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Courageous Conversations: Fear of Speaking Harm

By Scott Hughes

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The interactions in the Courageous Conversations teaching series have been enlightening. I appreciate the way participants have shared what assumptions they have made (and have had to adjust) and their being vulnerable enough to share some of the challenges they have faced in ministry. There is one common response I have found striking. People have said that they are afraid that by engaging in a Courageous Conversation, they might inadvertently say something that will hurt someone else or that what they say would be so damaging that it would end the relationship. I find this fascinating because I have also felt this fear.

For example, in response to the question, “What comes to mind when you have a difficult conversation with a friend or family member . . . or within your local church?” Susan M’s answer is similar to that of many other participants. She said, “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or damage relationships.” Elaine B. stated, “I am afraid of hurting feelings and also that the results will be the opposite of what I intend.”

Many of us fear that our words might harm others. We probably have all had the unfortunate experience of an ill-timed word or someone’s feelings being hurt due to a misunderstanding. In addition, racial and political tensions are running high in our current climate, so we are keenly aware that a misspoken word will drive divisions deeper. In a family setting, we fear hurting those we love. In a church setting, we fear losing beloved church family members.

My dream for Courageous Conversations was founded on the belief that the local church is the best arena for these conversations and the church has an opportunity in this politically divisive time to be light to people so that they can see what it looks like to disagree and still love one another. To do so, we must help people acknowledge the fear that many have and help them overcome it.

My dream for Courageous Conversations was founded on the belief that the local church is the best arena for these conversations and the church has an opportunity in this politically divisive time to be light to people so that they can see what it looks like to disagree and still love one another.

For those who are hesitant to voice their perspectives for fear of unintentionally causing harm, here are some lessons I’ve had to learn (sometimes through counseling or painful experiences) that might be of benefit for others:

  1. We can't control how someone responds to our statements. (We can control how we say things.) People might get upset, or they might thank us. We have to allow them the freedom to respond.
  2. When it comes to controlling how we speak, it can be helpful to give a disclaimer. “I might not express this perfectly, so what I’m trying to say is . . .” or “I hope you’ll help me as I try to communicate this well . . .” (This can be overdone.)
  3. Trust that the relationship has enough strength to survive a misspoken word. If you don’t trust the relationship to survive, then work on the relationship first. Often, the best way to tackle this fear is head on. Affirm the desire to continue the relationship at the beginning of the conversation. Or if you need to do so, stop in the middle of the conversation to reinforce your desire to maintain the relationship. That is likely to help the other person extend a charitable interpretation of your words rather than the worst possible construal of what you intend to communicate.
  4. What Jonathan Haidt's work, The Coddling of the American Mind, has taught me is that we tend to think of others as candles (flames easily snuffed out by the smallest breeze), when we should think of others as bonfires (flames that are grown when they encounter wind). When we work through these difficult encounters and hear words and perspectives that challenge us, the result, we hope, is that we better for it, not that the relationship ends.

The fears participants express are another reason why a Courageous Conversations-styled event should include structure to slow down the conversation. When the conversation is going at a slower pace, people become better listeners and are more curious. Hence, they don’t tend to feel threatened. This slower pace should also serve to help people reflect on their own comments, so they are more likely to share their perspectives well.

An additional resource for churches holding a Courageous Conversations-styled event is a covenant. Include in the covenant that participants should interpret others’ comments in the best possible light. Too often, communication breaks down because people make assumptions or project motivations on to others that may or may not be correct.

The ultimate goal for Courageous Conversations is learning. One outcome of a Courageous Conversation is that people can learn that the choice is rarely between not saying something so the relationship continues or saying something that others might not like with the relationship ending. Rather, it is learning how to listen well and speak in ways that will risk the relationship for an even deeper and more meaningful way of being. When we are willing to be vulnerable enough to risk the relationship and name our perspective, that’s when we will be more likely to encounter the presence of God who meets us in these susceptible places (Philippians 2:1-11). It is only through such risk taking that we will become the beautiful community that experiences the depth and breadth that is the image of the Triune God.

For more information on Courageous Conversations, click here to check out the e-learning teaching series.

Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.

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