Lord, Help Me to Say...
By Scott Hughes
When asked about their biggest fears and anxieties about participating in a Courageous Conversation, many participants of the “How to Have a Courageous Conversation” eLearning course often named similar fears. The most common fear named is the fear of the loss of relationship(s). Similarly, participants might say they fear their church splitting. Another commonly stated fear is that they won’t be able to articulate their opinions well. One participant recently commented, “Lord, help me say the right thing!” And there is the fear of offending someone else. (I wrote an article about that dynamic in “Fear of Speaking Harm”).
Out of hundreds of participants, less than a handful of people feared that they might be offended by something another participant said. No one, and I mean not one participant, named a particular fear that I think participants should actually fear. In fact, I think if more participants did fear this, Courageous Conversations would certainly be more fruitful. Can you guess what that might be before reading the answer? Take a moment. Take a few moments. Look away. See if you can guess it. I’d be willing to wager that you won’t guess it.
Seriously. Look away and try. Ponder. Daydream. Close your browser and contemplate.
An overlooked fear I wish more participants would bring to a conversation, any conversation – is the fear of not listening well. Let that sink in for a moment. Why has no one stated that he or she is afraid of not listening well? What if instead of praying that we will be articulate, we pray about the possibility of missing something important because we failed to listen? What if we were afraid of misconstruing what someone else intended to say instead of fearing that someone will misunderstand us? What if we were so concerned about learning from others’ perspectives and experiences that we fear missing important truths? What if we prayed, “Lord, help me to hear what you want me to hear”?
What if instead of praying that we will be articulate, we pray about the possibility of missing something important because we failed to listen?
I understand why fearing the loss of relationships is a predominant fear for Courageous Conversations participants. It’s a valid fear. We have all likely had experiences where difficult conversations didn’t go well, and relationships ended. Yet, the fact that most people are more focused on fearing they won’t state their position well or fearing the impact of their words on others reveals at least two things. One, we spend a lot of time focusing on our fears and needs instead of on others’ interests or needs. I’ll go out on a limb and say that while part of our motivation is that we don’t want our words to harm others, at least some of our fear is that we would have to see how people negatively react to our statements. When engaging through social media or opining with those who think as we do, we are not as accustomed to watching someone react negatively to our perspectives. When we see others hurt, we hurt. Thus, when we say something, and others react negatively, it has a negative impact on us. Our not wanting to cause other people pain is a way we are trying to protect ourselves from pain.
Two, our fear about not being as articulate as we wish reveals that we are still in a less than optimal mindset. We are holding on to the assumption that if we’ll be able to articulate our position well, others will be influenced and change their thinking. Let’s be clear: even if we do articulate our position well, those who think differently from us are not likely to be swayed. It is much more likely that others have heard at least similar thoughts already. However, due to various reasons (experiences, biology, families of origin, culture, etc.), they draw different conclusions than you did. Being articulate will not likely give us the result we hope for – influence. This is the wrong motivation anyway. The motivation should be focused on learning. Said differently is the quote from Stephen Covey, “Seek to understand before being understood.”
To create an environment of trust and learning, we must first be willing to model trust and learning. Participants must first adopt a position like the “mind of Christ,” as we read in Philippians 2:5-11. We must put others’ needs and interests above our own. We must place ourselves in what I like to call the “posture of curiosity.” This begins with a commitment to listening well. Listening well means not worrying about what we’re going to say but being curious to learn from others’ perspectives. It means not searching for the weaknesses of others’ arguments but being willing to hear the strengths of their arguments. It means listening not for faulty assumptions others are making but being curious about how we might have to examine and change some of our own assumptions.
We must be willing to be influenced before we can expect someone to be influenced by us. We must lay down our perspectives and trust that God will guide us all toward God’s truth.
One of the many reasons I advocate that Courageous Conversations not be a one-time event is because it will take many conversations with time for clarifying questions, defining terminology, questioning assumptions, and so on before people may be willing to change their perspectives. Wanting someone to change even modestly held beliefs (much less, deeper-level convictions) takes lots of effort. It takes trust and the willingness to walk beside and walk with, not focusing on being the most articulate person. We must be good listeners to earn the right to be heard.
What are your fears about entering a difficult conversation? I hope this article has added a new fear or two to the list you already have. Fear not listening well. Fear not allowing Christ’s presence to show up. Fear not trusting God enough. Perhaps when we fear the right things, conversations and changes might happen beyond what we could ask for or imagine (Psalm 111 and Ephesians 3:20).
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.