During World War II, Adolf Hitler’s armies planted more than 1 million “Bouncing Betty” mines across Europe. They killed thousands of allied soldiers because they were small and difficult to detect.
Difficult conversations often feel like trying to get through that mine-laced countryside without killing oneself: the meeting with the boss with a hair-triggered temper, that talk with our teenager about a sketchy friend, that confrontation a pastor has with a church member because the church is disciplining her teenage son, that theological conversation at Christmas with your uncle who is a Jehovah’s Witness, that impromptu talk about politics with a coworker who is far on the other side from you on social issues.
These conversations also include the times you have to give a rebuke to a fellow believer. How do we deal with those minefield conversations? How can we give a necessary rebuke in a Christlike manner? How can you be firm but loving? I give 10 things to consider in my book Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk. Here are four of those pointers.
1. Prepare Yourself Spiritually.
Pray and meditate on pertinent Scripture verses before you enter the conversation. Typically, when engaging in these conversations, I’ll pray for God to make my heart right so I’ll have the right tone and avoid getting angry. My heart needs to be overwhelmed by God’s grace, reminded what’s at stake, and shown again how patient God has been with me.
How can we give a necessary rebuke in a Christlike manner? How can you be firm but loving?
Recently, I had to sit down with a friend who had joined my church, but had become disgruntled with the leadership of our elders. I knew he was going to leave the church, and that he could also have a ferocious temper if you didn’t handle him gently. As I drove to our meeting place, I meditated on Proverbs 15:1a (“A gentle word turns away wrath”) and Matthew 12:36 (“I tell you, on judgment day people will give account for every careless word they speak”), and I prayed that God would give me the grace to obey the commands tacit in these verses, that I would remember this is my brother in Christ and not an enemy.
In that conversation, there were a few tense moments because we both spoke frankly, but it went well overall and ended with both of us encouraging each other and agreeing that our friendship did not depend on me being his pastor or his attending our church. I agreed with some of his critiques and found them helpful, while disagreeing with others. In the end, I thought it would be best if his family found another church home, and I offered my assistance. His family found a solid church in our city and, by God’s grace, we remain friends today. I don’t think it would have gone nearly so well had I not sought to prepare my heart and resolve, by God’s grace, not to use harsh words or become angry.
2. Begin with the Most Charitable Judgment Possible.
Do your best to set a positive tone. Nothing circumvents communication like a conversation that begins with heat, continues with heat, and eventually (often quickly) grows into an anger-filled wildfire. If you begin with calm words that arise out of charitable judgment, this will help to relax both you and your conversation partner.
For example, let’s say you’re confronting a fellow church member about the sin of gossip. You wouldn’t want to start with “Why in the world have you been saying such awful, ridiculous, slanderous things about me?” Even if you are pretty certain they’re guilty and the things they said about you were awful, ridiculous, and slanderous, it’ll be better to start the conversation with something like “I’d like to talk with you about something you supposedly said about me that has been communicated back to me. Now, I want you to know that I’m by no means assuming you said it or meant ill by it, but I wanted to speak with you about it directly to be certain. It may have been misheard or misunderstood.” Consistent with Christ’s Golden Rule, you want others to assume your innocence, so do the same to them.
3. As Much as Possible, Check Your Emotions at the Door.
Unbridled emotions are probably the most common match that lights the fuse that dynamites our conversations. God has made us emotional people, so emotion is not a bad thing—not always—but raw, unchecked emotion in a difficult conversation is often the road to nowhere.
Raw, unchecked emotion in a difficult conversation is often the road to nowhere.
You want to respond in a manner that’s controlled. You want to avoid responding with bare emotion. In a conversation that has potential for heated conflict, it’s important to pray for genuine humility and ask the other person questions like this: “Before we talk about how I think you’ve wronged me, I want to hear you out. Please be specific and tell me how I may have unintentionally hurt you.” This will elicit far better results and may lead to a God-honoring dialogue in a way that out-of-control emotions never could. This type of response could be the starting point for needed reconciliation.
4. Soften Your Language.
Avoid harsh, judgmental language or attitudes. Intentionally use gracious, non-combative words. Remember Proverbs 12:18: “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Recently, I had two conversations with my teenage son. One modeled what I’m aiming for here; the other was not one of my better parenting moments. In the first, we were talking about how and when he could use our car. I told him, “Please ask us when you want to use it, and unless there’s a good reason why you can’t, I’ll probably say yes. I know you’re a careful driver, and I trust you, but just make sure you ask and tell us where you’re going and roughly how long you’ll be gone. Then we’ll be able to make a good decision.” Our conversation was pleasant, and he was amenable to my words.
The second conversation, not so much. One of his younger siblings told me that he’d been breaking the speed limit considerably during a recent drive to a fast-food place. I didn’t hesitate to hurl accusations and invectives at him. I told him that he’d been driving like a fool and how dangerous that was. I told him that I was tempted to suspend his driving privileges altogether. He was not happy with me, and I wasn’t happy with him. He tried to tell me that his younger brother had misread the speedometer, but I kept cutting him off. When he tried to ask me questions, I was defensive that he would even presume to question me, and I told him so.
Needless to say, thanks to my accusatory tone and assumptions of guilt, our relationship suffered from that conversation. I totally blew it and sought his forgiveness. The first conversation was much better because we spoke with humility and kindness that de-escalated the fight.
In navigating minefield conversations, we want neither to underreact nor overreact. To underreact may mean we are flirting with compromise, fleeing a necessary but difficult confrontation, or we’re not treating the issues being discussed with the seriousness they deserve. To overreact may lead to relational fractures, an outbreak of sinful anger, or worse. One is a sin of omission, the other is a sin of commission. One response is too passive, the other too aggressive. Both are sinful and lead us into further sin.
As followers of Christ, called to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), we must guard against both extremes. We must ask the Lord to give us a healthy, biblical balance in the way we talk to others, and seek his help to deal with difficult conversations in a Christlike manner, full of both grace and truth.
This article was adapted from Jeff Robinson’s book Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk (TGC, 2021). On December 28–January 31, Taming the Tongue is 50 percent off in the TGC bookstore.