10 Dos and Don’ts for Handling Difficult Conversations

No one looks forward to dealing with difficult issues, but confronting problems is an essential part of being an effective leader. Chris Sonksen outlines four wrong approaches and six more constructive ways to handle difficult conversations if division, dissention, mission drift, or other difficulties plague your leadership teams or staff.

You know in your heart or feel in your gut something is wrong. The question now is, what are you going to do about it? How do you handle the situation? In many cases the unfortunate response from leaders is to either ignore it or address it timidly. In both of these approaches, the necessary outcome is not achieved. Things don’t automatically fix themselves. And ignoring a problem will only make matters worse in most cases. There is a right and a wrong way to approach these types of situations and it’s important for leaders to approach each conversation in the best possible manner.

Four wrong approaches to difficult conversations

1. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist

Pretending the problem doesn’t exist only prolongs it and, in most cases, will make it worse. One of the first responsibilities of a great leader is to define reality. If you know in your heart that there is a problem, acknowledge it and face it head on.

2. Complaining before confronting

I have coached many pastors over the years who, almost every time we talk, will complain about a problem they are seeing with one of their team members. I encourage them to have the tough conversation needed, and I walk them through some steps of how to go about it. But inevitably, a few weeks go by and there is no change. On the next call, I often discover they still haven’t had the conversation but are also still complaining about the problem. This approach delays the inevitable, increases your frustration, and only magnifies the problem when you finally do address it.

3. Pulling the authority card

If you lead from a position of authority, you get compliance; if you lead from a position of influence, you get alignment. The “I am in charge” approach typically doesn’t work. There are times when you will need to be firm with your team, but that should never be your first approach. Pulling the authority card constantly isn’t going to gain you influence. Most likely, it will only cause you to lose influence.

4. Being too vague

This approach to difficult conversations is quite common. The leader sets the appointment and prepares their thoughts, but when the appointment arrives, they are extremely vague and lack clarity. Confrontation doesn’t move toward resolution if the objective is never clearly stated. A lack of clarity or being too vague in communication can potentially make things worse. As the leader, you may feel like the team member isn’t applying the important things that you discussed. But because the confrontation wasn’t clear, they feel like whatever they were doing wrong wasn’t a huge deal. Vagueness leads to further frustration on both sides.

Six constructive approaches to difficult conversations

So, what is the right approach? What are some key things you can do that will increase the chance of having a healthy and positive outcome? If you follow these practices, they could be the very things that create stronger leadership and healthier relationships in your life.

1. Be clear about the problem.

Before you even have the conversation, be clear about why you are having it. What is the behavior or attitude you have noticed in the other person. Do you have an issue with something they have recently said to you or to others? You will want to be clear, to the best of your ability on what you are seeing as a potential problem.

2. Set the appointment.

Don’t let too much time pass before you set the appointment. Don’t let fear get in the way of approaching a difficult conversation. Set the appointment before you talk yourself out of it.

3. Be prepared with a Plan A and a Plan B.

You need to prepare for the appointment. Take some time to think about the best way to start the conversation. Jot down a few notes, and if you need to, have them in front of you when you are in the meeting. Also, have a Plan A and a Plan B. If the conversation goes the way you hope it will, then what is your Plan A? In other words, where will you both go from there? What is the outcome you desire, and what are the action steps that need to be taken following the meeting? If the conversation goes south and the individual responds in anger or defensiveness, then what is your Plan B? What steps should you take? Plan A maps out actions steps if everything goes as you hope; Plan B is a course of action just in case it all goes wrong.

4. Be specific, clear, and kind.

Approach the conversation with love and kindness. Let your tone and countenance communicate the message that you want what is best. You want the person you are meeting with to know that you are hoping and believing for the best possible outcome. But at the same time, don’t let your love and kindness dilute the urgency of your message. Use statements like, “There are a few things I have been noticing lately that are concerning me.” Then cite those things with dates and details. Or you could say something like, “Moving forward, this is what I need to see from you as a leader.” Then give them specific actions you would like to see them take. By communicating in this way, you will be loving and kind, but you will also be specific and clear about your expectations.

5. Manage your emotions.

You do not want to come across as a leader who can’t handle a tough conversation. Words may be said that offend you, or there may be some things that comes to light from the conversation that you did not expect. Either way, manage your emotions. Be confident, be secure, make eye contact, and control your responses. The person you are meeting with might lose their cool, but that is a luxury you can’t afford.

6. Seek to listen and understand.

Going into these kinds of conversations, you can never know what the exact outcome will be. The person you are with may share some frustrations they are having with other team members or with you. They may tell you about some points of tension at home. They could even open up about emotional challenges in their personal life. Your objective is to understand where they are coming from — whether it’s right or wrong — and listen to them with your ears and your heart. A great leadership goal is to do everything you can so that the person walks away from your meeting knowing that you slowed down long enough to really listen to them. You want them to feel that what they shared truly mattered to you.

I realize that confrontation is not exactly a spiritual gift or something everyone looks forward to, but it is an essential part of being a leader. Fighting for health and alignment on your team is necessary if you want to have a thriving future in your ministry. A key part of achieving health and alignment is spotting the early signs of leadership drift and then having the tough conversations as soon as possible.

Saving Your Church from Itself book coverThis article is adapted from Saving Your Church from Itself: Six Subtle Behaviors that Tear Teams Apart and How to Stop Them (Baker Books, 2022) by Chris Sonksen. Used by permission. The book is available at Baker Books, Cokesbury, and Amazon.

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