Embrace crucial conversations

By Jim LaDoux
Engaging in crucial conversations can be challenging yet is crucial for experiencing authentic community. Resistance often indicates that change is happening and that people are beginning to deal with real and perceived consequences of moving beyond their comfort zones. Four factors often are at the heart of most conflicts:

  1. Facts about events, behaviors, and resources. Lack of information or miscommunication can lead to conflict. Keep in mind that a person’s perception of the facts may be as important as the truth.
  2. Methods that we employ for achieving what we desire. The processes and approaches leaders use to deal with difficult issues can help or hinder conflict. Conflict increases when good process is ignored.
  3. Goals and outcomes, whether real or perceived, that may be incompatible with competing commitments. 
  4. Competing Values. They are often the most difficult to resolve.

Common Roles People Play When Dealing with Difficult Issues
  • Controllers may be assertive and uncooperative, often pursuing his/her own concerns at other's expense. Accommodators may be unassertive and cooperative, the opposite of competing. When accommodating, an individual may neglect his or her own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person.
  • Avoiders may be unassertive and uncooperative such as when the individual doesn’t immediately address his/her concerns or the concerns of the other person; nor does he or she address the conflict.
  • Collaborators may be both assertive and cooperative, the opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with the other person to find some solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both persons.
  • Compromisers may be intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The object is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. Compromising might mean splitting the difference or seeking a middle-ground position.

7 Tips for Engaging in Crucial Conversations

1 | Let the angry person know you understand that he or she is upset.
  • The upset person feels like his/her experience is unique. Be very specific, saying something like: "I understand that you're really angry right now that I missed our appointment." "Oh, wow, you seem really mad that the pastor never called back." "You're upset that I didn’t stay for the entire event -- is that correct?" 
  • Be specific. See to convey the message to the parties involved that they are truly understood. Keep the focus on the other person's emotions.

2 | Ask, “Help me understand . . .” and “How did you come to this conclusion?”
  • People become angry when they perceive a situation as unfair or wrong. The person being confronted must uncover the angry person’s source of anger - forgetting an appointment, breaking a confidence, or taking actions that were perceived as inappropriate. 
  • Pay attention to how people choose to interpret the facts by asking questions such as, “What is it what I said or did that caused you to interpret my behavior as too controlling?”

3 | Find out what the upset person wants from you.
  • Ask questions like "What is it you want or need right now?" or "How do you envision the outcome of this in terms of what I could do?". 
  • Cut to the chase by saying something like, "So what do you want me to do about it?" 
  • Help the person focus on solutions rather than who to blame, saying something similar to, “It’s obvious that you’re concerned about how we extend hospitality at ____ Church. Would you be willing to compile a list of recommendations for the Board to consider?”

4 | Offer what help you can -- or say clearly what you can't do.
  • After the person expresses what he or she wants, decide what, if anything, you're able do, and say so. You may hear that an apology is desired, and if you accept some fault for the situation you may say something like: "I'm sorry, I didn't realize the supplies we used were for your upcoming event. Please accept my apology -- I'll be happy to purchase the supplies you need." 
  • Or you may decide that it's not within your power to help. If so, express that clearly: "I wish I could stay longer today to help, but I can't." 
  • Sometimes it's within your power to help, but you choose not to - setting a boundary is okay.

5 | Set limits on what you'll tolerate.
  • Draw a line on what's acceptable and what is not saying. For example, you might say: "I can see you're angry, but you're taking it out on me -- and if you care about me, you'll stop."
  • It's reasonable to say calmly: "Look, I'm willing to listen, but you have to stop shouting at me." Or, "I can see that you're upset about X. But if you want to talk about it and get my help to resolve it, you have to quit attacking me." Still being berated or screamed at? 
  • Be willing to quit the conversation until their behavior changes or simply walk away if you feel physically threatened or emotionally abused. While the other parties have a right to feel anger and other emotions, they don't have the right to take it out on others.

6 | Accept that the aggrieved person is doing the best he or she can.
  • Reframing another person's anger changes the way your brain responds to it. By consciously telling yourself, "It's not my fault he's angry" you will be able to move you beyond your tendency to become defensive.

7 | Accept that you're doing the best you can, too.
  • Acknowledge your own limitations, saying something like, "I wish I could have stayed with Linda long enough to fix hiscomputer, but I already stayed an hour and I'm late for the dentist appointment.” Or "I wish I could help Susan, but there's nothing I can do about her desire to change worship times.” 
  • Avoid becoming entangled in situations that have little or nothing to do with you or the role you play.
  • Avoid fixing problems that should be addressed by others. Direct the upset person to the appropriate individuals or teams.
  • Make a phone call on the spot to schedule a time for the appropriate parties to meet.


  1.  On a scale of 1-10 (10=very), how willing  are you to engage in crucial conversations?
  2. What prevents you from engaging in difficult conversations sooner rather than later?
  3. In what ways have you contributed to the challenges you are experiencing?
  4. What are the wins you want for all involved parties?
  5. What scripts could help ensure a smooth launch into a difficult conversation?
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