was truth and that knowing the truth would set us free. Tough conversations are all about together pursuing truth—truth as a concept and Truth in the person of Jesus Christ. We must learn to effectively talk about difficult things like sexual issues, racial tension, and theological differences.
I’d like to share with you a few tips that can help you to engage gracefully with people in the raw, messy conflicts of human life.
I live in Northern Ohio, not far from Lake Erie. This means we get a lot of snow and ice. I’ve had my share of white-knuckle commutes through treacherous winter storms. One of the first lessons you learn about driving through a snowstorm is to give other cars lots of room. You use the brake several feet before a stop sign just in case your car decides it doesn’t want to stop. And no one tailgates on ice! For even the most seasoned driver, winter driving is unpredictable.
These same principles apply in tough conversations: Talking about sensitive issues is unpredictable. You’re not quite sure what will trigger pain or anger as you converse. Give each other a lot of grace and space, not taking every word personally, but appreciating that some things are simply difficult to articulate. You have to give grace to have these conversations imperfectly if you ever want to learn to have them well.
James gives the advice, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Bestselling author Steven Covey wrote that one of the habits of highly successful people is “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” The principle is clear: Listen before you speak. True listening is not just waiting for your turn to talk, but striving to understand the other person’s experiences, beliefs, and feelings. Being a good listener includes asking insightful questions, allowing for silence instead of always filling it, and responding with caring statements that demonstrate that you have actually heard what the person shared.
Listening is critical for two reasons. First, listening shows respect to the other person. It means that you care and builds an emotional bridge. Secondly, when you listen, you can speak with greater discernment. By listening you will learn how to speak effectively to the heart of the other person.
When we dialogue with people with whom we disagree, we commonly feel the pressure to change their minds. We want to convince them that our perspective is the right one. That’s not all bad! Certainly, we want to be persuasive and compelling as we share what we believe is true. But sometimes our eagerness to share truth (or even our opinions) can come across as aggressive.
Teachers like Paul and Peter were passionate about sharing Jesus, yet they encouraged fellow Christians to share truth winsomely. Paul told his spiritual son, Timothy, that “A servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, who has taken them captive to his will.” Peter wrote, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
As one who teaches on sexual issues, I’ve learned that biblical truth is offensive. The gospel itself offends our autonomy and the belief that we are “good people.” While the truth we share is offensive, we should be careful not to add to that offense with an abrasive or aggressive approach.
Remember that it isn’t your job to change someone’s heart or mind. Your job is to be faithful to share what God has done in your life.
Part of what enables us to be good listeners and patient in sharing truth is a long-term perspective. We usually have the greatest impact on people when we invest in them over time. Interacting with someone once a week for years means that you have time to listen, to learn, to affirm, and to share truth when the time is right. A word of truth might be rejected in one season, but even requested in another.
Yes, there are certainly those urgent moments where the Lord prompts you to share right now, but most often, relational investment builds a platform for change. As Solomon wrote, “How good is a timely word!” and “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”
As you invest in people, pray that God will give you wisdom to discern when that timely word should be spoken and when it is time to listen and learn.
To learn more, check out these Java with Juli episodes: Java with Juli #216: Do You Have an Agenda? and Java with Juli #192: Engaging in Restorative Relationships and Java with Juli #182: Your Generation & Your View of Sexuality