Difficult conversations are not unique to leaders, but they are unavoidable if you are going to lead. Every leader needs to walk this tightrope now and then.
You know how this works. You have an employee, a friend, someone in your congregation, or even a family member… someone with whom a difficult issue needs to be addressed. How do you handle those moments?
CLASSIC UNPRODUCTIVE APPROACHES
This might be the most common response of all. Instead of addressing the issue, we avoid it. We pretend it will just go away. We make excuses. We choose denial. We tell ourselves things like, “it won’t change anything.” Or, “it will just hurt their feelings.”
We Talk to Someone Else
I would surmise this is the second most popular course of action. It’s not helpful. Instead of going to the person to talk about the real issue, we vent our feelings to a third party. Let’s call it what it is, gossip. We may find temporary relief of our stress over the situation, but because it is not their issue, this does nothing to bring about change. In fact, it makes things worse as it triangulates someone else into a mess they have no power to change.
We Blast ‘Em
This response is actually another form of avoidance, too. It’s a way of avoiding our need to address our internal conflict over the situation. It is a way of avoiding longer developmental processes. It’s a way of avoiding a complex issue by making it a transactional one. We usually take this approach after having avoided the hard conversation far too long. A straw breaks the camel’s back and we go into the conversation with guns blazing. We tell ourselves, “they need to hear the truth, right?”
My learning curve on this tightrope is populated by occasional success and frequent failure. My day job has me responsible to give leadership to more that 125 missionaries. That means there are times I’ve had to have the hardest conversations. Some of those conversations I am proud of and some of them I cringe over. There are times I flat out botched the job. Sometimes I worried more about how I looked than what others really needed. Sometimes I procrastinated the needed conversation because I was a chicken and my delay fermented the whole situation and made resolution even harder.
I learned, I cannot be a leader who effectively serves my people and my organization if I worry more about what people think about me than about what people really need.
A BETTER WAY
There is no alternative to the courage it takes to walk the tightrope of a difficult conversation, but I have found a simple framework that helps me keep my head clear.
Grace & Truth
The Apostle John describes what it was to experience the presence of God in the flesh with these very words. “He became flesh and dwelled among us… full of Grace and Truth.” A truly hard conversation invites us to lead like Jesus.
Unfortunately, too many people act as if grace and truth are opposite ends of the same spectrum. As if truth is hard and cold while grace is soft and fuzzy. We need a different mental model. Grace and Truth run on separate tracks and they can run in tight parallel. The goal is not to find a compromise between them, but to relate to people with both grace and truth simultaneously operating at 100%.
In any difficult moment you find a person who matters. There may be circumstances and consequences to be dealt with, but the person in the center of everything is someone made in the image of God, someone who deserves care not just accusation. Grace in action is experienced through kindness. It sees the heart of someone who has probably been hurt as much as they have inflicted hurt.
Grace doesn’t dodge the truth, but honors people and honors relationship.
Truth tempered by grace talks about reality in simple, straight-forward, non-anxious terms. Truth describes circumstances rather than makes judgements. Truth addresses behavior rather than assumes motives. Think of speaking the truth as describing your observations of reality.
Way too often, hard conversations are withheld so long they became infected with anxiety. Truth gets weaponized and then used to attack the person and their character.
Simple truth is not like that. This approach to the truth is about details and actions not judgements and opinions.
Let’s be honest here. Sometimes though, it’s really hard to talk about the truth in clean and simple ways. Our own emotions, disappointments, and hurts are legitimate and can feel inseparable from the issue. In those difficult moments, pull back a bit and differentiate the details of what happened from the emotional impact it had. Then talk about them separately.
And, one more thing…
When you walk the tightrope of a hard conversation, you may not need to talk about every detail. I don’t mean cover up or shade the truth. I do mean that you don’t need to bury someone with every facet of everything that happened. Often, there are a couple essential pieces that represent the heart of the matter and are sufficient.
My friend, Paul Rhoads used to say, “there are no degrees of truth, but there are appropriate degrees of disclosure.”
There are no guarantees for how people will respond. That’s the risk of leadership. But, I can tell you that there is no better framework for walking through a hard conversation than to lead with grace toward the person and simple truth about the circumstances.
What tightrope do you need to walk this week?
What conversation have you been avoiding?